BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
IN AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, THE AMBASSADOR OF RUSSIA TO AZERBAIJAN, MIKHAIL BOCHARNIKOV, TOLD AZERI OBSERVER ABOUT FRIENDLY RELATIONS BETWEEN AZERBAIJAN AND RUSSIA; FIVE RECENTLY SIGNED ROADMAPS AIMED AT DEEPENING BILATERAL COOPERATION; JOINT PROJECTS IN TRANSPORT AND OTHER SPHERES; AND THE PROSPECTS OF THE ENLARGEMENT OF THE EURASIAN ECONOMIC UNION AND THE COLLECTIVE SECURITY TREATY ORGANIZATION.
Question: Azerbaijan and Russia have a long history of relations. How do you assess the current level of cooperation between our countries compared to previous periods?
Answer: Our countries have always had friendly relations in all the periods of our history. We have a great understanding and a warm personal connection between our presidents, which helps create a firm basis and foundation for relations. It also assists us in developing bilateral cooperation in many spheres, with a priority for economic ties.
Q.: Your predecessor as Russian Ambassador to Azerbaijan served in Baku for nine years. You were appointed to this post just several months ago. What are the goals you have set for this post?
A.: I have the same tasks as any new ambassador coming to a friendly country has. First and foremost, it is the development of our relations, which are very multifaceted and strong. But of course, there are opportunities to develop them further and raise them to new heights.
Q.: Russia is the most active mediator in the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. They repeatedly helped reduce the tension on the contact line between the two countries’ troops and returned the parties to negotiations. What are Russia’s current initiatives to resolve this conflict and how do they see the way of its resolution?
A.: Since we are one of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, our attitude towards Nagorno-Karabakh is to mediate a peaceful resolution of this conflict. In this capacity, we, together with the other members of the Minsk Group, are ready to help both sides of the conflict move towards settlement, exploiting all possible opportunities that may exist. Russia, and I am sure the other co-chairs of the Minsk Group, will support whatever peaceful solution the two sides agree upon. Russia welcomes any positive developments, such as recent meetings between the two sides, which are creating an atmosphere for a settlement to the conflict.
Q.: Russia actively promotes integration unions in the post-Soviet space, such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). What benefits can Azerbaijan acquire if it joins them? What benefits will Azerbaijan’s membership bring to these organizations?
A.: I should slightly correct the question. Any country which shares the aims and principles of these organizations can become a member. However, neither Russia nor our partners in both of the mentioned organizations go around offering memberships to other countries. Countries must judge for themselves. If they believe that they may receive benefits from joining these organizations, they must show us interest for membership, or they can prefer not to join. I can only tell you that the Eurasian Economic Union has proven its usefulness for the member states, especially in the recent years of economic crisis. The EAEU has served as a safety pillow for the economies of member countries and has helped them increase their level of economic cooperation despite the difficult situations in the world economy.
Regarding the Collective Security Treaty Organization, member countries therein receive security benefits. Again, neither Russia nor other members of the CSTO aim to enforce expansion of the borders of this organization. We do not impose membership on anyone, and we are not moving this organization closer to anyone’s borders.
Q.: In August 2018, the Caspian countries finally signed a convention on the status of the Caspian Sea after more than 20 years of negotiations. What does this convention mean for the region? How will it influence the development of cooperation in the Caspian region, and in particular between Azerbaijan and Russia?
A.: The conclusion of this convention is a big step forward in cooperation between the coastal states. The fact that it took 20 years to come to this agreement shows that there had not been any attempts to enforce provisions of the treaty. This convention is a result of compromise and a balance of interests from all of the countries. In the end, all five littoral states were satisfied with the results and found it useful. First and foremost, the deal was required to protect the ecology of the sea. Furthermore, it will enable better cooperation, better understanding, and better neighborhood connections. We hope that it will continue to contribute to better utilization of the Caspian Sea resources in line with the interests of all of the Caspian states, including resources of the seabed, fishery, navigation, and more.
Russia and Azerbaijan, among the other coastal states, will reap all these benefits. We can cooperate in the exploitation of the sea’s resources in accordance with the provisions of the convention. Our two countries managed to delimitate our water sectors even before signing the convention, just as Russia did with Kazakhstan.
Q.: Both Azerbaijan and Russia are hydrocarbon producing countries. Moreover, Azerbaijan will start gas supplies to the EU in a couple of years within the Southern Gas Corridor project, while Russia is still the main gas supplier to the European market. Do you see prospects for cooperation in the oil and gas industries between our countries or are we competitors in this sphere?
A.: I do not look at this sphere from a competition point of view. The right attitude is to seek a way to combine the efforts of our countries. We already have reciprocal supplies of hydrocarbons between Russia and Azerbaijan. I would mention that the officials of the Republic of Azerbaijan have repeatedly invited Russia to participate in the exploitation of the Southern Gas Corridor and other routes of hydrocarbons supplies that go via Azerbaijan. So, it is rather a partnership, than a competition.
Q.: As you know, Azerbaijan pays attention to the development of its transport potential. It is a member of a number of international transport corridors which bypass Russia, including the New Silk Road and the Trans-Caspian Transport Route. Do you think that these projects pose a threat to Russia’s transport corridors?
A.: No, they do not pose any threat. It is especially incorrect to speak about threats after the signing of the above mentioned Caspian Sea convention, which opens up opportunities for the Trans-Caspian Transport Route. Everything that I said about the transportation of hydrocarbons also refers to transit transport routes. Azerbaijan always states that Russia is welcome to join all of its transport projects. Let’s not forget about the North-South corridor project, which Russia and Azerbaijan jointly implement. Both countries, together with Iran and some counties in the south, especially India, will profit from this project.
Q.: How do you assess the potential of the North-South rail corridor? What are the prospects of cooperation between our countries in the transport sector?
A.: It is a useful project and was an important topic in the agreements and roadmaps signed at a bilateral summit in Sochi in early September. The railway is operating successfully, and the data presented at recent economic conferences show that the bulk of goods transported by the corridor has grown 100 times over the last year, which is quite sizable. This growth has occurred despite the fact that some sectors of the route in Iranian territory have not been completed. The corridor is promising, and we plan to utilize it in both directions– from Russia to the south and from the south to Russia. Azerbaijan will especially benefit both from its own export and import prospects and from its position as a transit country.
Q.: Russia is one of Azerbaijan’s main trade partners. How has the volume of bilateral trade between our countries changed in recent years in light of Western sanctions against Russia? Which goods are the most promising for the further increase in trade between our countries?
A.: Frankly speaking, I do not see any influence of sanctions on our bilateral trade. Russia tops the list of exporters to Azerbaijan, and the volume of Azerbaijani exports to Russia is also considerable. Last year, our trade turnover reached a respectable $2.6 billion. I do not see this as the maximum trade potential, and I believe our trade turnover can be considerably raised. Among the agreements signed at the bilateral summit in Sochi, there was a joint action plan aimed at the key spheres of economic cooperation. The agreement consists of five roadmaps, and one of them envisages the removal of unnecessary administrative and customs barriers in our common trade. We have to work to facilitate the flow of goods between our countries, and we have to do it fast because the timeframes of implementation of the roadmaps are rather short.
Q.: How would you evaluate the volume of two-way investments between Russia and Azerbaijan? What are the sectors in which you expect investments to grow?
A.: I can give you examples of projects in Azerbaijan, in which Russia has invested. We have invested in a pharmaceutical factory that will hopefully be launched near Baku at the end of 2018 or early in 2019. Our banks have also invested in an enormous SOCAR polymer polypropylene producing plant, which was launched into operation in Sumgait this year. These are just a few of many examples. Another roadmap signed in Sochi is specifically aimed at the development of joint ventures between our countries. A lot of attention will be paid to industrial production, and there will be investments as well.
Q.: The flow of tourists from Russia to Azerbaijan has increased significantly in recent years. According to our official data, almost 32 percent of all foreign tourists in Azerbaijan came from Russia in 2017 – it is more than from any other country. Do you see prospects for even more cooperation in this area? Are there any measures planned to increase the number of tourists from Russia to Azerbaijan, as well as from Azerbaijan to Russia?
A.: What we can do is take specific steps to improve the attractiveness of Azerbaijan and Russia as tourist destinations. After all, people themselves must decide whether or not to visit both of our countries. Measures have already been taken which has led to the mentioned increase in the number of tourists. Speaking about future plans, I will refer again to the roadmaps signed in Sochi. The fifth roadmap deals with the goal of raising the number of visitors between our two countries and also humanitarian tasks. The roadmap, among other things, says that our governing bodies have to take certain initiatives to facilitate the flow of tourists between our countries. Here I would like to mention that there is an interesting idea of the Caspian states to create a sea tourism system by launching passenger cruise ships. We should start implementing it with a cruise line between Russia and Azerbaijan.
Q.: Could you tell us about humanitarian cooperation between our countries? How does the presence of a huge Azerbaijani diaspora in Russia and the Russian diaspora in Azerbaijan influence on the development of this cooperation?
A.: I believe the main role of our diasporas, apart from their engagement in cultural activities, is to facilitate cultural exchanges between our two countries. In this area, their role is quite noticeable because they spread feelings of friendship between our countries.
Q.: What are your impressions about Azerbaijan and Baku after several months here?
A.: I visited Azerbaijan a long time ago when I was a schoolboy. Since that time, I have never again been to Azerbaijan until my appointment. Since I have not yet traveled much across the regions of Azerbaijan, my impressions are mostly of Baku, and they are very positive. I immediately felt a warm attitude from citizens of my country here. People are friendly, the cultural traditions run deep, and the willingness of the Azerbaijani cultural elite to continuously enhance cooperation with Russia is very visible. The Embassy is in permanent contact with the official organizations of Azerbaijan, and we cooperate on a number of bilateral and international issues. I am satisfied with the atmosphere of this cooperation, and I believe that the Embassy can function successfully in Azerbaijan for all practical reasons. I hope that with our diligent work and the reciprocal work of our partners, we will be able to move our relations to a new level.