BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
IN AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, THE SWISS AMBASSADOR TO BAKU, PHILIPP STALDER, TOLD AZERI OBSERVER ABOUT THE SECRET OF SWISS HAPPINESS, HIS VIEW OF AZERBAIJAN AS A BRIDGE BETWEEN EUROPE AND ASIA, BILATERAL COOPERATION IN TRANSPORT AND ENERGY FIELDS, AND SWITZERLAND’S SPECIAL STRATEGY FOR THE SOUTH CAUCASUS.
Question: Switzerland has been listed in the top 5 of the ‘worlds happiest countries’ since 2012 when the World Happiness Ranking was created. What is the secret of Swiss happiness?
Answer: Let me tell you a secret. Swiss people are the world champions in regards to the consumption of chocolate and, according to many statistics, chocolate has a positive influence on the human brain via the release of particular neurotransmitters, which are responsible for our emotions. Simply saying, eating Swiss chocolate makes us happy [he said with a smile].
On a more serious note, Switzerland has always done well in these ranking and I assume that the ‘secret’ for the happiness of the people living in my country is the result of a variety of factors. On one hand, Switzerland is an economically strong country with one of the highest GDP rates per capita. This allows the Swiss government and the private sector to substantially invest in crucial areas for a successful and healthy lifestyle for a large majority of the people. Our citizens, whether poor or rich, benefit from an excellent education and healthcare system. Another sector, which always makes me proud and is important not only for the people but also for the environment and the preservation of our landscape, is Switzerland’s well-developed transport system and sophisticated infrastructure. Last but not least, we can add that Swiss citizens have highly appreciated the possibility of exercising their political rights through a unique application of direct democracy tools like the initiatives and referendum since 1891.
Q.: Switzerland has four national languages. What effect does such a multilingualism have on the national identity of the Swiss people?
A.: Switzerland is a multi-cultural and multi-linguistic state with four national languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansh). Furthermore, each language is spoken with different dialects. The Swiss national identity arises from various factors and the identification with language is only one element. All four languages are fully guaranteed and recognized as national languages by the Federal Constitution. The fact that no language should be preferred is further reflected in the official name of Switzerland: Confoederatio Helvetica. By using the neutral Latin term, no language is given priority. An example of the recognition of the different languages as official languages is the fact that official documents at the federal level (e.g. the federal legislation) must be published in the different languages. In the course of the application of the law, judges often take advantage of this fact and consult the other language versions of the legislation. This is an example where multilingualism is not only a challenge but can also be an advantage. In short, I would say that multilingualism, over time, has become a strong symbol of “Swissness” and an important component of our national identity. However, what really keeps Swiss citizens together and lets them feel as people of one nation – independent of their mother tongue – is the political will to be Swiss. This means the identification of a set of values and our appreciation for the long history of the Confoederatio Helvetica, which dates back to 1291.
Q.: What was the most unexpected thing for you in Azerbaijan when you came here as an ambassador?
A.: I previously visited Baku some 10 years ago, before I arrived as Ambassador in Azerbaijan in October 2015. In that sense, neither the country nor the region was totally unknown to me. However, on my arrival with my family, I was so surprised and positively impressed by Baku’s development. For me, the most unexpected thing was how the city has changed for the good in only a few years’ time.
Q.: How do you see Azerbaijan? As a European or an Asian country?
A.: This can hardly be answered in a definitive manner as the country has elements of both continents. The question of whether Azerbaijan is part of Europe or Asia depends also on the criteria. From a geographical point of view, there are different opinions. Looking at the history of Azerbaijan until the 19th century, this region was mainly shaped by influences from the East. The Russian period then opened the doors for European influences.
Today, Azerbaijan is pursuing a ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy, which is oriented towards both Europe and Asia. Azerbaijan is a full-fledged member of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which comes along with a set of typically European and Western values and obligations. On the other hand, Azerbaijan is also a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and has naturally strong ties with many non-European countries. In the non-political sphere, like in sport or culture, Azerbaijan is striving for an equal rapprochement to Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world. Finally, when it comes to architecture in Baku, we again see both European and Oriental influences. All of this leads me to believe that Azerbaijan can be perfectly described as a “bridge” between Europe and Asia.
Q.: The Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) company, which will deliver Azerbaijani gas to Europe, is headquartered in Switzerland and Swiss Axpo company is one of its shareholders. What benefits will Switzerland get from this project?
A.: With 14% (2017) of the total energy consumption of Switzerland, natural gas is a noticeable contributor to the Swiss energy mix. Considering the decline in natural gas production in Europe, TAP allows for the diversification of gas sources and supply paths in Europe, and thus benefits Switzerland. Moreover, the Swiss energy group Axpo is one of the TAP shareholders and TAP is, as you say, headquartered in Switzerland. This demonstrates the importance our country attaches to the project. I also recall what our Minister of Economy, Federal Councillor Johann N. Schneider-Ammann, said about TAP when the project was chosen as a route for gas from Shah Deniz II: “This project is important for Switzerland as we are dependent on oil and gas. The new pipeline will boost the security of supply, and, moreover, a Swiss company is taking part.”
Q.: Could you tell us about the bilateral cooperation in the transport sector and in particular, the regional importance of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway project?
A.: Among the major Swiss companies active in Azerbaijan, one of them is Stadler Rail. The company, which has been building trains for 75 years, has enjoyed successful business cooperation with Azerbaijan for many years. Recalling that the government declared the development of the North-South Transport Corridor and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway as one of its strategic priorities, with a target to turn Azerbaijan into a regional transportation hub, one can see the important role of the Stadler Rail when it comes to the modernization and development of the railway system of Azerbaijan. I recently traveled from Baku to Sumgayit with Stadler Rail’s wagons and I could convince myself about the benefits for passengers and daily commuters to have such a comfortable railway connection with modern wagons. As you may read in the press, on 8-9 July 2018, Federal Councillor Johann N. Schneider-Ammann officially visited Azerbaijan with a large Swiss business delegation. The visit was pursued with a particular view on transport aspects and China’s One Belt and One Road Initiative aimed at developing the old Silk Road along land-based and maritime corridors. It is obvious that in this context, Azerbaijan and Central Asia will be gaining in importance and attract an increased interest among economic actors and hopefully investors from Switzerland.
Q.: Switzerland is one of the main foreign investors in Azerbaijan’s non-oil sector. Which non-oil sectors are especially attractive for Swiss companies in Azerbaijan?
A.: In early July 2018, an economic delegation consisting of more than 20 business representatives from many sectors, including the oil and non-oil industry, finance, tourism, and healthcare, visited Azerbaijan and held a Business Forum together with Azerbaijani counterparts. This event was organized in the frame of the official visit of Federal Councillor Johann N. Schneider-Ammann, who traveled to Baku to have separate meetings with the President, the Minister of Economy, and the Minister of Finance of the Republic of Azerbaijan. During their stay in Azerbaijan, representatives of the Swiss companies not only had business-to-business meetings but also witnessed the pre-inauguration of a factory of a multinational company from Switzerland in Sumgayit. This company is specialized in chemistry (Sika). This all shows you that Swiss companies are known as providers of high quality, are innovative, and have very reliable technologies and commercial solutions. We take a vivid interest in better understanding what the investment opportunities are in Azerbaijan.
Q.: How do you assess bilateral cooperation in tourism, which is an important sector of the economy, for both countries? Do you plan any additional measures to attract more tourists from Switzerland to Azerbaijan and vice versa?
A.: Let me first congratulate Azerbaijan for the ongoing successful development of your tourism sector. Within the last three years, we have witnessed a growing number of tourists in your country. I am sure that the liberalization of visa procedures was one of the decisive elements for this impressive success. Swiss tourists and business circles highly appreciate the simplified and fast visa procedures offered through ASAN. In regards to statistics, we estimate that roughly 2,000 Swiss people are visiting Azerbaijan per year and there is a huge potential to have a much larger number of tourists from my country in the future. What would greatly help in this perspective, is a direct flight, which unfortunately we do not have at the moment. When it comes to the number of Azerbaijani visitors to Switzerland, the figures have remained stable over the last few years and stand at around 1,500 visas issued by our Embassy annually.
Switzerland, as a country with an old and successful history in promoting domestic and foreign tourism, is ready to share its experience with Azerbaijan. The Director of Emerging Markets & Special Projects at Switzerland Tourism, Mr. Federico Sommaruga, regularly visits Baku to participate in tourism fairs, meetings with potential partners, and holding promotion events. He is always meeting representatives from the authorities and the tourism industry to share his more than 30 years of personal experience in our tourism promotion agency. Moreover, the Swiss Embassy in Baku has organized a Spring vintage poster exhibition at the National Art Museum of Azerbaijan titled “Take a Holiday!”. Over a period of two weeks, spectators can discover how we have promoted the tourism potential of Switzerland through posters over the course of one century (1917-2017).
Q.: In 2017, Switzerland kicked off its new Cooperation Strategy for the South Caucasus for 2017-2020. What are the main focuses of this strategy related to Azerbaijan?
A: Measures taken within the Cooperation Strategy for the South Caucasus for 2017-2020 are aimed at contributing to the reduction of poverty and the support of economic development. The overall priority is to help to promote sustainable and inclusive growth. Economic development cooperation in such a context emphasizes, in particular, the social dimension of sustainability. Therefore, Switzerland, in its current strategy, contributes to sustainable and inclusive growth through two main target outcomes: Inclusive and Sustainable Economic Development and Effective Democratic Institutions, human security, and rights.
Q.: You are an ambassador not only to Azerbaijan but also to Turkmenistan. Could you say a couple of words about the current level and prospects of cooperation between Switzerland and this Central Asian country?
A.: Switzerland and Turkmenistan have positive and friendly relations based on mutual understanding and cooperation. Last year, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations. On this occasion, the President of the Swiss Confederation mentioned how bilateral ties have been gradually strengthened and how Turkmenistan and Switzerland share the same status of armed neutrality. Furthermore, Turkmenistan belongs to Switzerland’s constituency group at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and the Global Environment Facility (GEF).
Switzerland is also active with its water diplomacy. This is true for Turkmenistan and the other four Central Asian countries. With our partners, we are in a constant dialogue on improving the management of water resources. Since our initiative “Peaceful water in Central Asia” first started in 2014, with the organization of a ministerial conference in Basel, much has been done. In April 2018, for example, we organized a visit for a delegation of governmental representatives from Central Asia to the Senegal River Basin Development Organization. The objective of the mission was to advance the regional dialogue and cooperation on water issues through direct exchanges and knowledge sharing between neighboring countries. Finally, the Swiss Embassy supported the OSCE office in Ashgabat in recruiting an experienced Swiss journalist who taught a workshop for Turkmen journalists in June.