EU Ambassador: "We treat Azerbaijan as independent, sovereign country that makes its decisions" - INTERVIEW - PHOTOSESSION

EU Ambassador: "We treat Azerbaijan as independent, sovereign country that makes its decisions" - <span style="color: red;">INTERVIEW  - <span style="color: red;">PHOTOSESSION
# 12 August 2013 07:31 (UTC +04:00)

- What developments took place in relations between Azerbaijan and EU for the last 4 years you have headed the EU mission?

- Over my mandate as EU Ambassador, I believe that our cooperation has been both deepening and widening. The cooperation has widened because we have started cooperation in many different new areas than it was in the past. I think the best example of this – is the visa facilitation. Now we have finished the visa facilitation and readmission agreement negotiations. It will be signed in Vilnius in November in the framework of Eastern Partnership summit of Heads of States. It is very concrete example of a totally new area that has been started and completed in our cooperation. I could give many other examples.

The cooperation has also deepened in existing areas, through a sustained and intensive work and dialogue. And here we also have achieved a lot of things. One example of this is the energy sector. When I came here we were discussing a lot about energy, but now we have opened the Southern Gas Corridor from Baku to Europe. This is a very concrete and important achievement; it is an illustration of our strong AZ-EU cooperation, even if I feel Azerbaijan could have made some decisions to position itself in a stronger way on the European market, and therefore gain more immediate strategic positioning.

Another example of our deepening cooperation is the very important increase of our support to civil society and NGOs. We have multiplied by four our financing.

So I am happy for what we have achieved in many areas in these 4 years. This extended cooperation concerns the government, the civil society and NGOs, as well as businesses. Of course, lot of things remains to be done, so my successor will have a lot of work, because we want to continue the cooperation with Azerbaijan in certain areas in which we believe we should have more progress. These are the areas we are in deep and open discussion with the government to try to promote democratic values, human rights, fundamental freedoms, rule of law and free economy.

- You mentioned the visa facilitation agreement that to be signed in Vilnius. What kind of concrete benefits it will provide for Azerbaijani citizens?

- This is a real success story, and it shows that the EU is ready to quickly deliver on its promises when the other side is also willing to make the necessary steps. The two parties agreed on the final text. It basically provides for much easier visa regime for the people to travel to Europe, including cheaper visas (now visa fee is around 60 euro and it will be approximately cut by half). Some visas will even be free of charge for certain categories of people (journalists, students, officials etc). And the visa will also be granted for a longer period with more possibilities for multiply entries and so on. Less documents will be needed to get visas. So it will be a new regime, which greatly facilitates the travel between Azerbaijan and EU. So we are very happy about that concrete result, especially because it is something that touches all people in the population, not only certain category of people but every Azerbaijani who wants to travel to the EU. And he will be able to do so in much easier, cheaper and faster way.

It shows that the EU and Azerbaijan want to get closer to each other in promoting people-to-people contacts. That can help in the longer-term Azerbaijan evolving closer to some Western values as well.

- Is there anything that you planned but did not have enough time to realize in Azerbaijan?

- I have had so many ideas over these years. Unfortunately, I have to modestly admit not been able to complete them all. But this is life, this is normal. But as I has said we have achieved a lot, sometimes in a complex internal and regional environment. If I had two more years here, I would put a focus on two things.

First, I would like to continue the work with many other international partners, on supporting Azerbaijan towards his work on democratization and the generalization of fundamental freedoms. We all hope that the upcoming presidential elections will be free and fair. All the signals we have received from the government in this regard are positive. My feeling is that Azerbaijan as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, and as the President of the Council of Europe next year cannot afford doing otherwise than in showing the world that the elections will be recognized by all as elections according to international standards. I would like also fundamental freedoms to be developed and some legislation to be passed in the parliament like decriminalization of defamation, a better environment of civil society, amongst others. Education and health are crucial sectors to develop.

The other area is the economic sector. It would be in the interest of Azerbaijan to liberalize the economy more. We would like to see more liberalization and opening the economy to competition. That will generate more opportunities and activity for the Azeri citizens themselves, so any Azerbaijani citizen can start a business and try to give dynamism and bring benefits to its own country. This would mean even better development and growth. It would also benefit the regions, where large disparities exist. In this regard we would like to see the Competition Code to be adopted by Milli Mejlis as soon as possible. We would like also Azerbaijan to join WTO and then negotiate on free trade agreement with the EU. This is the offer which is still on the table and we are ready to do it as soon as Azerbaijan is ready. The EU could deliver on that, just as we did with Visa facilitation if there is political will from Azerbaijan.

- Azerbaijan and EU could finalize visa facilitation negotiations, but the talks on association agreement are drag on. What is the ‘stumbling block’ in the negotiation?

- The association agreement is a wide and comprehensive instrument, so it is normal, that it takes some time. I am not worried about that. But it is one of two main pillars of Eastern Partnership (the other is the Free Trade Agreement - DCFTA). Neither of these two big pillars (association agreement and free trade agreement) has been achieved with Azerbaijan so far. The negotiations with other countries of the Easter Partnership have been completed or will be completed in the Vilnius Summit in November. It is not the case for Azerbaijan and, of course, we would welcome that swifter progress is made also here.

The negotiation teams need to agree certain number of issues, notably some political issues on which we have not found the common language yet in order to be happy on both sides. But I am sure that we will manage to overcome this.

- EU confidence building measures on Nagorno-Karabakh…?

- EU special representative Ambassador Lefort was here few weeks ago. To my knowledge, there is, I think, an interest to have some confidence building measures proposed by the EU, but there is no final agreement yet to implement them. But I would like to stress very important factor that touches the confidence building measures. Let us be concrete and look at the texts.

When you look at Azerbaijan – EU Action Plan adopted in 2006, the first priority of the wide Action Plan is to "contribute to the peaceful settlement of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict". Sometimes I hear that the EU is not interested in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the best prove that it is not true is that the first priority of this Action Plan is the Nagorno-Karabakh, which both EU and AZ have signed up to. So the EU is indeed concerned and willing to help on the Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the Action Plan there are four specific actions that need to be implemented in order to reach that first priority. And when you read them you can see that the EU has been very much following the Action Plan we have agreed together with Azerbaijan on Nagorno Karabakh. The first specific action is "to increase diplomatic efforts through the EU Special Representative". Well, the EU special representative Ambassador Lefort is extremely active in this sphere, he often visits the region, meets the co-chairs and so on. The Second action is "to increase political support to OSCE Minsk Group". Well, here, the EU has consistently and openly supported the Minsk group as the only real format of negotiations. We are outside the Minsk group and we support it, so we have fulfilled this second action. Sometimes we even have strangely been criticized for that. The third specific action "is to encourage people to people contacts". Here, back to you question, EU has been very active in proposing confidence building measures, because we believe it is right thing to do, but also it was one specific action that was in the Action Plan. This shows that it is the right time for both parties to agree on the confidence building measures proposed by the EU, so we will be able to go further in the implementation of the Action Plan.

The final and fourth specific action was to "intensify dialogue with the states concerned", something the EU has been trying to do through its EUSR, but also through the countless contacts at all levels by our Member States and the hi-level visits that took place around the world.

- EUSR also requested to visit Nagorno-Karabakh, could he get permission for that?

- Yes, that is also the request that EUSR has made. Because we believe that the more information we have concretely on the ground, the better it would be. EUSR would be happy to go to Nagorno Karabakh with the agreement of both parties and see for himself. But his request was not accepted yet.

- Azerbaijan Ministry of foreign affairs recently issued the “persona non grata” list. The former EU Special representative Peter Semneby was also included to the list. How would you comment that?

- I have seen the information. But it is important to notice, that his name has not been put there because of anything done during his activities as EU Special representative. His name was put in the list, because, apparently, he went there after the end of his mission of EUSR. I am convinced there was no wrong intention from Mr Semneby. And I also saw yesterday that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of AZ made a statement on this case and said that discussions could take place to revisit the list.

- What new did you learn about Azerbaijan and its people and culture here? Are you going to use the experience you got here on your new position?

- Everything you do in life is a source of knowledge and experience. Of course, I have learnt a lot during these four years. I have trying to do my best and to be helpful and positive to Azerbaijan and to support all layers of society, from government and public structures, to civil society and businesses. We have tried to match the interests of the EU and of Azerbaijan, and fit our policies together.

The redline of everything we do here has always been a supportive and constructive attitude to Azerbaijan and the bottom line was always the respect for the sovereignty and independence of Azerbaijan. These are key elements for us. We treat Azerbaijan as independent, sovereign country that makes its decisions. Sometimes we like the decisions, sometimes we would welcome them to be different, but this is politics. And we just continue working on them with good spirit and mutual respect. For the EU is always important to treat its partners as equal partners with mutual respects and trying to develop policies that we have common interest in for I hope a stronger and closer common future.

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