Italians and Russians find common ground easily
The Italian-Russian Chamber of Commerce (IRCC) is one of the most reputable business structures that facilitate the development of economic and cultural ties between Italy and Russia. Vladimir Putin’s message for the 55th anniversary of the IRCC reads the following: “Over the years of its existence, the Chamber has fully proven that it is both relevant and effective, enabling a direct dialogue between the business communities of our countries, facilitating the development of constructive bilateral relations in the trade, economic, and investment spheres, and expanding interregional ties.”
The chamber was established in 1964 at the initiative of major Soviet and Italian foreign economic associations and companies. It was initially called the Italian-Soviet Chamber of Commerce, but the name was changed to the Italian-Russian Chamber of Commerce after the collapse of the USSR in 1992.
The IRCC has an office in Milan and a representative office in Moscow, which has been operating since 1972. Marisa Florio has been the Director of the Moscow representative office for the past 15 years. She has not only earned the trust and respect of the business community, but is also a charming and sincere person who is a pleasure to chat with. In an interview with Capital Ideas, Marisa talked about the Chamber, her work and life in Moscow, and her thoughts about Muscovites and changes in the capital.
The Italian-Russian Chamber of Commerce is an influential business organization that makes a considerable contribution to the development of trade and economic relations between Italy and Russia. This year marks 55 years since the chamber was first established – an impressive number. What’s the atmosphere in the chamber like for this anniversary? What kinds of goals have you set for yourselves now and for the future?
The atmosphere is good. In spite of our age, we’re determined to move forward with new ideas, projects, and partners. The Russian market is changing, so the chamber plans to continue researching the economic climate in the country and searching for new formats and means of cooperation with the Russian Federation.
Could you talk about the Chamber’s membership? How has it changed over the past few years, in terms of both quantity and quality?
The membership base isn’t something immutable and static: it’s always changing. Some companies leave for various reasons while others join the IRCC’s ranks, but the balance always remains positive. The chamber’s membership hasn’t shrunk even under the sanctions. We currently have over 300 members.
In 2014, the West introduced sanctions against Russia. Has the strategy and tactics of the IRCC and its representative office in Moscow changed because of this? Maybe there has been less interest in the Russian market, or maybe the competition from countries and companies not taking part in the sanctions have pushed Italian entrepreneurs to be more active in Russia?
Sanctions are a bad thing, they’re not the right way to resolve issues – that’s what Italians think, especially those of us who live and work in Russia. More than anyone else, the sanctions affected Italian producers, both small and large. Dairy products are the most prominent example. The famous Italian parmesan cheese has been completely blocked by the sanctions. In second place are the fruit and vegetables that Italy used to export to Russia. Prior to 2014, Italy used to export a lot of apples, pears, and grapes to your country.
Small and medium-sized enterprises took a significant hit from the sanctions: some companies closed down, and some have just exited the Russian market.
Of course, it would be better if Italian companies invested more in Russia. But we have to understand that over 80% of the Italian economy is comprised of small and medium-sized businesses. They’re afraid to invest in a country that is far away, not always predictable, and under economic sanctions – they’re not ready for the financial risk. However, big companies like Ferrero (sweets, chocolate, nut butter), MARR (meat and semi-finished meat products), Zuegg (jam, Kaluga ), and Barilla (pasta) feel confident on the Russian market.
Still, every bad predicament has its upsides. Even the negativity that the sanctions brought had some positive outcomes for Russia: the country woke up and started producing, and often implementing Italian technology. Because you can’t just live on oil and gas, you have to make use of other plentiful natural resources, other opportunities in all market segments.
What do you think about the new “Made with Italy” format, which has replaced the “Made in Italy” format?
The changing economic circumstances suggest that we need to find and switch to new formats and methods of cooperation. The “Made with Italy” format is currently more effective than the “Made in Italy” format. The IRCC is trying to attract companies from all business segments to Russia to work with this format, and bring together small enterprises to jointly provide technologies, set up joint enterprises, and invest.
Italian technologies are applied frequently in the agriculture industry, especially when it comes to food production. Last year, I visited the Cherkizovsky Meat Processing Plant in Kashira. It’s one of the most roboticized enterprises in this segment – No.1 in Europe. The Italian side purchased technologies worth 37 million euros for the enterprise, and 80% of all technologies in the plant are Italian. And in Kabardino-Balkaria, which is in the Caucasus, apples are grown in the help of Italian technologies.
One Turin company that manufactures plastic parts for car interiors opened a plant in the Oktyabrskiy village of Samara Oblast 20 years ago. There are currently 200 people working at the plant. Thanks to this enterprise in Russia, the company was able to keep its plant in Italy. Recently, this company won a tender for the assembly of Aurus cars. This is a great example of the new format in action – participating in a Russian enterprise.
Working in Russia lets Italian companies go beyond the domestic market to third countries. For example, Ferrero isn’t just exporting to CIS countries, but to Brazil as well. And it’s more cost-effective than exporting from Italy.
This year also marks a milestone for you personally: you’ve headed up the Moscow representative office of the IRCC for 15 years now. Have there been changes in the office’s operations in this time? What new services does it offer to entrepreneurs? What kinds of interesting projects are implemented with the IRCC’s assistance in Russia? Which spheres of the Russian economy are more relevant, and which Russian regions are Italians most interested in?
The representative office’s work continues to pick up speed: there has been an increase in the exchange of delegations, both for entrepreneurs and institutions, there are a lot of presentations, and we’re working with regions. The Italian embassy in Russia provides us with support, first and foremost by directly participating in business trips throughout the country. The embassy’s participation brings delegations to a new level, giving them a new format and a higher status.
I have to say that we have a very proactive ambassador: he has visited 20 regions in Russia over the past year and a half. He understands that he needs to travel himself and organize new delegations to research the market and make cooperation more effective. The IRCC takes part in all embassy trips. In September 2019, representatives from the Moscow office took part in the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok as part of the embassy’s delegation.
With each passing year, the IRCC expands its coverage of the Russian regions. Today, we are working with Kaluga, Penza, Nizhny and Veliky Novgorod, Tatarstan, Orenburg, Samara, and Irkutsk. But this doesn’t mean we plan to stop there – the chamber is open to all Russian regions.
The IRCC stresses new and effective formats such as preparing Italian companies for working on the Russian market directly in Italy, at the Milan office. Every week, the office helps seminars and presentations on various topics. In September, they covered the automotive and footwear industries. We invite experts to give Italian entrepreneurs a broader and more detailed understanding about working in a specific market segment in Russia: what they can and should do, and what shouldn’t be done.
The IRCC regularly takes part in business forums across various regions in Italy. Usually, the Chamber’s Secretary General speaks at these events. The organization of buyer delegations for international exhibitions by the IRCC is also a new and popular format. Exhibition centers host business delegations from various countries and regions, primarily from Italy and Russia (from 5 to 50 people), which increases the network of Italian and Russian participants, enables cooperation between them, and activates contacts with the regions across various sectors of the economy. Ecomondo in Rimini is a very active exhibition site. And the subject is relevant: waste processing, solar and other alternative energy, etc. Every year, the IRCC sends around 25 buyers to this exhibition.
I also have to commend the productive work done by the Russian-Italian Committee of Entrepreneurs, which was established in accordance with the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between the Italian Republic and the Russian Federation and operates under the auspices of the Russian-Italian Council on Economic, Industrial, Currency and Financial Cooperation. It provides assistance with issues related to entrepreneur activity in our countries, eliminating barriers in business cooperation, providing information support, and ensuring business security.
The functions of the Russian side’s Secretariat of this committee are carried out by the Moscow office of the Italian-Russian Chamber of Commerce.
You’ve lived in Russia for over 30 years. That’s an impressive amount of time. Not every foreigner has this much experience to brag about.
Actually, there are many Italians working and living in Russia, and I’m not the one with the most experience: I personally know an Italian woman who has been living here for over 50 years. The number of Italian residents in Russia is always growing, increasing by about one thousand people every year. Italy has high unemployment, while here Italians can find work and be very comfortable. Almost every intern hired by the IRCC through agreements we have with Italian universities wants to stay in Russia for work. Though they aren’t always able to find work in their field. And there is another problem – getting a visa to live in Russia.
Your life in Russia has mostly revolved around Moscow. How do you feel in this city? What do you think about the changes and improvements that have happened in Moscow recently? And what do you think of the people who live here?
Personally, I feel comfortable in Moscow. The standard of living has really improved over the past few years. Moscow has everything. In terms of day-to-day life, Moscow is more comfortable to live in than Italy. For example, the “My Documents” service allowed me to get a new driverэs license quickly. Healthcare services are also improving: all diagnostics are much cheaper here than in Italy. Stores and all kinds of services are open 24/7. This is very convenient. And the transportation! It’s marvelous! Especially the metro: it has no equivalents in the world in terms of beauty, quality, and development speeds. Taxi services in Moscow are much better in terms of quality. It used to be very complicated, and now it’s simple, accessible, and convenient.
And the parks in Moscow are so wonderful! It’s no wonder that tourist flows to Moscow have increased significantly, especially after the World Cup. The city attracts people with its amazing beauty and cleanliness, well-organized tourist services, and, of course, delicious food – especially Russian food. In general, all global cuisines are well represented in Moscow. Italian cuisine is no exception, which I really like.
The city also has a rich cultural life, with theatres, exhibitions, and festivals for any taste. You want to see everything, but it’s physically impossible.
I’m not a person who’s prone to look for downsides and negativity, so I have a positive outlook on life. The only thing I miss here is the sea and the sun. And everything is so far apart here that you can’t always cover that much distance from one region to another for an interesting event or a museum.
Of course, Italy is the most beautiful and beloved country in the world to me, but right now I’m more comfortable in Moscow. After all, life is mostly work, workdays, and the daily grind.
What do I think of Muscovites? They’re very active, always in a hurry somewhere, and may be stressed because of this. This is probably normal for a big city. I have a very positive view of Muscovites. Overall, Russians are more like Italians than other Europeans, it’s easier for us to find common ground.
Would you like to wish anything to our readers?
I would like for Russia – a beautiful, big, and rich country – to develop, improve, and be better off! It deserves this. The country has rich natural resources and smart people, and it would be nice to see Russia reach the highest levels of global development.
Photo: Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation (CCI of Russia)