– Could you share with us some expressions from your latest trip to the Tyumen Region?
When I visited places in Russia, I met with their governor, mayor, rector of universities. But Interestingly when I went to the Tyumen region, I’ve met with their local Imam. And when I look at the history, I understand that Tyumen also become one of the regions of Islamic majority under Mongol – Tatar. I was told there about two hundred thousand Muslims in the Tyumen Region. I met the Imam, I visited the mosque, the Imam studied at a madrasa and speaks Arabic. When we couldn’t understand each other, we used Arabic.
We offered them a madrasah school in Sumbawa. There is a scholarship for young Russian Muslims who would like to be educated in Sumbawa. But they also have an education curriculum that is mostly recognized.
That was impressive, I see that Islam has been developing well in Russia. Just last week I was invited by the Mufti to the official opening of a new Mosque and he took me and my wife in the Mosque. I learn that there are 7,500 mosques in Russia. And this attracts the interest of foreigners to come to Russia. They don’t know about it. They imagine Russia is like the Soviet Union, it is not friendly towards religions, not only in Islam but also other religions.
And we were surprised that there are 20 mln or more Muslims in Russia. This is the second largest Muslim group in Europe after Turkey.
And this attracted a couple from Indonesia to get married in Kazan in Kul-Sharif mosque last December. And they have never been here. They have found that there is a beautiful mosque in Russia and they wanted to have a unique wedding. They sent us an email that they went to get married there and we contacted the Imam, and they were very surprised and welcomed this.
Before the wedding I met President Rustam Minnikhanov, it was the second time, I met him twice. My first impression was when I met him was when he told me that Islam unites Indonesia and Russia. I agree because we a very similar Islam, moderate and tolerant.
And for the second time when I met the president, it was because of the wedding of the Indonesian couple.
Usually, Russians get wed on Bali. This is a good promotion for you and Kazan. He said that he would ask his minister of culture to be a witness.
Every time I meet very friendly people, and there are many things that make us very proud, especially not only in political, but in other parts. Trade, as I mentioned to you, has increased 33.5 percent during this difficult time. And for us it’s good because it is in our favour: our exports to Russia increased by 45 percent. For the first time last year we imported grain from Russia. And now we want to increase the amount of grain imports and also import meat from Russia. So it is complementary.
The other product area is education. Every time I meet the director he tells me to bring Indonesians. We have to actively promote it because education here in Russia is very cheap compared with Western countries. Russia is very advanced especially in engineering. So when I was in Tyumen, I also offered them to have cooperation with University in Indonesia, they are also strong in engineering, and they were very supportive.
And today we have a visit from Gadjah Mada University from Yogyakarta, they met with MEPI yesterday. They agreed to have an MoU between MEPI and Gadjah Mada University. They also went to St. Petersburg. They focused on Russian studies in Indonesia. That is what they don’t have in universities. I hope that they will also focus on nuclear engineering. This is what I have done in Tyumen and also other regions with predominantly Muslim communities like Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Astrakhan.
– So you also met with our president Mr. Putin. Can you share us some impressions of the meeting?
This meeting took place during the presentation of credentials. The protocol gave him five minutes. It is not long but for me it was very encouraging. I was lucky because the meeting took place just after I arrived. Many ambassadors have to wait months. It was on April 20, then my president came on May 18.
I found this encounter very productive. We raised our concerns about palm oil. I heard that there is an effort to impose a 30% tax. There was a Russian scientist who said palm oil is just like another vegetable oil. We have negative reports in the West who say that palm oil is not healthy. It is the same. The problem is that they cannot compete with us. They did not have sunflower oil.
The president responded very positively. That was repeated during my president’s meeting with Mr Putin. I got an impression President Putin knows a lot about Indonesia.
– What are the barriers that prevent deeper cooperation between Russia and Indonesia? Maybe we can somehow resolve these issues?
It’s because of mutual ignorance on both sides. We just realize the potential of Russia recently. The same thing happens in Russia, especially in trade. We a really quite distant geographically. We have normal relations, I mean in politics, but not in education and culture, especially in trade and investment.
And after the visit of the president came what I call the second golden era of our relations. The first golden era came after the meeting between President Sukarno and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
A lot of enquires came from both sides, even from the business community, even from the ordinary people – this is what we call people to people relations, in tourism. Last year saw a 22.5 percent increase in the number of Russians visiting Indonesia. It is still small – 8,500. We expect that the direct flight will change it. It will be officially launched in August. So it is a matter of months. So I think that it will bring more Russians to Indonesia. Also we are also waiting for more tropical fruits from Indonesia. From Indonesian side I was informed that about 20,000 of Indonesian recently have visited Russia, though it is not very easy to get visa. Last week we had some consultations at the Foreign Ministry attended by Deputy Minister Morgulov, and one of the issues on the agenda was visas. So Russia has been very positive to make it much easier for Indonesians. Because many Indonesians watch movie from Hollywood and that’s what shapes their perceptions of Russia with some stereotypes like the Soviet Union with bears on Red Square, and people don’t smile. When Indonesians come here they are surprised to learn that Russians are very friendly. I go to different places, and once in Yekaterinburg they told me that President Sukarno was there.
– So are you actually satisfied with this cooperation between our two countries?
Yes, but there are many things that we can do more.
– But can you name the more successful areas where we can cooperate?
It’s trade and investment, including agriculture. It is also technical cooperation, and then education. This is good because it makes our people closer. We need each other and our people have to visit each other because seeing is believing.
– So these areas actually require more focus?
– Both our countries are member states of APEC. And what other goals and objectives of this multilateral platform between Russia and Indonesia in particular?
This is a multilateral organization, APEC is about economic cooperation. And there are many things that we can discuss outside formal organization, because there are many economic, trade issues that cannot be solved through formal organization like WTO. In APEC rules are not binding but once we agree on something we stick to it. This is quite positive. In many ways we have the same position with Russia. And we have some projects under APEC which involves Russia in the hope to make the region more liberal and benefiting all members.
– What progress has been achieved in maintaining ties with Russian Muslims in different regions?
So we offer scholarships and 15 Russians have been studying in Islamic University. We also offer more from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to study at State Islamic University in Indonesia. We also trying to connect the Muslim business community because here we have the resource of market for Halal food, for example and we are experts in this. Every time you organize a Halal Expo in Russia we participate and the response has been very good. So we will encourage more ties in business community especially between Muslim community on both sides.
– I’m going to ask you a question about terrorist attacks. We know that in Russia St. Petersburg faced a terrible terrorist attack. And Indonesia has also suffered from these attacks in the past. What does Indonesia do to prevent acts of terrorism and extremism?
We are more experienced compared with Russia. Islam is a peaceful and tolerant religion. The challenge is a global one. Community has to fight extremism, radicalism which leads to terrorism. And we tried to understand also the root of the problem, so we handle the issue of terrorism not only by fighting, using weapons and military means. We try to use our moderate Muslim communities. We have two biggest Muslim organizations – Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama or NU, they have one hundred million members, and we encouraged them, we empowered them. It is not an Islam, we also said that it’s haram, that it’s not permitted, not to mention killing other people.
And we try to transform terrorists. We have programs by NGOs who try to arrange a meeting between terrorists who are in jail and the victims. Some are very good. Some realize that it is wrong. There was a young man who lost his wife and an eye in an attack near the embassy. He continued to do business. He met with the perpetrator in jail and told him that he was a Muslim and that he suffered because of the attack. And the former terrorist realized that and began crying.
We also have to use soft power, religious leaders. It is not easy. Some have been brainwashed. Look at what happened in St. Petersburg. Look at the young man, he did not even pray five times a day. Then suddenly he got brainwashed and then he did it.
Next month we will have a bilateral meeting between our ministry for political and security affairs and secretaries of different consulates. There is a conference on security where we participate. Last year we had fruitful dialogue on the fight of radicalism and terrorism and we can work together on data. And that’s been a good cooperation between two countries so we have to work together.
It can happen everywhere – in St. Petersburg, in Brussels, in Paris. It’s a global challenge. It has been there for a long time, it can’t be solved in a one day. The big issue is Palestine. It is one of the drivers that makes some people to become radical. We have a similar position with Russia, there needs to be a two-state solution. There has to be justice.
– Our countries have a cultural cooperation program for the period between 2016 and 2018. What has been planned for this year?
Last year Russia had several cultural performances in Indonesia. But we also have regular performances–an Indonesian festival in August in Moscow in the Hermitage Garden. This end of month we have Wonderful Indonesia in St. Petersburg, one in Kaliningrad in June, and the biggest one festival at the Hermitage Garden for three days. This is how we introduce our culture, but it’s not only culture, we have others festivals like culinary, tasting where we show different kinds of Indonesian food, many things and also where business people meet both sides. And we invite also locals to perform in our festivals, last year from Tatarstan. I visited Nizhny Novgorod, and they also want to participate. So this is our festival, which aims to make people closer.
– Bali has been very popular as we have already said with Russians recently. And what Russian regions had been visited by Indonesians?
Number one used to be Moscow, number two is St. Petersburg.
– Is tourism developing successful?
Yes. It is not only these two cities. Kazan is too very popular, maybe because 50-55% of the population are Muslims. They are like us, very tolerant. It is one of the most developed and tolerant states. And also there are beautiful mosques there and Indonesians like taking photographs behind the Mosque, like here in the Grand Mosque, they call Blue Mosque or Sukarno Mosque because Sukarno visited the Blue Mosque in St. Petersburg.
People also visit other regions, like Ufa, the Golden Ring cities. We have a very big number of middle-income people. A minimum 10 percent of the population have a high income, about 25 mln people have the ability to travel around the world – 100,000 visited Europe, just 20,000 came to Russia but they discovered Russia just recently.
It is very unique, they travel a lot in Europe, but Russia is very different, it is unique, it is have features of Europe and Asia. So you have beautiful culture and buildings like Hermitage, the Tretyakov Art Gallery, the Bolshoi Theatre, I’ve been there twice.
Russia is just like us. Russia is very beautiful and unique. Many tourists come to Moscow to take a picture on Red Square in front of the Kremlin. People are surprised that there no bears. So the destinations get diversified. And this is good because it makes relation between people. Also climbing in the mountainous area of Elbrus is becoming very popular. Surprisingly, I just noticed that it is very popular among Indonesians. There was a group of Indonesians that took the Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to China.
– And which places are a must-see in Indonesia?
Bali is number one in the world, but outside Bali there are many places which you can visit. Like next to Bali is Labuan, not so popular like Bali, but many people start coming there. If you like diving, you go to Raja Ampat. Also Java Island is the most populous island in the world, maybe in the world, I believe it, because this size is a little bit smaller than Bashkortostan, the population 150 mln, you can imagine, the population of Bashkortostan is under four million.
Java also has the remnants of an old kingdom, we have the biggest Buddhist temple in the world. It was built three hundred years before the one in Cambodia in the 9th century.
There is Sumatra, Toba Lake, it is the biggest volcanic lake in the world. There was an explosion a thousand years ago that created one the biggest lakes in the world, at least in Indonesia. There is also an island in the middle.
Also Kalimantan with its tropical forest, orangutan, the unique Toraja culture. There are many things you can see in Indonesia, it depends on your interests, but I reckon that Russians are very interested in beaches, we have 17,000 islands, only 6,000 inhabitants. In Bali and Java you can see rice terraces.
– And do you like Moscow more than St. Petersburg?
Both have their own magic and each city has its own historical heritage. I read a lot about history of Russia. Starting from the 9th century with Riurik, and then Vladimir, who made the Orthodox Church a state religion. I took some of my friends in Indonesia and told them: “Look, do you know that Russia almost became a Muslim state? Vladimir was choosing between two religions, Islam and the Orthodox Church, and one thing why Vladimir didn’t vote for Islam because In Islam you can’t drink alcohol”.
– So there is no alcohol in Indonesia?
No, people do drink. Not many, of course, but don’t forget we have a big number of Christians, about 20 million. We don’t drink a lot because of tropical climate.
– So what is your national drink?
Of course, tea is very common, coffee is very popular, too, and ginger drink is one of our traditional drinks.
– And one of the main sites in Indonesia is the Youth Pledge Museum. And something there happened in 1928, it seems it was very symbolic for your people…
That’s a very interesting part of our history. There are more than 600 ethnic groups with different languages, and that is not dialects. I live in Central Java, so if I go to West Java, they speak Sundanese which is totally different, I can’t understand it. East Java has Madurese. Sumatra has its own language.
And we were lucky to have the Indonesian language. And in 1928 during the Youth Pledge it was decided to have one national language.
The youth from different regions decided to have one country, one nation and one language.
Many countries have problems with the language, like India, like the Philippines and so on, because the majority want their language to be the main one. The majority of Indonesia speaks Javanese, like me and another 40 percent of the population. But we don’t force Javanese to be the national language, because Javanese is not an easy language. So we choose the Malay language spoken by a group of five million people from West Sumatra because of its simplicity, it is simple language.
That was declared before our independence in 1945. So for us it is like our stand point, our historical sequences. This is the first time that we declared one country, one language, one nation. It is very important, it’s our national day, and we called it Youth Pledge Day.
– It’s the second year for you in Moscow as ambassador. What is the most difficult in this job for you?
The first difficulty is communication because I don’t speak Russian, and that’s the biggest challenge for me. I’ve been also to Melbourne, Australia, Abu Dhabi. Back then it took me about a year to convince them that Indonesia is interesting for investment.
It is much easier here in Russia. People come to me, almost every week have two or three guests, they are simple business people, and they share information about business and investment. Last Monday there was a group of companies who want to open a chocolate factory because we produce cocoa. I have mentioned that Russia is interested in mining. I also get questions on imports and exports.
So that’s why last week we organized for the first time a meeting on business with the Russian Business Council. So it makes my job easier.
– You’ve got some vacations?
Not yet. I enjoy travelling here and consider it as my vacation. As for Indonesians, they say Russia is very difficult- but that’s only because of the image.
– And where do Indonesians travel?
Singapore, of course, number one, because Indonesians don’t need a visa, because it is a neighboring country. Australia is very popular, Europe, America is very popular, Eastern Europe and Russia have become a new destination – thanks to the direct flight about to be launched.
– And which airline?
Garuda. It is one of the best airlines in the world.
– So you’ve made some efforts to do it because it’s difficult. Because it’s really very difficult to convince them because they are afraid.
Their mentality is in the past. Russia, Moscow is too far, you first have to go to Europe and then get there. The direct flight is just 11 hours. Even faster than Jakarta – Amsterdam.
– We also talked about student exchange programs. I want to ask you about this issue one more time.
This is something that we also encourage, through cooperation between universities. We are meeting with three universities among them was the Ural Federal University – MEPI. And even today I have a meeting with the Higher School of Economics, so it’s four universities. And they responded to our request very positively, not to mention that next month we have more meetings with universities. We discuss issues, and one of them is student exchange programs. Many Russians are now studying the Indonesian language in Indonesia. And when they come there they don’t want to come back. I ask them why. “Because it’s too cold in Russia”. Personally, I don’t have problems because your heating system is very good and cheap.
I hope that soon there will be departments that will offer courses in the Indonesian language.
– How many Indonesians are there in Moscow?
I think there are about 800, according to my records. Maybe more, because not everybody reported to us, maybe a thousand or so. Half of them are students.
– Do they study at RUDN?
Oh many. They also study in Arkhangelsk, Tyumen, Astrakhan, Vladivostok, and Irkutsk.
– My last question is actually about architectural site of Indonesia, Istiqlal Mosque.
This is a masterpiece of Indonesia and the biggest mosque in Southern Asia at this moment. And the unique thing that its architect is a Christian. I think that it is still one of the masterpieces of Indonesia, it is in the center, located close to the Cathedral and it depicts our national motto – the unity and diversity. We recognize all the world’s main religions. Architecturally, Indonesia is unique – there is a lot of Arab influence but there are a lot of local features.