As the EU and Azerbaijan begin negotiating a “comprehensive agreement”, the Azerbaijani Ambassador to Belgium, Fuad Isgandarov, provided insight into the way his country sees the future of its relationship with the Union and its member states.
Isgandarov spoke to EurActiv’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
The EU will start negotiating a comprehensive agreement with Azerbaijan, replacing the Association Agreement proposed in 2010, which had neglected to take into account Baku’s views on the future of relations. It was actually Azerbaijan that submitted the first draft, wasn’t it?
Yes, Azerbaijan was the first country in the history of the European Union that managed to present a new draft agreement as a partner country. It had never happened before because usually the European Union presents the draft and then both sides work on it. So what we did was a first.
So why did this happen? Because our view on our future is that it should be strategically oriented, future-oriented and relations should be equal. These are the most important elements of the new agreement that was presented to the Commission during the Riga summit. I think it is absolutely clear: Azerbaijan is going to the EU as a real partner in different spheres. In energy as a part of the Eastern Partnership, in security, in migration management, in different spheres. We do not expect any miracles from this cooperation, we have a very pragmatic view on it.
You have to understand that all the elements of political dialogue should be based on a very solid foundation. This means, for example, that the Southern gas corridor, which we are now taking to Europe, is a good economic basis for our cooperation now and in the future. Also of course connectivity and transportation are important.
Azerbaijan is geographically a very obvious transportation hub for Asia and Europe. So from this point of view, we have a very solid basis for our political dialogue. I think these processes should be synchronised, and that is why we are happy that the mandate has been given to the European External Action Service to negotiate with Azerbaijan. We hope that negotiations will start soon. They may be difficult, but I am sure the result will be known in the coming months.
You mentioned the Southern gas corridor. It is expected to bring Azeri gas to Europe by 2020 and this will be the first real diversification of gas coming in from the East. How important is this project, economically and politically?
Of course, this project is important for both sides, the EU and Azerbaijan. I don’t want even to say ‘both sides’. Firstly, it is important for the countries and the companies involved. That is crucially important. Secondly, it is real project management. In the case of the Eastern Partnership, everybody says it is a project. But unfortunately, in most cases, we have a lot of compilations of bilateral agreements for the six Eastern Partnership countries. We need some project management to show that this exists and that it works, that it is successful. I think the Southern gas corridor is an exceptional example.
For example, this project involved two EU member states, Italy and Greece, it involved two candidate countries, Turkey and Albania, and the strategic partner in energy, Azerbaijan, was also involved.
Four different types of countries were involved: member states, candidate countries, associated partners and future strategic partners. That is real project management. That is why we think it is crucially important for the success of the Eastern Partnership as well. And of course, it is about energy as well, about the future of Europe, the future of our European so-called ‘native land’. And of course, it is important for us because without energy you can’t create the future. So we see it as a market, a real opportunity for income, and last but not least, it is a very good, solid basis for political dialogue and a very practical one.
In international forums, Azerbaijan has served as an example of multiculturalism. How concerned is your country with populism in Europe, which often targets refugees and Islam?
Azerbaijan is really the country where we can connect civilisations and cultures. It is a crossroads of civilisations, geographically. In most cases, unfortunately, historically, we see these crossroads becoming battlefields. In our case, we managed to make a bridge and we are very happy with this. I think our experience could be requested by our European friends. Because Azerbaijan is a country with a mostly Muslim population, where we have a very harmonised approach, both to secularism and a European style of life.
It is very difficult for other countries, but not for us, to be (inaudible) one of the partners in the Eastern Partnership, and that is why I say that Azerbaijan’s experience could be useful to our European friends. Of course there are a lot of problematic issues in Europe, but I am sure that European civilisation will survive. It survived two world wars and came our stronger. With partners and using its strong partnerships from the European neighbourhood, I think the member states will overcome all the difficult obstacles.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been unresolved for 25 years now. This territory belongs to Azerbaijan but is populated exclusively by Armenians, as all Azeris were forced to leave. How do you see a possible beginning of dialogue, leading to a possible solution to the conflict, and do you think the European Union should play a bigger role in conflict resolution?
First, on the conflict, Azerbaijan has had 20% of its territory occupied by a foreign country, Armenia. We have more than 1 million refugees and of course no Azerbaijanis in the occupied territories. This is a great problem for Azerbaijan and we have tried to find a solution to this problem using dialogue. We have used mostly diplomatic dialogue (inaudible), we have in some cases direct meetings between the appropriate officials of both countries. It works but the aims of all the countries involved in the negotiation process are totally different.
In the case of Armenia, they would like to keep the status quo, but all the others want to change it because it is absolutely unacceptable when one country of the Eastern Partnership is occupying the territory of another country. I think we need to involve the European Union to be more vocal about this.
We have had so many resolutions, so many statements of support for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan from the European Union officials and institutions. We have very serious messages and the new global strategy was adopted by the European Union, and the conclusions from the November Foreign Affairs Council. Everywhere it is clear that the European Union is in favour of and supports the territorial sovereignty of all the countries inside and outside the EU.
This is a crucially important message for us. In other cases, like Georgia and Moldova, the EU has been involved directly in the resolution of conflicts. This is not the case for us. But we would like to have a very clear position that should be in accordance with international law. And now we see it. We are very glad to see this strength.
Armenia is the most vocal critic of Azerbaijan, but there are also other voices. How do you respond to criticisms of human rights and press freedom abuses?
You know, nobody is perfect in this world. Frankly speaking, in the case of this criticism, we are ready for real, constructive dialogue. But we are not ready for the blaming and shaming treatment that has been used by some politicians here, and we react appropriately on that. If you remember, our interparliamentary relations between the Azerbaijani parliament and the European Parliament have been frozen for more than one year.
We froze our participation in Euronest, our participation in the parliamentary cooperation committee and other instruments because of the absolutely biased and unjustified resolution in the European Parliament in September 2015. We understood that there was not any attempt from the institution just to hear us, to listen to our vision and hear what we would like to say. That is the first point.
Then, in September, there was a special delegation of the members of the Parliament, as well as Council and the Commission, to Baku. They managed to reanimate the relations between the parliaments based on the statements adopted by the co-chairs of Euronest and the parliamentary cooperation committee. It is very important to understand that dialogue is important for resolving problems.
Secondly, if we speak about problematic issues, I would like to stress that I am not sure that Azerbaijan has more problematic issues than, for example, most EU member states. So many things have happened, but we have never been critical of our partners or tried to use these issues to force or encourage them to do anything. Rather than criticise, we always try to support the resolution of these problems, to hold constructive dialogue. That is why, when you mention problematic issues concerning refugees, I say that we are ready to invite our friends and share our experiences with them.
We are ready to be cooperative in migration management, combatting terrorism, illegal immigration, organised crime. And we are already taking actions together. Okay, we can blame each other and fail to cooperate, but I do not think the current situation demands this. If we have problems we should discuss them in a normal, diplomatic manner. And we have done this. Just in October, the subcommittee on human rights was organised in Baku and we discussed all the problems in the EU and Azerbaijan in a very friendly, sincere and constructive manner. I think this is the best way to find the solution to our problems.
Like other energy exporting countries, Azerbaijan has been affected by the volatility of oil prices. What are your country’s plans to develop the non-oil and gas sector?
Just recently, the roadmap for the so-called post-oil era for Azerbaijan was adopted. It is important to understand that the diversification of the economy will be one of the most serious priorities for Azerbaijan in the coming years. Of course we are going on with our energy activities, and I do not want to repeat what I said about the Southern gas corridor and the activities of SOCAR and other countries. But the development of the economy will use all the opportunities available to us, for example transportation, IT, agriculture, trade.
We would like to have a solid, constructive, sufficient negotiation with our EU friends because they do have this experience and they would like to share with us their vision of what we can do together to bring about these economic diversification reforms. To make this country not so seriously dependent on oil and gas prices. We can manage this approach and you will see the results very very soon.
There are many forces inside and outside the European Union that would like to destroy the EU. For Azerbaijan, is it more valuable to deal with the EU or to deal with individual member states?
This approach is not so controversial now, from our point of view. We do not have any problematic bilateral relations with EU member states, we already have strategic partnerships with several of them. We have exceptionally cooperative and friendly relationships with most of them on a bilateral level. But we are also working very seriously on a multilateral level.
From 1992, the European Union spent €982 million supporting Azerbaijan. This is 20 years of relations and almost €1 billion spent. Of course this happened mostly in the very difficult times. We are not looking for money now. What we are looking for is mostly technology, experience, educational projects, and this is coming in an exchange with the EU institutions. I am not sure that there could be a Southern gas corridor without the cooperation with the EU institutions.
This is why is important to work in parallel with both the EU institutions and the member states. And we do it here. We have exceptionally friendly relations with the permanent representations of the member states here, as well as the European institutions. We work in both directions.
In terms of the real crises that the EU is facing now, some of them come from the neighbourhood. That is why our proposal to our European friends is that we should work together, member states and neighbourhood countries, especially countries in the Muslim neighbourhood. Azerbaijan is ready for such cooperation, to work together to protect our native Europe. I think if the decision is made, we will manage to do it.