LIKE the vast expanse that traverses the Eurasian country, including 11 time zones and 14 land neighbors—from Norway in the west to as far as the borders of China and North Korea in the east—there seems to be a huge gap for Filipinos in understanding Russia.
However, Ambassador Igor Anatolyevich Khovaev proved to be more than able to bridge that “great divide” with this reporter and his peers in the Aliw Media Group who were present during the last Coffee Club session for April.
“Maybe, [your] perceptions are based only on Hollywood films; so please, forget [those]. They have nothing to do with the real Russia,” the envoy began.
Khovaev might be pertaining to movies that portrayed his country in a not-so-positive light, perhaps in congruence to the West’s “global policeman” stance.
“Just me. I think I’m different from those Russian guys in the movies,” the diplomat remarked, which elicited laughter among the mini news conference participants.
Case in point: the Cold War thriller From Russia With Love, where Sean Connery as James Bond tried to outwit the secret crime organization SPECTRE, which deployed Soviet counterintelligence defectors for its devious plans.
“On the other hand, most Russians don’t know anything about the Philippines,” he noted, then added, “We need to intensify people-to-people contacts in all fields.”
The ambassador explained further: “Business-to-business, young [people] to young [people], teachers-to-teachers, students-to-students, artists-to-artists, and so on. It’s the only possible way to promote a positive image of your country in Russia and to promote a positive view of [my country] here.”
He believes that Russians and Filipinos have a lot in common, except for one: “You Filipinos smile much, much more than we Russians do. But in this respect, I’m an exception already because you…have infected me with the ‘smile virus,’” then went on to say that having been posted in the country made him flash his pearly whites more often “than I did in Moscow.”
The ensuing guffaws broke the ice—and we were yet to formally begin the exclusive interview.
As a many-time visitor to Europe, this reporter had noticed that many Europeans carry a mask of angst, sculpted by centuries of war, famine, pestilence, oppression, political as well as religious strifes, and the burdens of modern living—thus, his impression that they simply do not have the luxury of time to engage in a simple grin.
An exception was Khovaev, who occasionally was expansive, joyful, open, friendly and more than willing to share his experiences with us Filipinos—a complete departure from the image of his compatriots dished by years of conditioning by the silver screen.
“Seriously speaking, Russia is like the Philippines: a multiethnic and multireligious society. Most of [my countrymen] are Orthodox Christians, [while the majority of] Filipinos are Catholics. There are differences…but as for fundamentals, they are absolutely the same.”
Khovaev said both denominations share fairly the same traditional Christian values. He mentioned that Russia has about 25 million Muslims who have always lived side by side with Christians, “and in the history of my country, it [did not experience] conflicts on the basis of religion.”
He, however, warned it is not easy to ensure peaceful coexistence. “[It is] always a challenge for the government to provide stability, as well as the comfort and convenience for people belonging to different religions [and lifestyles].”
“But I believe that with Russia’s example, it’s not ‘mission: impossible.’”
In this respect, as a friend of the Philippines, the Russian envoy advised that their experience as a nation can serve as a basis, “and I believe it can be possible to establish peaceful and prosperous lives in your country.”
KHOVAEV admitted that although the Philippines and Russia had a brief cultural exchange during the martial law years (when prima ballerina Lisa Macuja used to appear on Moscow’s theaters, while Russian artists visited our shores to perform at the Cultural Center of the Philippines), today both countries simply engage in trade.
“Trade between Moscow and Manila is not very impressive, amounting only to $600 million. Of this, $400 million represents Philippine exports. Eighty percent consists of machinery, equipment and agricultural products.”
“But there’s lot of room for growth,” he claimed, “including [areas of] transportation and electronic products.”
Russia’s imports to the Philippines, on the other hand, list timber, metals, chemical products, transportation and various equipment.
The diplomat attributes the weak economic exchange from a historical perspective: “We have never been allies; but, at the same time, our legacy is quite positive because there has never been any conflict or dispute between [our countries].”
“Now, it’s time for [Russians] to discover the Philippines, and [for] Filipinos to discover Russia. It must be a two-way street. It’s very relevant to our trade and cooperation. Russian people need some time to explore the possibilities [here], and vice versa.”
“So my message is very clear,” the ambassador underscored: “Philippine businesses are most welcome in Russia, and I believe it will be mutually beneficial.”
He agreed that the Philippines and Russia should have more exchanges of business missions. “It’s not easy to discover new markets. We have to overcome psychological barriers and obstacles.”
ACCORDING to Khovaev, who is a graduate of the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Filipino businessmen need some time and effort to explore new possibilities in Russia.
“We call on their Russian [counterparts] to visit the Philippines, and we invite the Filipinos to go to Russia.”
Since there is a wide array of options, the good ambassador narrowed the field to a few select areas, such as agriculture, transportation and energy, “including the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and telecommunications, [among others].”
“[My country] has sophisticated and advanced technologies. We are ready to share [them] with our partners, including the Philippines,” he explained.
Produce from PHL
ON the other hand, Russia is also willing to buy our agriculture products, such as vegetables and tropical fruits, including mangoes, bananas and pineapples.
“They are in great demand [my homeland; and so is] your marine produce. It’s time your country supplies [those] to the Russian market.”
His advice to local farmers planning to export their products to Russia is to first secure necessary sanitary and phytosanitary requirements, “because everything must be done in compliance with the law.”
“On our part, we’re ready to supply high-quality wheat, beef and poultry meat. They are very clean; no chemicals,” Khovaev stated.
Energy, power source
AT the same time, Khovaev said Russia is also ready to share its experience and help explore opportunities in the field of energy.
“We produce all kinds of energy resources. In the near future, our country would be able to produce about 70 million cubic meters of liquefied natural gas (LNG).”
In this respect, Russia needs more markets to serve. “That’s why we suggest that the Philippines become, and should become, a regional hub of Russian LNG.”
Khovaev believes that to realize this dream, Russia would be willing to help the country “build relevant infra facilities [as they are huge potentials] in the field of commerce.”
He went on to say: “At the same time, we’re ready to explore the use of other energy resources, as well.”
The envoy offered his country’s expertise in the use of nuclear technology.
Aside from these, Khovaev offered Russia’s expertise in infrastructure. “[My country is] a great railway power. Railways have played a great role in [our] economy and in the lives of all Russian people, because [trains are] the main means of transport in Russia—not trucks or buses.”
The Russian envoy highlighted his country’s sophisticated railroad technologies, as well as highly skilled workers and engineers.
“We produce very efficient equipment, and we are ready to cooperate with your country [in that area].”
On world affairs
KHOVAEV’S stance became stern and serious when asked about the reported poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil.
The ambassador denied the allegations. He pointed out that, despite their many inquiries to UK authorities, the British did not respond.
“I’m only asking: Please don’t disseminate fake news, allegations and lies. My country didn’t do anything negative against any other. But we don’t tolerate any interference in our domestic affairs.”
He continued: “Russia has never been occupied by anyone, never been colonized by anyone, and never had its own colonies. We have a highly developed sense of national pride and self-respect. We don’t tolerate any attempt to lecture us, to teach us how we should live.”
The envoy was then queried about his country’s stand on the upcoming talks between US President Donald J. Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un.
“We fully support it. One year ago, Russia and China proposed a solution to the North Korean crisis. It consisted of two steps: the freezing of all large-scale military exercises on the Korean Peninsula and, at the same time, the freezing of all nuclear programs in North Korea.”
He said the Russians are happy to see that their proposal is being realized. “We fully support it. It’s time to stop brandishing arms, to come together and to restart dialogues based on mutual respect.”
The Russian diplomat, savoring his country’s role in the unexpected turn of events in the Korean Peninsula, hopes the dialogue between the US and North Korea “will be based on mutual respect and understanding.”
“I think we can be cautious, but optimistic.”
On PHL and the US
ASKED about his opinion about the Filipinos’ closeness to the US, he noticed that, after staying in Asia for 10 years, the Philippines “is the least Oriental of all Asian countries.”
However, he admitted that Russia, historically, was under the heavy influence of French and German cultures: “It’s our destiny.”
“I know very well the history of Vietnam: it was part of China for 1,000 years. Of course, China influenced [the former] a lot in all fields, and [it] consumed Chinese culture. But Vietnam managed to preserve its national and cultural identity.”
He said it is normal and useful to get something positive from other nations and also a necessary condition for development, as well as survival.
“But, of course, I could understand your affinity with the US; that’s your destiny. And to be frank, I don’t see any reason to change [anything] in this respect.”
On the other hand, Khovaev sees an objective need for the Philippines to diversify its foreign relations and ties by forging new friendships, but still keeping its old friends.
“I don’t see any contradictions in your ties with the US and the discovery of new [ones with other] nations. I think it’s natural, because we have to live in a globalized world. So your traditional allies must not put obstacles to the Russian-Philippine partnership.”
He said Russia also needs to enlarge its circle of partnerships and friends, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Russia is not only a European country; we are a unique Eurasian nation. In this respect, we have renewed ties with the Philippines as a major player in the Asia-Pacific region. So, please, I think there is no need to be worried; however, it’s time to open up to new horizons [and] be more open-minded.”
Love for coffee, ‘ice’
RARE for Coffee Club guests to make a special request prior to their arrival, Khovaev made one through Russian Embassy Press Attaché Natalia Naumova: He wanted to be served with black coffee.
Publisher T. Anthony C. Cabangon of the BusinessMirror acceded, as he himself gamely poured to the envoy a very special dark brew during the interview..
The Russian diplomat admitted to being a coffee drinker who downs about 10 cups a day, “black,” without affecting his sleep.
A skilled ice hockey player and ice-skater, “especially in skiing,” Khovaev lamented he could not pursue his favorite sports being here in a tropical setting, although he vouches for long walks “and to some extent, swimming.”
As a diplomat, he was assigned twice in Vietnam, having spent a decade in Asia. Khovaev speaks French, English and Vietnamese.
The Russian envoy is not bothered anymore by the heat and humidity here in the Philippines, since the climate in Vietnam is similar.
“I manage. I feel quite comfortable, that’s why I’m quite happy to be posted here in your country.”