- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2007

These days, most of what Americans read or hear about Russia tends to be negative, focusing on political or geopolitical developments that at best we find difficult to comprehend, and at worst, appear threatening to America’s interests. President Vladimir Putin seems cold and calculating and increasingly unfriendly. The Cold War image of the dangerous Russian bear seems to be reemerging.

Having lived in Moscow for the past seven years as head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, representing more than 800 America companies doing business there, and dealing almost daily with the Russian government at all levels, I understand some of these qualms. But I also see a different picture — a much more optimistic picture — which I believe is perhaps more important in understanding today’s Russia, though I have seldom seen it reported or discussed.

In a nutshell, the booming Russian economy is transforming that nation’s outlook, standard of living and opportunities for its people in ways that were unimaginable only five years ago. More than 10 million Russian citizens have traveled abroad. Private enterprise is thriving. Russians are happier, healthier and more optimistic than ever in their lives. And, contrary to what you might hear, surveys show that the Russian people are as pro-American, if not more so, than the populations of many a European country, and most hope for closer relations with the United States.

I would argue that the American business community has played a not insignificant role in fostering these developments. By their willingness to invest in Russia’s future, American companies have become effective ambassadors for the United States and its values, while creating new jobs and benefiting the economies of both our countries. And the Putin government has been supportive of these efforts in ways that some might find surprising. Russian officials go to considerable lengths to be cooperative and accommodate the needs of American business, while at the same time revising their regulations to align them more closely with international standards.

Members of Congress visiting Russia have often expressed amazement at the fast-growing business ties between our two countries. As one leading Republican put it recently, “Who knew?” It is still a largely untold story, “the other side of the coin” in our relations with this proud and increasingly powerful country. But I submit that it is one that we would be foolish to ignore.

To put all this in perspective, let me offer some examples that many readers may also find surprising.

• The American companies now doing business in Russia have seen sales soar by as much as 100 percent a year and anticipate significant continued growth.

• Russia has become one of the most important emerging markets for many of our major U.S. corporations — from Ford, GM, General Electric and John Deere to Johnson and Johnson, Procter and Gamble, IBM and Intel.

• Ford is now the biggest-selling foreign car brand in Russia, and GM sales are doubling every year.

• Russians buy more than $1 billion Procter and Gamble products a year. Sales of Johnson and Johnson products are increasing 80 percent a year.

These examples are typical — and in nearly every case, they are providing more jobs in the United States. For instance, 80 percent of John Deere products sold in Russia are made in factories in Illinois and Iowa.

There is another aspect to this story that is perhaps equally important. More than 300,000 Russians now work for American companies. They are young, bright, ambitious and open to the world. American companies are playing an important training and development role, grooming the next generation of Russian business executives in the standards and values of international business. And the overwhelming majority of these Russian employees of American companies strongly support expanded relations between our two countries.

This is why I believe that our companies are proving to be very effective ambassadors for our country. And the Russian government, for its part, is proving to be a valued and appreciative partner. In the idiom of our times, a win-win situation for the peoples of both our countries — and a positive augury, surely, for our future relations.

Andrew Somers, former executive vice president and general counsel of American Express, is president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia.

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