Tusk hopes for ‘higher level’ of EU-Azerbaijan ties

Donald Tusk and Ilham Alyev in Baku on 9 July 2019. [Council newsroom]

On a visit to Baku on Tuesday (9 July), European Council President Donald Tusk said the EU and Azerbaijan were “coming closer to each other every year”, and expressed the Union’s readiness to further deepen our cooperation with Azerbaijan, including in fields such as human rights.

Tusk was received by the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, son of the previous President Heydar Aliyev, who was a member of Politburo of the former USSR. The visit is part of anniversary events on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), a EU initiative covering Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus.

In a speech, Tusk described Azerbaijan as “unique” in combining tradition and modernity, and by looking both to the East and to the West. Indeed, unlike other countries in the EaP, Azerbaijan doesn’t seek to join blocs, but to develop good relations with all geopolitical players. In contrast, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia officially aim at EU membership, while Armenia and Belarus are members of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.

Instead of alliances, Azerbaijan has concentrated on infrastructure.

Tusk said that Azerbaijan had taken “impressive steps” to transform itself into a transport and logistics hub. Indeed, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia recently launched an 826-km rail link connecting the three countries, also known as the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway (BTK).

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Tusk is also due to visit the new Baku International Sea Trade Port in Alyat, which is being built as a Dubai-style major trading hub.

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The Council President also mentioned the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), the EU-supported first pipeline project capable of delivering gas from the East to Europe from a country other than Russia.

Within the implementation of the Azeri offshore gas field of Shah Deniz Stage 2, gas production will increase from 9 to 25 billion cubic meters per year. The produced gas will be exported to Turkey and the European markets. In the future, geopolitics allowing, SGC could also transport gas from other sources, such as Iraq and Iran.

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Azerbaijan said natural gas produced in the Absheron offshore gas field in the Caspian Sea could be exported through the Southern Gas Corridor. Until now it was planned that only gas from Shah Deniz 2, another offshore field, would be sent to Europe.

Tusk said SGC “literally connects” Azerbaijan and the EU. “This positive momentum should bring our partnership to a higher level, directly benefit all our people, and accompany Azerbaijan’s own reform processes and economic diversification”, he stated.

The Council President said that in his discussions with President Aliyev, he reconfirmed the EU’s readiness to further deepen cooperation with Azerbaijan, underlining also the importance the EU attaches to the respect for the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms.

“The EU believes that a truly open society is the best guarantee of long-term stability and a good life for all citizens”, said Tusk.

Azerbaijan has criticised over its human rights record, though the country’s diplomats often complain that the criticism is biased. In general, EU leaders are toning down their remarks, in part because it has proven difficult to uphold democratic standards  inside the Union.

Tusk added that the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was also discussed.

Despite initial indications that under the new Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan progress could be achieved to unlock the conflict, recent casualties along the Line of Contact have caused concern.

Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent regions are internationally recognised territories of Azerbaijan but have been occupied by Armenia following a 1988-94 war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

From Baku, Tusk will travel to Yerevan, where he will hold meetings with Pashinyan and the country’s President Armen Sarkissian. On 11 July the Council President will attend the Batumi International Conference, and meet with Georgia’s President Salome Zourabishvili.

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