Ambassador Jean-Arthur Regibeau:
I love walking along Kuznetsky Most
Unlike the heads of other diplomatic missions in Moscow, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belgium Jean-Arthur Regibeau doesn’t spend his free time painting, playing the violin, or collecting stamps. He studies Russian and travels around the country. The diplomat also likes to give speeches at different educational institutions in the country. His lecture that explains how the European stereotype of Russians as unwelcoming and gloomy people came about is particularly popular among students. This was the first thing we talked about with the Ambassador.
Students from the Russian State University for the Humanities are thrilled about your lecture…
I came to Moscow almost two years ago and was pleasantly surprised to learn how open and welcoming Russians are. A lot of my friends who occasionally come to visit me in Moscow have also changed their attitudes toward Russia. They usually come back to Belgium with a totally different perspective. They like many things in Russia – the people, the art, the ancient architecture, the cuisine. I show them around as best as I can, telling them what I’ve tried. And the result is that a lot of Belgians will no longer speak poorly about Russia. By the way, I see this as another important mission for ambassadors : to develop a better understanding of countries we know little about.
Folk wisdom tells us that it’s better to see it with your own eyes once than to hear about it a hundred times. This is probably the most reliable way to get rid of stereotypes. Stereotypes really do get in the way of normal human interaction, and as a result erode trust between states. This was what we were talking about at the Russian State University for the Humanities.
Though I do have to say: a significant number of Russians also have distorted perceptions about Europeans. Sometimes it seems like people got their latest update about Belgium from «The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel». But Belgium has been through a lot of trials, just like Russia.
When Russians talk about the victims of WWII, we understand because we also lived through this war – we were occupied by Germany for four years. The number of victims isn’t comparable, but many people in Belgium remember very well what fascism is. My father spent three years in a German concentration camp as a political prisoner who was condemned not to see the light again («Nacht und Nebel»).
And yet, Germany is nowadays not only our main economic partner but also one of our closest friends, including in foreign policy. Indeed, we’ve learned important lessons from history, which is why we support the European Union so strongly. There were too many wars in Europe, and many of them steamrolled over what is now Belgian territory. If you take a look at the map of Europe, including Russia, and mark off all the major battles that happened over the past four hundred years with dots, the highest concentration of them will be in Belgium. We know the value of peace, not just in terms of safety, but also in terms of economic prosperity and well-being.
This is why I gladly accept invitations to speak at Russian universities. I’m always trying to tell people as much as I can about Belgium and listen to Russian points of view as well.
Recently, a delegation from Antwerp, headed by Mayor Bart De Wever, visited Moscow. He was accompanied by 80 Belgian businessmen, and important documents were signed between the two cities for the first time in history. According to statements from both sides, there were no problems with reaching mutual understanding here?
Bart De Wever and Sergey Sobyanin understood each other very well. As a result, the heads of the two cities signed a five-year agreement between Moscow and Antwerp, which entails cooperation in the development of business, trade, manufacturing, innovation, digital space, as well as improving city management efficiency within the scope of the Smart City project. Moreover, the document mentions other spheres of cooperation between the governments of Moscow and Antwerp – urban planning, environmental protection, culture, tourism, and sports.
Jacques Vandermeiren, the CEO of Antwerp Port Authority, also came with the Antwerp delegation. And this makes sense: Russia has been one of the port’s most important partners for decades. He informed Russian specialists that the port is going through a digital transformation for business logistics. The port is not only implementing digital initiatives, but is also promoting the development of foreign partners.
Of course, Antwerp has a particularly close relationship with Saint Petersburg. The ports of these two cities connect trade routes between the Baltic and North Seas. Antwerp is a window to Europe for Russia. And Russia ranks second in terms of trade turnover at the port in Antwerp. The port in Antwerp is also important as a site for processing petrochemical products coming from Russia. They’re exported throughout all of Europe. All issues related to this sphere were discussed in Saint Petersburg, after Moscow.
The manufacture and sale of precious stones, which is a sphere Belgian and Russian companies specialize in, was another issue that was discussed. This is a key area of bilateral economic relations for our countries. Russia is the world’s number one producer of rough diamonds, and Belgium ranks first when it comes to processing these stones, turning them into diamonds sold on the international market. This has been the case for hundreds of years.
The signing of a new cooperation agreement between the Russian company ALROSA, the biggest producer of rough diamonds in the world, and Antwerp World Diamond Centre was the result of negotiations in Moscow.
The companies agreed to continue exchanging information on the diamond market. Moreover, the two sides intend to take additional measures against illicit infiltration of synthetic stones into the natural diamond market.
In your opinion, how much do sanctions hinder development of trade and economic relations between our countries?
Time has shown that, in spite of the tough political climate in Europe, trade is moving along.
In 2015-2016, there was a decline in trade turnover between the Russian Federation and the European Union. But in 2017, EU’s database showed a 20% increase in trade turnover with Russia. Of course, Belgium has played a role in this.
Do we want to stabilize the political situation and end the sanctions? Of course. But the question is how to go about doing this. Overcoming the current challenges will be difficult and will take time. The first step we need to take is to establish more trust in our relationship. We talk a lot, but both sides should pay more attention when listening to the other side.
Many Western experts think that, in spite of the sanctions, it’s important to develop relationships at the regional level. Do you agree with this?
Yes, and a good example is the successful development of the relationship between our cities – Moscow and Antwerp.
In your opinion, how does European business feel about working in the Russian capital?
The people I know feel good about it. They’re comfortable living and working here.
Some 10-15 years ago, Belgian companies mainly hired European experts for management positions here. Now, our companies gladly hire specialists from Russia. There are several reasons for this.
You have to agree that bringing an Belgian person with their entire family over to Moscow for a job is quite expensive. At the same time, it has become easier to find qualified Russian specialists, who have the knowledge and experience necessary to work for a Belgian company.
There are a total of over 50 Belgian companies working in Moscow right now. What do they specialize in?
We’ve always been a trading nation. Even when Belgium didn’t exist, there was Bruges, there was Antwerp. Trade is the blood of our economy.
I want to stress that Belgium is a major trade and economic partner for Moscow today. We export pharmaceutical products, different chemical products, plastic and products made out of plastic, perfumes and cosmetics, soap, heavy machinery, and much more to the Russian capital.
The biggest company that specializes in the production of chemical products is SOLVAY. The main production plant is located in Nizhny Novgorod, but the headquarters are in Moscow.
Another competitive advantage Belgium has is our location. The country is in the very center of Europe, which means we’re very close to the majority of big European cities and industrial centers. This puts Belgium in the running to be considered Europe’s logistics center. This is why there are several Belgian logistics companies operating in Russia.
And another good example. The largest brewing company in Belgium, AB InBev, is registered in Moscow. By the way, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Muscovites know about and like Belgian beer.
Are you happy with the way that tourism is developing between our countries?
In 2017, 13,000 new visas were issued to Russian citizens. But many more Russians came to Belgium on visas that were issued earlier. Belgians also come to Russia, though maybe not as much as Russians come to Belgium. Of course, they are mostly interested in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. But this is a matter of awareness. Belgians still don’t know much about Russia – the ancient cities, the museums, the natural reserves. Especially since the quality of service all over Russia has improved significantly over the past few years, and this is definitely the case for hotels.
I recently visited Lake Baikal and I really want to go back. I really liked it there. Although now I want to see new places like the Altai Republic, the White Sea and Kamchatka.
Do you like to travel by yourself or with family?
My daughter visits me often. She is 21 years old, and she’s studying international relations and Japanese in Holland. She has been to Moscow several times and likes it here.
We saw The Nutcracker together at the Stanislavski Theatre. This was a true discovery of Russian ballet for me.
And how do you like Moscow, Mr. Ambassador?
I feel fantastic here. In any case, I’m never bored. The King’s Ambassador has a lot of work. Plus, I’m always meeting with politicians, important scientists and businessmen, and just generally interesting people. I visit exhibitions and go for walks.
I’m anxiously thinking about my time in Moscow coming to an end, before I get a chance to do everything I want. There are so many discoveries for me here in Russia, so many new things!
Do you like Russia’s modern image? What about Moscow appeals to you?
To get a feel for this city, you need to live here for some time. I walk along Moscow’s streets and alleyways, watching people go about their days. I look at historical monuments and old manor houses. Old Arbat is nice, but there are many foreign tourists there now. I gravitate toward places where I can see day-to-day Russian life.
Lately, I’ve been gravitating toward the Kuznetsky Most area. I’ve gotten to know this old area of Moscow and have a lot to say about it. It’s great that the Moscow government has made it into a pedestrian zone.
It’s obvious that a lot is changing in that area right now. There are renovations everywhere, old buildings are being restored.
I really like the famous Gorky Park, the new Zaryadye Park that’s next to the Kremlin. I also like Sokolniki Park, which is northeast of the center. I go to Kuskovo and Arkhangelskoe.
I recently went to Serebryany Bor with colleagues from the embassy. There was a whole tour for us. I really liked the nature reserve there. A gorgeous place! It’s obvious that the city authorities take good care of recreational spaces for Muscovites.
I really love nature in general. I like the banks of the Moscow River. I love the landscapes outside of Moscow.
The Church of Christ the Savior is impressive.
The fascinating and tragic history of this revived architectural miracle. I went there with a delegation from Antwerp
Have you been learning Russian for a long time?
I decided to begin my mission in Moscow by learning Russian. I have a wonderful teacher, and she speaks French very well. This makes the process of learning easier.
For me, learning Russian is a great joy. It gives me the opportunity to learn more about Russian history and culture.
Of course, Russian is a beautiful, but difficult language.
In Brussels, people like to jokingly ask me if I’ve started reading “War and Peace” in the original. The answer is: I am not that far yet !
I’m confident that if Europe wants to understand Russia better, learning Russian certainly helps.