Interview with H.E. Mr. Farid ABDINBEYOV,
the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Romania
Vasile SIMILEANU: Your Excellency, Azerbaijan has demonstrated, from the regaining of its independence, that it is an impactful geopolitical, geostrategic, regional economic actor. We all acknowledge the construction of the new Azerbaijani society, in the context of regional impact strategies. What can you tell us, in the context of the above-mentioned?
Farid ABDINBEYOV: After regaining its independence in 1991, Azerbaijan has managed to make a strong leap in the development of the state and civil society. One of our priorities during these years has been the creation of a liberal, powerful society with a competitive, modern economic system. Thanks to the sustainable continuation of the economic, legislative and social transformations initiated by the National Leader Heydar Aliyev in 1993, the determination of the priority sectors of the economy and their subsequent development, attraction of foreign investments, and implementation of targeted state programs, today we can say with a confidence that we have achieved our main strategic objectives.
Today Azerbaijan is a modern, powerful and independent country with a sustainable civil society, competitive economy and strong state, where the rule of law and individual freedoms of every citizen are guaranteed by the constitution and provided by the state.
The geographical location of our country has great influence on its internal and foreign policy. For centuries, Azerbaijan has been a place where civilizations met. We are proud with the fact that our country has preserved its historical heritage and is one of the centers of multiculturalism in the world. Geographical location and good relations with neighbors allow us to be a reliable partner in the region and to undertake initiatives, which serve to the wellbeing of our citizens and boost the economic development of the region.
Economic development is one of the main preconditions for establishment of sustainable society and strong state. Traditionally, starting from the times of Russian Empire, Azerbaijani economy was based on the oil sector. It is true that the energy sector is still the key driving force of the Azerbaijani economy. However, by channeling a portion of our revenues from the export of hydrocarbons into the development of non-oil sectors of economy, we have both revitalized our traditional sectors of the economy and developed new spheres such as ICT, tourism, space industry, defense industry, and others. The share of the non-oil sector in the GDP has continuously increased and continues to increase as a result of economic diversification.
During the years of independence, a number of new sectors of the economy emerged and rapidly grew in the country. During 2003-2007 Azerbaijan’s economy grew by almost 96%, taking the leading position in the South Caucasus. By 2007, the GDP growth was the highest in the CIS and one of the highest in the world – more than 22% per year. In the report of the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) ”Doing Business-2009” on the quality of government regulation and its impact on small and medium-sized businesses, Azerbaijan was recognized as a world leader in the implementation of reforms: 7 out of the 10 indicators improved and the country rose by a record 64 positions in the rankings, taking 33rd place and coming close to South Africa, France and Israel. Even despite the fall in oil and gas revenues, in the Global Competitiveness Index of the Davos Economic Forum in 2015 Azerbaijan took 40th place – first place among the CIS countries.
Large-scale transport and energy projects, initiated by Azerbaijan, have great importance for the development of our country and the entire region. Modernization of already existing road network and construction of new highways have changed the face of the cities and expanded the traditional economic profile of Azerbaijan’s regions.
Today, Azerbaijan has turned into an international logistics hub. After completion of the works on the new projects like the ”Baku-Tbilisi-Kars” railway connection and ”Baku Sea Trade Port”, the transit potential of our country and its role in international transportation of goods will considerably increase.
At the same time, we understand very well that a lot must be done in order to achieve our strategic goal – to turn Azerbaijan into a highly developed country in a prosperous, secure region. All projects implemented in and with participation of Azerbaijan serve to this goal, and we perceive this as our contribution to peace, security and cooperation in the Black Sea – Caspian Sea region, as well as in the global dimension.
V.S.: Mr. Ambassador, The diplomatic relations with countries in the region have developed differently. What can you tell us about bilateral relations with Turkey? How will TAP and TANAP projects develop?
Farid ABDINBEYOV: Azerbaijan and Turkey are connected with each other by historical, ethnical, cultural ties. In ancient times the same ethnic Turkic tribes played most important and decisive role in formation of today’s Turkish and Azerbaijani nations.
We speak almost the same language, despite the fact that there are some differences in grammar and pronunciation. In 1918, when Azerbaijani nation was threatened to be physically wiped out by joint bolshevik-dashnaktsutyun armed forces, the Turkish Caucasian Army together with newly formed military forces of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic brought liberation and salvation to our nation. During the Soviet-communist regime Turkey played very positive role in providing asylum for Azerbaijani political refugees. By the way, in Tsarist Russia and Soviet Union they knew very well about these historical ties and mutual sympathy of the two peoples and it was one of the reasons of establishment of the Armenian state, whose mission was to play a role of geographical barrier between Turkey and Azerbaijan.
Twenty-six years ago, when Azerbaijan regained its state independence, Turkey was the first country to recognize it. We will never forget that. It was an essential recommendation to other countries and facilitated the process of recognition of Azerbaijan as an independent state. For the past 26 years, Turkey and Azerbaijan have demonstrated unity and solidarity in all issues on international agenda. Over these years, we have been successfully cooperating in all fields. Today, Turkey and Azerbaijan have very close and brotherly mutual relations. Interstate relations are underpinned by unity and brotherhood between our peoples.
Turkey is one of the main foreign trade partners of Azerbaijan. Great portion of our oil and natural gas exports go to world markets through Turkey. The two countries are irreplaceable and reliable participants of all regional economic, energy, transport projects and programs. Both countries try to do their best to contribute to peace, stability and cooperation in the region.
If we take a look at the energy security map of the region, it is obvious that cooperation and partnership between Azerbaijan and Turkey serves to the aim of ensuring energy security of Europe. Azerbaijan together with its partners – Georgia and Turkey, already plays an important role in matters related to energy security and its contribution to this field will increase in the nearest future. From this standpoint, the start of the implementation of the ”Southern Gas Corridor” project was a historic event not only for Azerbaijan, but also for our partners in Europe.
”Southern Gas Corridor” consists of 4 projects. First is the exploitation of the ”Shahdeniz-2” phase. The reserves in the Shahdeniz field in the Azerbaijani sector of Caspian sea exceed one trillion cubic meters of natural gas (in general, Azerbaijan’s proven gas reserves is estimated to be about 2.6 trillion cubic meters). The second project is the expansion of the ”South Caucasus gas pipeline” which connects Azerbaijan with Georgia. The third project is the ”Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline” (TANAP). According to this project, approved by Azerbaijan and Turkey in 2012, the gas pipeline will extend from Turkish-Georgian border till Turkey-Greece border. The fourth project is the ”Trans-Adriatic pipeline” (TAP). The pipeline will extend from Greece to Albania and further to Italy beneath the Adriatic Sea. All these four projects are the parts of the ”Southern Gas Corridor” project. Azerbaijan is an important shareholder in all these projects, being the major shareholder in the TANAP project. As a result of the implementation of the ”Southern Gas Corridor”, a number of countries will gain access to the Azerbaijani natural gas as an alternative gas reserve. Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Albania and Italy are among the participants of the ”Southern Gas Corridor” project. At the same time, memorandums of understanding have been signed with Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia that want to join this project.
Therefore, Azerbaijan becomes a very important and reliable partner for providing the energy security of Europe. At present, the works are continuing in accordance with the schedule and I am confident that the project will be completed in due time.
The development of transport infrastructure is also one of the priorities of Azerbaijan-Turkey cooperation. Today we are restoring the historical Silk Way with the application of modern technologies and the participation of neighboring countries. At present, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway – running from Azerbaijan through Georgia and into Turkey – is under construction and will connect Azerbaijan with Europe.
Along with the above-mentioned projects, we are successfully engaged in mutual investments with Turkey. There is close cooperation in all areas, including the humanitarian sphere.
V.S.: What about Georgia?
Farid ABDINBEYOV: Our relations with Georgia are based on history, fraternity and close neighborhood of our peoples. Today we maintain an active dialogue in all areas, especially in the political and economic fields. We are very pleased with the progress of bilateral relations between our countries.
The mutually beneficial cooperation is developing at the high level in the fields of economy, trade, tourism, energy and transport between our countries. With regards to transport, we do hope that Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway project, which is expected to be operational no later than this year, will serve to the development of economy not only of Azerbaijan and Georgia, but also of the entire region.
Azerbaijan supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia. At the same time, Georgia supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Our strong and shared position on this issue was repeatedly demonstrated in the international arena.
V.S.: The Armenian issue is still open … How will develop the diplomatic relations with this country?
Farid ABDINBEYOV: Since the first days of independence the creation of friendly relations, based on good will, mutual benefits and cooperation with all neighboring countries was among the main priorities of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy. Today we have such relations with all our neighbors except Armenia. I think that the reason of such situation is clear to you: in violation of all norms and principles of international law, Armenia continues to keep under occupation about 20% of our internationally recognized territory, which was occupied at the beginning of 1990s using the very complicated political and socio-economic situation in the first years of our independence.
To understand the situation, you have to be aware of its real nature. This conflict emerged as a result of the groundless territorial claims, followed by the direct military aggression, usage of force by one member of international relations system against the other one. For us, there is no Armenian issue on the table. An issue, a problem is the occupation of the part of internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan by Armenia.
Our position in regard with this situation is strict, fair and in full compliance with the norms and principles of the international law: we are ready to create and develop relations with Armenia in all spheres, but only after the withdrawal of Armenian armed forces from occupied territories, after restoration of peace and security in the region.
Armenia, as a member of the UN, as a participant of international relations system, must respect the norms and principles of international law, recognize the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors. By the way, Azerbaijan is not the only object in the aggressive plans of Armenia: they have territorial claims against almost all neighboring countries. As an irony of the history, Armenia became a hostage of its own aggressive policy. As a result of unrealistic ambitions of its leaders Armenia has found itself outside of all huge regional energy and transport projects and programs, which could have brought billions of USD revenues to the budget of this country.
V.S.: How do you foresee the development of the relations with Russia?
Farid ABDINBEYOV: The relations between Russia and Azerbaijan are friendly, neighborly and based on the history of our peoples, mutual interests and have a solid foundation. We are satisfied with the development of our relations in the political sphere. During the period of independence, more than 200 documents on cooperation in various spheres have been signed between the two states. As strategic partners, we support each other within international organizations in relation to the main issues on the international agenda and I think that this policy will have its continuation in future.
We are pleased to see the growing trade turnover (over 2.0 billon USD in 2016) between our countries, which is especially gratifying at a time of the global economic and financial recession. There is active cooperation in the agricultural, tourism, construction, technological and other spheres. Azerbaijan and Russia are also active participants of North-South Transport Corridor project, which aims to create direct connection between the seaports of Sankt-Petersburg (Russia) and Bandar-Abbas (Iran) by railway.
Relations between Russia and Azerbaijan in the humanitarian sphere can be shown as an example. 27 of our universities provide education in Russian, and the number of Russian-speaking students of secondary, vocational and higher education institutions exceeds 100,000 people. Moscow State University and The First Moscow Medical University named after I. Sechenov have their branches in Baku. All of the mentioned is an important indicator of our attitude to the Russian language, Russian culture and Russian literature and demonstrates our expectations from the future of Azerbaijani-Russian relations.
V.S.: Your Excellency, Romanian-Azerbaijani relationships are privileged ones. We are discussing about common energy and economic projects. What is their status? How will the AGRI project evolve?
Farid ABDINBEYOV: This year we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between our countries. I could even use the definition of ”re-establishment”, because Azerbaijani-Romanian relations have a solid historical background and take roots from medieval ages. The first official diplomatic contacts between the ruler of Azerbaijani kingdom Sultan Hasan Akkoyunlu and Ştefan cel Mare was established in 15th century. It is also apparent that long before this contact there were trade relations between our countries.
Romania was one of the first countries that recognized the independence of Azerbaijan. During the past period, the bilateral relations between our countries were friendly, based on mutual benefit, respect and spirit of cooperation. We have a full understanding and mutual support within the framework of international organizations.
Economic relations and trade turnover also have a tendency of dynamic growth.
Furthermore, we have good opportunity for increasing the trade turnover, for using the untapped potential for mutual investments and economic cooperation. There are a number of projects and ideas in the sphere of transportation to be elaborated and implemented. By taking into account the political will of the leaders of the two states and the interest demonstrated by the government officials and business-people, I am confident that these projects and ideas will be fulfilled in the coming years.
Besides, we have already remarkable cooperation in the field of energy. State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) has invested more than 70 million of USD into Romanian economy during the recent years and is going to extend its activities here. In future Romania can join Southern Gas Corridor and play a role of transit country in delivering Azerbaijani natural gas to Central European countries.
Implementation of liquefied natural gas project, which was initiated in 2010 by a memorandum, signed in Bucharest by Romania, Azerbaijan and Georgia, to which Hungary was added later (AGRI), can be an important step ahead in expanding of economic relations. The purpose of the project is to carry the Caspian natural gas via Azerbaijan and Georgia, across the Black Sea by means of gas tank ships, involving the construction of two liquefying terminals (on the Georgian Black Sea coast) and regasification terminal respectively (on the Romanian Black Sea coast). The gas is mainly aimed to provide the Romanian and Hungarian consumption, with the remainder to be directed to other potential markets across Europe.
The last meeting of the Ministers in charge of the energy sector of the participating states of the AGRI was held in Bucharest, Romania on June 24, 2015. The positions of the participating countries regarding the implementation of the project, the final outcomes of the feasibility study and opportunities for financing the project were discussed during the meeting, which was joined by senior officials of the AGRI participating states. During the meeting, the Great Britain’s ”PENSPEN” company made a brief presentation for the meeting participants regarding the feasibility study of the AGRI project. As part of the meeting, broad discussions took place on issues regarding the future of the project, its implementation and potential role in the energy security of the region. At present, the works on the project carry on and I am sure that its implementation will make a significant contribution to Europe’s energy security.
V.S.: Mr. Ambassador, Talking about Ponto-Caspian energy resources, Azerbaijan plays a crucial role. We all know SOCAR development projects in European countries. What other projects are you considering to develop in the EU and, of course, in Romania?
Farid ABDINBEYOV: SOCAR positions itself as a reliable energy partner of Europe.
We truly believe that diversification of energy supply is one of the most important topics of today’s energy policy of the European Union, and SOCAR is here to support its European partners.
From historical perspective, the Caspian region always has been and is again reshaping itself as a hub for global energy supply. SOCAR is currently working on development of a number of upstream and midstream projects together with 25 global companies, which are involved in oil and gas projects in the Caspian region.
Being one of the major players in the region’s energy industry SOCAR is seeking to raise its own gas production from new fields by undertaking exploration works in the Caspian Sea. SOCAR hopes to see its natural gas production soar in the coming years as production capacity is expanded at existing fields and new ones are discovered and brought into production. Most of the natural gas produced is likely to be exported to consumers in Europe via forthcoming TANAP and TAP pipelines.
In addition to the main projects developed by SOCAR, there is a number of projects and business activities run by SOCAR’s daughter companies in Europe and worldwide.
Fuel retail networks in Georgia, Ukraine, Romania and Switzerland together with the infrastructure projects in UAE, Turkey and Georgia are amongst the most notable ones.
Romania is one of the first countries where SOCAR made investments in Europe.
Since 2011, the company has been involved in Romania by SOCAR Petroleum SA, by creating and strengthening a network of gas stations nationwide. The company currently has a network of 35 gas stations in Romania and is one of the most important players on the fuel retail market. So far, the company has created in Romania over 500 jobs and made investments in amount of 64 million euros.
V.S.: Mr. Ambassador, After 1990, a lot is discussed within international studies about regional instability posed by frozen conflicts. What can you say us about Nagorno-Karabakh? What could be the strategies for resolving this conflict?
Farid ABDINBEYOV: As I have already mentioned, the unlawful presence of the armed forces of Armenia in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan remains the main cause of escalation in the conflict zone and is the major impediment to the political settlement of the conflict. Armenia continues to keep under occupation the territories of Azerbaijan, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven adjacent districts, in flagrant violation of international law and resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884 adopted in 1993 by the United Nations Security Council. Its engagement in the conflict settlement process is nothing but imitation.
Azerbaijan cannot use economic potential of the occupied territories. The disruption of communications as a direct consequence of military occupation of territories is the serious obstacle to full-fledged socio-economic development of our country and the realization of region’s untapped economic perspective. Similarly, full potential of the region for intra and trans-regional connectivity remains under-utilized.
The humanitarian consequences of the conflict are equally harsh and necessitate urgent solutions. As a direct impact of massive displacement of people from their places of origin, close to one million refugees and IDPs continue to be deprived of their basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, most notably, the right to home and property.
Further continuation of this situation is intolerable.
Armenia’s policy and practices in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan undermine the prospects of achieving a political settlement of the conflict and pose an imminent threat to peace, security and stability in the region.
The Republic of Azerbaijan has made it clear on numerous occasions that the unlawful presence of the armed forces of Armenia in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan is the major destabilizing factor with the potential of escalation at any time with unpredictable consequences and the main cause of tensions and incidents in the conflict zone.
Instead of engaging in negotiations in good faith, Armenia demonstratively disrupts any attempt to settle the conflict by peaceful means. In total disregard of the demands of the UN Security Council and in flagrant violation of international law, Armenia refuses to withdraw its troops from Azerbaijan, prevents the hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani forcibly displaced persons from returning to their homes, and tries to further consolidate the status quo by altering the physical, demographic and cultural character of the occupied territories – a worrying development that was confirmed by the OSCE fact-finding missions.
Moreover, it frequently resorts to armed provocations trying to divert attention from the core, substantive issues of the peace process to technical aspects of the ceasefire.
In early April of 2016 Armenia conducted large-scale attacks against the civilian population of Azerbaijan. During those attacks, 34 towns and villages in Azerbaijan suffered severe destructions. It subjected the densely populated areas of Azerbaijan, including schools, hospitals, and places of worship, to intensive fire with heavy artillery and large-caliber weapons. As a result of Armenia’s reckless attacks, large number of Azerbaijani civilians, including children, women and elderly were killed or seriously wounded. Without timely use of effective civil defense measures, the number of causalities among the population would be significantly higher. Armenia also systematically mutilated the bodies of fallen Azerbaijani soldiers.
By its deliberate, offensive actions, Armenia undermined the ceasefire regime established in 1994 and endangered the prospects for the political settlement of the conflict. Having received an effective response from Azerbaijan, Armenia was forced to ask for a ceasefire, which was agreed under the mediation efforts of the Russian Federation on April 5, 2016, in Moscow, at the meeting of representatives of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Despite that, Armenia continues to violate the ceasefire. Moreover, Armenia is amassing forces and building heavily reinforced military fortifications in the seized Azerbaijani territories. With all these, Armenia continues to challenge and tries to undermine the efforts of the international community, including the Presidents of the OSCE MG Co-Chairing countries, aimed at reaching a breakthrough at the peace talks and getting Armenia’s troops out of lands of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan expects from Armenia to halt its military build-up in the occupied territories, and engage in negotiations with Azerbaijan in good faith so as to find a political solution to the conflict, which is long overdue.
The conflict can be resolved only and only on the basis of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan within its internationally recognized borders. The sooner Armenia reconciles with this reality and withdraws its armed forces from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, the earlier the conflict will be resolved, and Armenia and its population will benefit from the prospects of cooperation and economic development.
Azerbaijan will spare no effort towards achieving the settlement of the conflict and ensuring peace, justice and development in the region.
V.S.: Your Excellency, Azerbaijan has proven to be a reliable partner in relation with third countries, as well as with the EU and NATO. Please detail for us the main directions of the development.
Azerbaijan is an important, reliable and valuable partner for NATO in the region. Our membership in the NATO ”Partnership for Peace” program for 20 years suggests that our relations have already reached the level of strategic cooperation. Participation in NATO peacekeeping operations is an important component of this cooperation. We are cooperating in the fight against terrorism. Our armed forces are being aligned with NATO standards. With the assistance of NATO, including financial support, we are also carrying out demining projects in Azerbaijan. At the same time, Azerbaijan contributes to the Trust Fund to support the Afghan national army.
Cooperation between Azerbaijan and EU is very fruitful, very sincere and with a huge potential. Of course, energy cooperation is an important part of our cooperation. We successfully cooperate on the promotion of the Southern Gas Corridor project – one of the biggest infrastructure projects now implemented in Europe, into which more than 40 billion US dollars is expected to be invested. Southern Gas Corridor project is a project of energy security and energy diversification.
Azerbaijan created a very good investment climate, more than 200 billion US dollars were invested into our economy since restoration of our independence. EU is our main investor. Moreover, Europe is our main trading partner, we supply many European countries with oil, and hopefully very soon we will supply them with natural gas.
I’d like to mention that we have good experience in cooperation with the member states of European Union, with nine of them (with one third of the member states) we already have documents signed or adopted on strategic partnership and Romania is one of these countries. This is a good basis for future agreement on strategic partnership between EU and Azerbaijan. At present we are working with EU on a document which will determine strategic cooperation between us for many years to come.
March 2017, Bucharest
Interview by Vasile SIMILEANU