Graduated from the HSE Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs in 2010. Two years later, Polina Tonkikh began working at the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, where she focused on the World Trade Organization and UNCTAD issues. She then became the attaché for the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the WTO in 2014 before being named the Deputy Head of the Trade Negotiations Department at the Russian Ministry of Economic Development in 2016.
She has also received an HSE Alumni Award in the Government Service category for her contribution towards strengthening Russia’s image around the world.
«It’s nice having a diplomatic passport, but it comes with responsibility»
About the project
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
HSE alumna Polina Tonkikh is someone who was directly involve in one of the greatest moments in Russia’s history – the country’s accession to the World Trade Organisation. In the latest edition of Success Builder, Polina talks about what it’s like representing Russia at the WTO and how the country’s image has changed in the international arena.
When you were a student at HSE, you also worked at the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies (CCEIS). What impact did this have on your future career?
Correct – I worked for some time at the centre, which is headed by Timofey Bordachev. I always wanted to work there, and while I was at the centre I analysed the activities of export credit agencies. At the time, Russia did not yet have such an agency, and there were no such things as the Export Insurance Agency of Russia (EXIAR), which is a way of supporting our producers when they enter international markets, or the Russian Export Centre. It’s interesting that my work experience came in handy seven years later, when on the even of the 10th WTO Ministerial Conference we were formulating a solution to export competition that included regulations on export financing and crediting.
Electronic commerce is a key driver of economic growth and increases international trade volumes
Then I worked for two years on a research project under the supervision of Maxim Bratersky and Sergey Kortunov on the European Security Treaty. Participating in this project really helped me – on the one hand I constantly increased my knowledge in the international realm, and on the other I maintained ties to the Higher School of Economics, which I, like many of my fellow alumni, truly love, well after graduation.
What was your first professional experience, and what preceded your work in the international sphere?
I got my first job partially thanks to HSE. During my third year at the university, my business English instructor (Ekaterina Talalakina, Associate Professor in the School of Foreign Languages) recommended me for a simultaneous interpreter position for visiting foreign conductors at the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. This was my first work experience of an international nature, you might say. I had to translate from the centre of the orchestra, and a bonus was getting to hear everything from somewhere other than the audience. I then got a job with the international concern Allianz for a specific project to integrate the Russian insurance company ROSNO into Allianz. I was on a team of 10, and two of us were HSE students. I got some experience and upon graduating from the university was offered a manager position in the international logistics division of Procter & Gamble. I worked in international economics and focused on product shipments from the U.S. and EU to Russia.
How did you come to work at the UN? What’s the overall process like? Do you go to a traditional interview?
It’s a rather interesting story. A few days before my state exams at HSE, I got a letter about openings at two trade missions and one permanent office in Geneva. As part of the competition, you had to write an essay on anti-dumping measures in the Doha Round. I thought that my exams were more important; if I didn’t pass them, I wouldn’t find a job at all. But then I remembered that I’d written a paper on global anti-dumping measures a year prior, and I just needed to apply this to the Doha negotiations.
I wrote the essay, and my classmate, Alyona Bulatnikova, and I ended up winning the competition. She actually works at the Permanent Mission to the WTO in Geneva now. She’s a real professional in her field.
We didn’t find out about the results of the competition right away. But next came the long paperwork process for the job; it’s government work, and they have to check everything about you. Only in March 2012 was I appointed to the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations Office and other International Organizations in Geneva.
We’ve now reached a crucial moment to a certain extent. Everyone is trying to be careful when it comes to the U.S.’ changing trade policy, the process of Britain leaving the EU, and other important events taking place in international trade
At the time, the Russian Permanent Mission to the UN included a division dealing with trade and political issues with the WTO, UNCTAD, and the WTC. This is where I started working. Russia got its own Permanent Mission to the WTO later in April 2014. While we were part of the Permanent Mission to the UN, we focused not only on the WTO, but on other trade and economic issues as well.
What were your responsibilities at that point?
At first it was a lot of grunt work, and I had to organise and complete clerical tasks. Since I had come from the corporate sector, the organisational side of things came easy to me, but I had to learn a lot from the ground up – things ranging from reviewing documents and agreements to attending WTO council meetings. The organisational structure of the WTO consists of different bodies, the highest being the WTO Ministerial Conference, while various trade committees make up the regular working bodies. The first committee I was put on was the Trade and Development Committee, which focuses on trade issues in developing countries. This includes things like offering trade concessions with such countries (this is called ‘special and differentiated treatment’), managing technical assistance programmes, dealing with problems associated with smaller economies, and much more. This is where I started learning to prepare speeches for committee meetings, answer WTO members’ questions, work with colleagues from offices around the world on join initiatives, and much more. Then I also became responsible for things on the WTO Committee on Regional Trade Agreements and started participating in APEC’s Geneva group, which Russia actually chaired in 2012.
What competencies does someone need in order to represent Russia at the international level?
The most important skill is an excellent knowledge of languages – at a level where you’re able to solve problems in English or French, which is the case for Geneva. Responsibility and diligence are what is valued most in government service though. This also includes the ability to suggest solutions to problems. Additionally, the young professional should pay attention to the fact that this kind of work puts you in a lot of unique situations that you have to take control of and resolve. Lastly, you’ll have to constantly work in a time crunch.
Did your responsibilities change with Russia’s accession to the WTO?
After it was decided that Russia would join the WTO – this took place at the WTO’s Eighth Ministerial Conference in December 2011 – the country had six months to carry out the ratification process. We had a lot of new things to do. It was a new experience and an opportunity to demonstrate new skills.
Ratification was completed in July 2012, with official notification going to the WTO on July 23, 2012. Then on August 22, 2012, Russia became a full-fledged member of the World Trade Organisation.
The next important step was creating a separate Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the WTO in the first half of 2014. By that point, new specialists had arrived, and the responsibilities of each employee had become clearer. For me this meant career growth, and I started participating in specific talks on access to markets, government subsidies, and support for agricultural exports. At the same time, I continued working on regional trade agreements. In particular, over the course of my time in Geneva, we were able to completely carry out our obligations as concerns the transparency of Russia’s existing trade agreements.
Is that when you became an attaché?
It is. This happened during the transition from Permanent Mission to the UN to Permanent Mission to the WTO. It was a logical appointment, considering the experience I’d amassed over the last two years.
Attend all lectures, conferences, and academic events, and meet people. You just might come across a person or idea that pushes you closer towards your calling
Did you spend all that time working in Geneva?
Yes – our employees are always based there. It’s called ‘long-term foreign travel’ and lasts several years. These kinds of employees take care of the work that takes abroad based on what happens here, within the Economic Development Ministry. The diplomats working in Geneva try to relay Russia’s position on relevant topics in international economics.
What is Russia’s current image, and what work is being done to change it?
Thanks to the media, Russia’s image abroad is not always positive. But in the international arena, especially within the WTO, there are unwritten rules for how nations communicate. Usually they try not to point the finger at those who aren’t fulfilling their obligations at the WTO. Indirect hints are often made at meetings though, and everything is of course discussed on the sidelines. This sort of mutual respect allows for diplomatic relations to develop among countries, which ultimately has a positive effect on talks and decision-making.
Russia’s image has changed a lot since I started attending the committee meetings. It was a real event when we joined because the WTO was now getting the largest non-member economy in the world. Everyone was cautious towards us at first though. When China joined in 2001, the country had the status of ‘observer’ for the subsequent five years. China didn’t take any active steps, and on the sidelines the WTO called this the ‘honeymoon’ phase. Then China started actively advancing its policy, and the country now sets many of the rules that currently exist in world trade. For Russia, this honeymoon only lasted a year. We took a look at everything, observed, and developed certain approaches. Then, in 2014, Gennady Ovechko was appointed Permanent Representative of Russia to the WTO, and he is still the head of our office today. Our work at the WTO really took off after his appointment. Russia’s first Trade Policy Review came out in September 2016, which was also an interesting event for our image. The review promotes a multilateral assessment on WTO members’ impact on international trade. It was therefore critical that Russia’s active role at the WTO receive a positive assessment and that it be clear the country was making a substantial contribution to the development of a multilateral trade system.
I took part in the recent WTO negotiation session in June, and many WTO members supported a number of our proposals, noting how actively Russia had begun to participate in talks. I think this speaks to the fact that Russia’s image is changing for the better.
What are the most discussed trends at the WTO (if there are any at all)?
We’ve now reached a crucial moment to a certain extent. Everyone is trying to be careful when it comes to the U.S.’ changing trade policy, the process of Britain leaving the EU, and other important events taking place in international trade. Nevertheless, talks are still underway at the WTO on a fairly wide range of issues. In December of this year, the WTO’s 11th Ministerial Conference will take place in Argentina, and this is where the organisation’s key objectives are decided on. I expect that this next conference is where agricultural decisions will be made as well, as issues in food safety and agricultural support are extremely important for the majority of WTO members.
Another widely discussed trend is e-commerce, which is currently a key driver of economic growth and increasing international trade volumes. At the same time, the world does not have a single set of rules regulating this field. Meetings on e-commerce are taking place with representatives of the Russian IT industry who are able to say in advance what sorts of rules they find interesting.
In addition, the agenda includes the question of fishing subsidies, particularly as concerns the ban on providing subsidies that promote illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. Our intent to achieve progress in this area is evident in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.
What does a day in the life of a WTO attaché look like?
Work is built around Moscow’s schedule because you need constant communication with the capital. Many countries adhere to a similar logic. Some countries opt for the Swiss calendar, but our calendar is required to correspond to the workday in Moscow. Because of the time difference, it has oftentimes been necessary to either start work earlier or leave later. At the same time though, people at the WTO love to schedule meetings on the 8th of March (International Women’s Day) or the 9th of May (Victory Day), and you have to go to work even though these are holidays on the Russian calendar.
from 1993 through 2011, talks took place on Russia’s accession to the WTO
Working as an attaché at a permanent mission is interesting, but you spend a lot of time running around. The week begins on Monday with the ambassador’s meeting with the mission’s diplomatic corps. Then the WTO’s schedule of events begins. This includes meetings of committees, councils, or special sessions that typically take place at the WTO, but that can also require you to travel to a different country’s mission. The most convenient is Brazil because our office is in the same building as theirs.
How do you combine working at the Economic Development Ministry with working at the WTO?
I don’t actually. I worked for the Economic Development Ministry overseas in Geneva for four and a half years, but now I’m with the Ministry’s central division. Here my work includes working with other government organisations and representatives from business circles to develop the country’s stance on trade issues as part of the WTO. This is all then presented at the organisation. That’s why there are sometimes short trips to Geneva to participate in different events at the WTO.
And what’s it like having a diplomatic passport?
It’s nice, of course. By representing Russia in a foreign country you get certain special perks, like taxes for example. There are definitely privileges when you go through passport control. But with those advantages come certain duties. Having a diplomatic passport comes with responsibility.
Still though, Geneva is one of the most expensive cities. Did the job entail any social privileges?
Not in particular. Diplomats are exempt from paying taxes, and they get cheaper gas (the discounts are for the diplomatic corps of all offices in Geneva). Yes, the cost of living is rather high in Switzerland, but a diplomat is typically provided with accommodation and a car. Overall though, it depends on how you look at Switzerland. It can, for example, be very accessible when it comes to education or sport. The cost of a pool membership, for example, is only around 10 Swiss Franc a month, which is about 340 rubles.
You have extensive professional experience. Is there anything you can share with students?
Like Steve Jobs said in a commencement address: you cannot connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect the dots looking backwards. You never know what from the things you’re now learning will come in handy in the future. Attend all lectures, conferences, and academic events, and meet people. You just might come across a person or idea that pushes you closer towards your calling.