Ambassador: Italy, Azerbaijan enjoy excellent relations - INTERVIEW
Q: How do you feel about the level of bilateral cooperation between Italy and Azerbaijan?
A: In a word, the two countries enjoy excellent cooperation. The two countries have a deep and good friendship and a remarkable political dialogue. We have the biggest trade and commercial relations. Italy is the biggest trade partner of Azerbaijan in the world and Azerbaijan is one of the major suppliers of crude oil for my country. Investments of my country in Azerbaijan are prominent. I think that in the future it will be even better. Thanks to TAP and other industrial projects, our links will be even stronger.
Q: Are there going to be any high-level visits from Italy to Azerbaijan this year? Are new agreements going to be signed between the two countries soon?
A: 2018 is a year of general election for Italy. In March we will elect a new parliament. It is normal that the institutional calendar is a little bit more discontinued. However, over the previous months we have seen an increased political cooperation, new treaties entered into force and we have started negotiations for some more agreements. Recently two new treaties in the defense sector and maritime transportation entered into force. We are now negotiating a MoU between the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Azerbaijan and the Ministry of Environment of Italy to improve collaboration in the green economy and environmental protection. We will also negotiate an Investment Treaty to protect reciprocal investments. After I met the president of the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences some months ago, we decided to go ahead with an Executive Protocol to find some fields of common interest in science and technological collaboration. That Protocol aims at financing joint research projects and programs. It is important to find new innovative sectors, new innovative technologies for our collaboration.
As for the upcoming visits, State Secretary of the Council of Ministers of the Italian Republic Claudio de Vincenti is expected to visit Baku on February 15 to attend the Southern Gas Corridor Advisory Board meeting. He is the member of the Italian Government who follows TAP since many years.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov repeatedly visited Italy. He recently attended the OSCE Conference focused on Mediterranean and regional problem of refugees. Also, Azerbaijan’s Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports will take part in the Sport Integrity Global Alliance forum in Rome on January 30.
Q: How have global economic processes affected the bilateral trade? What do you think of the current trade turnover?
A: Indeed, the bilateral trade between Italy and Azerbaijan was affected by the general situation. The decline in oil prices led to a decrease in exports from Azerbaijan to Italy. The two devaluations decreased the capacity of the consumers to import goods. We had a huge drop in our exports to Azerbaijan in 2015-2016. Last year, we registered a little bit of increase but Italian exports still remain too low.
Last year the trade turnover between two countries reached almost 5 billion US dollars. It is much higher than 2016. It represents 21 percent of the total trade of Azerbaijan with the world. Azerbaijani exports to Italy represent 31 percent of the total export of Azerbaijan in the world.
We need to work to try to equilibrate a bit the commercial balance. If the economy of Azerbaijan will start again to grow as in previous years, Italy can play its part in important fields like machinery, innovative technology, construction materials, etc. Italy is the second industrial manufacturing country in Europe, after Germany, and is the country of SMEs, complementary for the necessities of Azerbaijan.
I think that the new reforms program to differentiate the economy launched by the government of Azerbaijan is very important and some positive results are already there. The economy started already to recover and 2018 will be again a year of growth.
Q: How many Italian companies operate in Azerbaijan? How much have they invested in the Azerbaijani economy so far?
A: Eighty-seven Italian companies operate in Azerbaijan. The total amount of Italian investments is over 800 million US dollars. Italy is the first commercial partner of Azerbaijan. In terms of investments, we are among two or three major investors. On the other side, Azerbaijan investments to Italy total 130 million US dollars. The Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) project could improve these figures. In fact, TAP will not only create alternatives in terms of energy supply for Europe. It will also be a further direct link between Azerbaijan and Italy; it will bring more contacts and contracts not only in the oil and gas sector, but also in other fields. In fact, if the governments have stronger links, then people are more connected, and if the people are more connected, then economic, cultural and political ties will develop even more.
Q: Leonardo is a mammoth mechanical engineering company. What plans does the company have about Azerbaijan?
A: Leonardo is one of the biggest multinational high-tech company and one of the key players in the world in aerospace, defense and security. As for the company’s plans about Azerbaijan, it depends on the country’s needs. The Leonardo CEO had high-level meetings in Baku in October 2017. There is need to work on the follow-ups. There are potentially wide areas of collaboration. I think that Leonardo is ready to work in each of the identified areas, border security, helicopters, protection for offshore platforms, emergencies and civil protections, etc. Nevertheless, I also think that it does not only depend on Leonardo. Let us say that Leonardo is ready to be an industrial strategic partner of Azerbaijan.
Q: How many Azerbaijanis applied to the Italian Embassy for visa last year? What problems are there with regard to the issuing of visas?
A: The Italian embassy issued about 10,200 visas for Azerbaijani citizens last year. This number is much higher than in 2016 (8,000 visas in 2016). Most of the visitors are interested in business and tourism. Furthermore, we have had more than 530 students from Azerbaijan who entered Italy’s universities last year: by far the biggest number among the EU countries. All this shows how deep and concrete ties of friendship between the two countries are. I’m satisfied with the work done and I’m grateful to the Azerbaijani authorities, in particular to the Department for Consulate Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with whom we will have to plan the common work for the next academic season.
Q: What innovations are you planning for tourism?
A: There is a direct flight from Baku to Milan, the city which is preferred by Azerbaijani people to do shopping and business. I understand that Azerbaijan Airlines (AZAL) is ready to reopen Baku-Rome direct flight from April. This decision will further improve tourism. I also appreciate that the official site of the Azerbaijani government (evisa.gov.az) will have a page in Italian language to attract more tourists from my country.
As for foreign tourists in Azerbaijan, I think that there has been a very impressive growth in the last years but mainly not from Europe. I would be happy to see more Italian tourists also. Recently the competent offices of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism contacted the embassy to establish new ways of collaboration. You have many attractions in your country, and Baku is a pleasing and modern city. Icherisheher is fantastic. I think that your government is doing very well to attract foreign tourists.
Some weeks ago, I read the news published by your agency [APA] about the visit of President Ilham Aliyev to Yanardagh historical reserve. The head of state stressed the importance of ameliorating the site to attract more tourists. Last year Italian architects developed a project to create a Museum of Energy in Yanardagh. Marco Polo also visited that site in his trip to the Far East and he wrote about it in his book, titled “Million”.
Energy from Azerbaijan will go to Italy through TAP, the Museum of Energy will be established in Yanardagh with the contribution of Italian architects and Azerbaijani partners. All this could be a symbolic link between our two countries, another potential relationship for Azerbaijan and Italy. Finally, Baku’s bid to host Expo 2025 will also serve to boost the tourism sector.
Q: In what areas are Azerbaijan and Italy thinking about expanding cooperation?
A: We can improve relations in political, cultural, economic, and scientific areas.
I often think about Azerbaijan’s Constitution of 1918. You gave women the right to vote in 1918. Italy gave women the right to vote in 1946. Azerbaijan was the first country of Islamic tradition to do so. This demonstrates how innovative that constitution was and the Azerbaijani population must really be proud of it. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, the Italian Embassy in Baku is ready to bring together Italian and Azerbaijani experts of constitutional law so that they can share their views on the role of women in society and the country’s political life.
As for bilateral ties in the field of culture, we have done some virtuous initiatives over the past months of 2017. The Caravaggio Opera Omnia exhibition held at the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku can be taken as an example for this. This was a very high-level exhibition, and I’m thankful to the Heydar Aliyev Foundation for the common work done together. The Foundation has a profound sensitivity in organizing high-level cultural events. In 2018, we will try to organize some more events like this. For example, we will try to work to bring in Baku the portrait of Ismail I, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, which belongs to Galleria degli Uffizi of Florence.
In mid-November every year we celebrate the Italian cuisine in the world and of course here in Baku. We will repeat it this year. We will try to bring important chefs from Italy.
The next event will be held on March 1. The event will take place at the Baku Media Center, a superb site in Baku: a full journey of seminars, exhibitions, meetings, between Azerbaijani and Italian architects, designers, companies, dedicated to urban planning, the value of human capital in modern cities and green technologies.
Regarding bilateral ties in the economic sphere, we need to expand non-oil and gas relations. Some good joint projects are developing in chemical and petrochemical areas: Italian company Maire Technimont is completing a huge industrial plant in Sumgayit and soon Azerbaijan will be able to export polypropylene. I think there are also possibilities to do the same in the pharmaceutical area, where Italian companies could be interested to come here to set up industrial plants and productions. Then we should explore textile and agro food: we are quite strong in agro food and you are developing a lot in this sector.
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