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Jean-Claude Knebeler

Sustainable development advisor, former Luxembourg ambassador to Russia

On the survival of the human race, telling the truth and his feelings towards Russia

Ambassador as translator
There are big countries and small countries. I come from a small country where a diplomat is much more hands-on than an American or British ambassador, who has a staff of several hundred. I had a staff of three here in Moscow, including me. And there are two different worlds in diplomacy. One is multilateral diplomacy: I have colleagues who work at our permanent missions, for example, at the UN and the EU, where things are very much based on negotiation and trading different interests and producing texts. By contrast, the bilateral ambassador at an embassy in a foreign country is, on the one hand, trying to explain to the host government — in my case Russia — why his country is doing something and on the other, to explain to his government why the host country is doing certain things. So, it’s very much of a role of cultural translator. In order to do it, you have to try to understand people. It’s less about language and understanding people linguistically. It’s about spending time in their midst and getting a feeling for the culture and how they tick. It needs engagement, and you need to swim in that water before you can do it.
Nowadays in the age of transparency and social media, everything is instantly verified by everybody. There are no secrets anymore — there are only facts that become public a bit later.
An era of fast reactions
I have made mistakes in the past when I reacted too emotionally or too quickly. So, when something is in me and wants to get out, I try to say, “I’ll sleep on it, and then tomorrow I’ll know what to say.” But in today’s age when the media is looking for soundbites and very fast reactions, you have to react on social media and give something immediately because otherwise it’s forgotten. It’s very difficult, because you don’t have the distance any more to reflect, think over the issues and give a calmer response. And that can be very dangerous. A quick emotional response triggers another quick emotional response, which escalates and doesn’t lead to anything good.
Telling the truth and negotiating
I always had guidelines to never lie. Nowadays in the age of transparency and social media, everything is instantly verified by everybody. There are no secrets anymore — there are only facts that become public a bit later. And when you get caught lying, the reputational damage that you suffer is so great that it’s very difficult to come back and re-establish your credibility. You can’t put everything on the table immediately in a negotiation when you are representing a certain interest, whether it’s your own or your country’s. I think you should not be dishonest and mislead people intentionally, especially in an international, intergovernmental setting. If you’re having negotiations with another country, you might win this negotiation now if you’re dishonest, but this country is not going to disappear: you might have to have another negotiation on another topic the next year, and if this country finds out you were dishonest, you might have a problem then. It’s not like business where your shareholders don’t pay you to leave something on the table — they pay you to take everything and get them all the money.
Choosing to be a diplomat
Strangely enough, I knew quite early on what I wanted to be. When I was sixteen or seventeen, I did an internship at the prime minister’s office in Luxembourg as a summer job. Nothing glamorous: bringing the mail from one place to another. But I saw how the department was working and saw diplomatic advisors at work; the job interested me, so I decided that was what I wanted to be. And I chose my academic path to get there. I was never a very motivated student: I didn’t study for the sake of studying; I did what I had to do in order to get where I wanted to be.

As a civil servant you have limits of what you can do, especially if you serve abroad. You’re not a private person — you’re representing your country. I was identifiable: I had red number plates and the flag of Luxembourg on my car, so everybody knew who was coming.

It’s not about power; it’s about the chance to help do something good. I’ve spent ninety per cent of my career in commercial diplomacy, trying to help either Luxembourgish companies to do business in other countries or foreign companies to go to Luxembourg. I believe that is a very important contribution to good bilateral relationships politically, because if people can do good business with each other, they don’t shoot at each other.
When some people – not diplomats – talk about wars, winning wars and so on, I always remind them of the motto of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces: ‘Posle Nas Tishina’ — ‘After Us Just Silence’: that is what the result of a war would be. So war is not an option if we want to survive as a human race.

I should perhaps write certain episodes down, just to give a glimpse behind the scenes, because many people outside think big politics are eccentric and remote from average people. They don’t understand that it’s very artisanal work where in negotiation, for instance, the person who wins is very often the one most resistant to sleep because the process is very long.
Luxembourg vs Moscow
I certainly have no political ambitions in Luxembourg. I’ve worked with enough ministers to understand that I don’t want to be in their position. It’s a hassle and a pain. I decided to put the brakes on my diplomatic career; I haven’t resigned completely. I can go back, although not here in Russia obviously. I could have gone back to the foreign ministry if I’d chosen to. But I decided to stay in Moscow for family, personal and business reasons. Also, I like being here!

It hit the media in Luxembourg that I’d decided to stay here. That has maybe more to do with the fact that many people in Europe do not understand that Moscow can be an attractive place to live. If I had chosen to stay in New York back in 2016, everybody would have said, “The lucky bastard, he’s found an opportunity in New York, and he’s going to live in Manhattan.” If I had served in Spain and decided to spend my time at a house on the beach, nobody would have had any problem understanding that. But Moscow has a strange image for many, so this made a few headlines.

I’ve felt safer in Moscow over the last months than I would have done anywhere else. If I was given the choice now to live anywhere in the world, well, excepting Luxembourg where I have my home, family and friends, I would say Moscow. I am very happy here. I have everything I need, all the infrastructure. I have my family and a good quality of life — what more would I want?
The only way to live in Russia is to believe in it.
First impressions of Moscow
The only way to live in Russia is to believe in it. I found Moscow a very impressive city on my first visit back in 2002. Different from what it is today. It was much darker, much greyer; it was not so well illuminated, and the buildings were not so well restored then. But I caught up with a Russian diplomat friend who I’d studied with, and we spent an evening where Manege Mall is now, sitting outside in a cafe, drinking beer and eating krevetki — shrimps. Then we took a subway tour around Moscow. I felt some kind of connection to the country. Afterwards, I came back every three or four months on business, and I made more friends and got to know the city better. In Romanov Dvor business centre where Noôdome is based, I have been on the roof and in the lowest basement. That’s been connected with this venue and this project — I’ve got to see behind the scenes of everything a little.
Moscow’s look
Moscow is a European city, but at the same time it’s not. It has a lot of other influences. If I look outside the window at Noôdome, I see the Kremlin tower, with its Red Star, I see an Orthodox cathedral, and I see the cupola with the Russian tricolour where the president has his official office. I see parts of Moscow State University, and then a very modern building that has ambition to create a community of people who look to the future. It’s a link between history — all stages of Russian history — and an international future of people who belong to a global community. Moscow is certainly geographically European. It is culturally European — not western European, but still European. But there are also links to Asia. If you look at the architecture, you can’t fail to notice oriental influences — Central Asian and Iranian. That makes me think of Moscow as unique.
Moscow is certainly geographically European. It is culturally European — not western European, but still European. But there are also links to Asia.
Russian mentality
What I like about Russians is that they are warm-hearted and open after an initial barrier. They are not like people in some other countries, where you are embraced immediately, but on a very superficial level and not always a very sincere one. Russians are very often reticent, but once you show that you are honest and mean well, they become very warm-hearted. And if I look around the world, some of my best friendships are with Russians. Also, here in Moscow I spend my time with my Russian friends; I have hardly any contacts in the international community. So, this ability to be honest and have genuine, strong friendships is something I value very much because it’s something that’s not common any more.
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Xenia Frank
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Ruben Vardanyan