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The German consul general, Renate Schimkoreit, "I love Russia"

The German consul general, Renate Schimkoreit, "I love Russia"

08.11.2010 — Analysis

The heads of the diplomatic missions stationed in Ekaterinburg are quite a diverse group of people. It's not just diplomats who have been sent to the capital of the Urals - the Europeans have also dispatched experts in various fields of modern science. The consul general from Germany, Dr. Renate Astrid Schimkoreit, spent two years as a journalist in the Middle East before entering the diplomatic service and is fluent in several languages, including Arabic and Turkish. After two years at the consulate in Ekaterinburg, she has not only mastered Russian, but tries to speak directly about scientific, architectural, energy, and environmental issues. Ms. Schimkoreit was gracious enough to answer a few questions put to her by the director of RusBusinessNews, Vadim Dynin. 

- Ms. Schimkoreit, July of 2010, when Ekaterinburg hosted the Russian-German summit meeting, was a momentous month for the diplomatic mission you head here. How did that meeting affect how the working relationship between the two governments functions on a practical level?

The summit between the heads of state that occurred as part of the discussions between the Russian and German governments last July was a very important event in the political life of both countries. I want to point out the importance of this event for Ekaterinburg and the Urals region, since this was where the meeting took place. In speaking about the results of this summit, I want to emphasize that the dialog between the German chancellor and the Russian president is an intensive process, and the meeting in Ekaterinburg was one of a series of high-level meetings.

The intergovernmental discussions in Ekaterinburg in July were attended not only by Angela Merkel and Dmitry Medvedev, but by many ministers from both countries who also held talks on various issues. The German chancellor was accompanied by almost half her cabinet.

The Petersburg Dialog was held at the same time, and its participants included former senior ministry officials who are actively working to develop Russian-German relations.

The meeting of the Russian-German Youth Parliament was extremely important for the future, but is easily overlooked. That event shouldn't be underestimated, because it is the youth who will hold leadership positions in the future and will continue this close bilateral cooperation.

The negotiations were also very successful on a personal level. President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have a personal rapport, and their meetings often lasted longer than scheduled.

- If I may ask, did Ms. Merkel have any comments about the work of the Consulate General during her visit to Ekaterinburg?

Ms. Merkel is very friendly and has a good sense of humor. When she got off the plane in Ekaterinburg, she said to me, "Thank you so much for letting us fly here." The German Chancellor knows Russia and the Urals very well and understands that there are truly significant prospects for cooperation between the two countries. She was accompanied on her trip by the executives of some of Germany's leading corporations. They told me that Ms. Merkel was very impressed by her warm reception. I hope that she has that reception in mind when she evaluates the work of the consulate. 

- The German Consulate General in Ekaterinburg opened in June of 2005. How would you assess the work of the past five years?

Of course you can look at numbers such as how many visas were issued, but that's not really a way to gauge the diplomatic work that's being carried out.

You're absolutely right. Criteria such as quantity of visas do exist, but our main job isn't issuing visas. We view issuing visas as more of a service to help develop bilateral relations, not as just a mechanical operation. Our goal is to help support this relationship, not to further complicate it. 

The consulate also has important economic and cultural work to do. German companies come to us who want to work in the Urals, or who are already working here, and we help them establish contacts with the regional governments within our consular district.

In addition to our economic contacts, we also pursue various cultural projects highlighting the diversity of Germany. For example, right now Metenkov's Photography Museum in Ekaterinburg is showing the Ruhr-2010 exhibit, dedicated to the Ruhr district, which is a major industrial region in Germany that is competing for the title of European Capital of Culture. The exhibit shows how over the past several decades, they have managed to transform this place where people live - an area that had been terribly polluted by heavy industry. That's a pretty topical issue here in the Urals.

Our task also includes expanding partnerships between universities, focusing particularly on exchanges of student and researchers. In my opinion, the work we're doing with Ural Federal University is particularly significant.

- The Consulate General has been leasing some tight quarters in Ekaterinburg's World Trade Center (WTC) for quite a while now. How interested is Germany in the idea of creating a consulate district in the Urals capital? It's been proposed that your diplomatic mission occupy a third of this new district.

We're constantly expanding and taking over new space in the WTC. But of course it's a bit cramped. There are always constraints you have to contend with when you work in a building that was designed for a different purpose. We are interested in the idea of constructing our own building. It would be wonderful to have some property downtown, which would enable us to work with representatives of government and business, as well as other partners, without spending so much time getting back and forth. 

Naturally a major part of our decision would be based on how conveniently located the building is, and ultimately, how accessible it would be to our guests. That's the criteria we use anywhere in the world, not just in Ekaterinburg.

- The officials in Ekaterinburg have already made their comments on the original draft of the construction project that was submitted to them. When might one expect the final draft and how will it be different? Are there any preliminary estimations of how long the building construction will take?

In Germany, the process of designing a building's outward appearance is very complicated and lengthy, but it's now completed. This draft was submitted to the Russians for their feedback, and in August the architects took the evaluation that they were given back to Germany. Their second visit to Ekaterinburg to present the updated draft was planned during that time. Our primary criteria are the serviceability and security of the building. It's also important to us that we be able to demonstrate modern German architectural style, as well as the construction technology. 

I'm already looking forward to the architectural discussions of the project, because I've heard that the plans for the building were surprising to a lot of people. At first glance, it's an austere, unadorned building. Someone commented that he was surprised by the lack of ornamentation. I don't think that that statement reflects the essence of the project. The building's beauty is in the high-tech materials that were used and how they fit into the surrounding environment.

But unfortunately, for a number of reasons, I'm now in an unpleasant situation. A few days ago we got news of an unexpected decision. Because of budget cuts, the construction of the building will be delayed for several years. Decisions like that are only made under difficult financial circumstances. We're keeping the property because we want to build there! But that probably won't be for another four or five years.

This was an unforeseen and undesirable turn of events. I was just shocked by the news. The Consulate General had planned a lot of events to promote the concept of our new building: discussions, exhibits, and much more. We were already preparing to send out the invitations to these events, but instead had to deliver the bad news to the administrative authorities of the Sverdlovsk region and Ekaterinburg. I was pleased and grateful that they were so understanding and empathetic.

So, we're planning on expanding within the WTC. Right now the consulate occupies three floors of the building.

- Not long ago you visited Chelyabinsk and met with representatives from the South Urals Chamber of Commerce and Industry. What did you think?

It was quite a brief trip to Chelyabinsk, but it was very interesting. I visited the South Urals Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the International Trade Center. I plan to visit Chelyabinsk again in mid-November to take part in a symposium on modern urban life. There will be discussions about environmental protection, scarcity of resources, climate change, and urban living standards. I think that these are timely topics that will become even more compelling in the future. 

President Medvedev's statement on environmental protection was the subject of enormous interest in Germany. It's possible to expand the laws governing environmental protection and make use of the latest technology, but you can't make progress on these issues until ordinary people feel more responsible for resolving them.

Here's a vivid example. One weekend I went out to the forest near Ekaterinburg for a walk and ran into a huge pile of garbage. So naturally the question arises as to why anyone would go to the effort of taking garbage all the way into the forest. Why not just take it to the dump? These people are destroying the very place they live. Of course Russia is huge, but I'm very sad when I see anyone deliberately damaging the natural environment, because you have such a wonderful country.

- On the whole, how would you characterize the relationship between the German states and the Urals Federal District regions? 

The German federal government is eager to work with the Russian regions. The ties between the two countries are partially based on close contacts that developed back in the Soviet days. The partnership with the state of Saxony is one example of that.

The Sverdlovsk region has been working with Baden-Württemberg for a long time now. Delegations hold meetings every two years, and another visit is expected from representatives from Baden-Württemberg in mid-November. More recently, Rhineland-Palatinate has also been actively engaged in the Urals. They've opened their own representative office in Ekaterinburg and a delegation from that state made a successful visit to Ekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk quite recently. I think that will be a fruitful partnership, because both sides are so actively engaged in it.

One more example - the city of Novy Urengoy (in the Yamal-Nenets autonomous area), where Gazprom and the German company BASF have a successful partnership, has established close ties with the state of Hesse.

- What do the Germans think of the progress of the Russian-German Energy Agency project to promote energy conservation? Ekaterinburg and the Sverdlovsk region were chosen to be the locations for its pilot projects.

Energy efficiency is a very important focus of the work the two countries are doing together, because both Russia and Germany have something to offer in terms of new technologies. You have to understand that this is a very dense, multilayered issue, and the personal relationship of human beings to the way they use resources plays an important role in it. 

The Russian-German Energy Agency RUDEA is very active in the Urals. It's important to identify promising projects where the two countries can work together. As I understand it, one of RUDEA's primary objectives is to help draft legislation on energy efficiency for the Urals Federal District. When the question arises about investment in this area, it is natural that private business or the government needs to get a return on its investment. As I recall the experts' discussion on the subject, they claimed that five to six years would be a good period in which to recoup the investment in the project. But typically one should expect it to take longer to see a return on an investment made in an auspicious area of infrastructure development. And here that often scares people off.

We end our conversation on that note and agree to discuss the problems of urban development next time. Dr. Renate Schimkoreit believes that this is one of the most important issues of the future.

Sergei Panin - photographer

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