BY NARMIN RZAYEVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
MOLDOVAN MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND EUROPEAN INTEGRATION TUDOR ULIANOVSCHI, WHO MADE A WORKING VISIT TO AZERBAIJAN ON DECEMBER 13-14, 2018, TOLD AZERI OBSERVER IN AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW ABOUT PRINCIPAL GOALS OF MOLDOVAN FOREIGN POLICY, THE POTENTIAL OF BILATERAL TRADE, COOPERATION WITHIN INTERNATIONAL PROJECTS AND ORGANIZATIONS, OPPORTUNITIES FOR FOREIGN INVESTORS IN MOLDOVA, AND APPLICATION OF INTERNATIONAL LAW FOR RESOLUTION OF LONG-STANDING CONFLICTS.
Question: How do you assess the current level of cooperation between Azerbaijan and Moldova, and the prospects of its development?
Answer: First of all, I am happy to be in Baku, the beating heart of your beautiful country. This is my first visit to Azerbaijan, and I have been astonished by the local hospitality during my stay. Moldova and Azerbaijan have an excellent level of cooperation on a bilateral level. Our two countries also collaborate closely on the regional level through various organizations, including GUAM and the Black Sea Economic Cooperation. As members of the UN, we are always ready to cooperate and support each other. Azerbaijan and Moldova had excellent cooperation in June when the Moldovan historic resolution on the “Complete and unconditional withdrawal of foreign military forces from the territory of the Republic of Moldova” was presented to the UN General Assembly in New York. The resolution was approved by a majority vote, thanks in part from the support of Azerbaijan. I have also established a personal relationship with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan, Elmar Mammadyarov.
Q.: Has a common Soviet background affected the current level of bilateral relations between Azerbaijan and Moldova? Would you agree that this must have created a soil for future cooperation?
A.: I would not agree that our two countries are bound solely by a similar past. On the contrary, I believe that the common European future unites us much closer, especially when keeping in mind that Azerbaijan and Moldova are both members of the Eastern Partnership.
Q.: Which measures are planned to promote bilateral cooperation? What awaits in the future?
A.: I think that Azerbaijan and Moldova have a great platform and an excellent understanding of the political level. But we have to be pragmatic since what counts, in the end, is people-to-people contacts and economic exchanges: the volume of bilateral trade, exports, and imports. Therefore, yesterday [December 13, 2018] I had a conversation with the Minister of Agriculture of Azerbaijan [Inam Karimov], and we discussed various opportunities to fulfill the potential of our relationships.
I cannot help but notice that the bilateral trade between Azerbaijan and Moldova is not sufficiently capitalized on, and it is instead rather modest considering our potential. While this is unfortunate, we have also noticed a positive tendency over the past few years: the volume of trade is increasing steadily by 15-20%. For Moldova, this signifies more exports to Azerbaijan and fewer imports of Azerbaijani products. Moldovan goods on the Azerbaijani market include agricultural products, famous Moldovan wine, hydropower pumps, and so forth. From Azerbaijan, we import juice concentrates, Azerbaijani tea, and much more. What we are expecting from Azerbaijan are strategic investments in the Moldovan economy. Recently, we established so-called free economic zones in Moldova, which provides investors with an undoubtful advantage, in the context of the fiscal system, via the benefits of the Free Trade Agreement between Moldova and the European Union. This creates an advantage for countries that establish businesses in Moldova, produce their respective goods on Moldovan territory, and export their production, free of tax, in Europe.
Q.: Is the “free economic zones” policy similar to the FDI (foreign direct investment)?
A.: It is a bit different. In the case of free economic zones, Azerbaijan opens a business of some Azerbaijani product on Moldovan territory, employs Moldovan people, and uses Moldovan technology without paying taxes, which are usually imposed on the foreign investments since it is a free economic zone. Unlike the benefits from the FDI, Moldova does not experience a direct financial inflow into the economy but instead benefits through the employment of its people and the rent of technological instruments. FDI, on the other hand, is an investment into a specific economic project, such as the privatizing of Moldovan Airlines or any other national asset.
Q.: When is the next meeting of the intergovernmental commission planned? Which tasks are set before it?
A.: We have discussed this matter widely with the Minister of Agriculture of Azerbaijan and Minister Mammadyarov. We have agreed that in the first half of 2019, after a pause of seven years, we will organize a joint intergovernmental commission, which is an excellent mechanism of cooperation between countries. The event is scheduled to take place in Baku.
We are going to lay out all of the priorities and matters necessary for the cooperation of Azerbaijan and Moldova. That includes economy in a broader sense of the word, exchanges, export-import operations, transport and energy dimensions, and even information technologies. Another important topic on the agenda is cultural cooperation, and I must highlight that 2018 has been a productive year for the Moldovan Embassy in Azerbaijan under the leadership of Ambassador Gheorghe Leuca. Our Embassy has organized many cultural events, including a few modern exhibitions of Moldovan artists and painters. I am sure that the similar events could be arranged by the Azerbaijani Embassy in Moldova as our people will be positively interested in the works of Azerbaijani artists.
Q.: Azerbaijan and Moldova are members of regional organizations and programs, such as the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, CIS, Eastern Partnership, GUAM, among others. Could you tell us about the cooperation between our countries in these formats?
A.: I believe that both Moldova and Azerbaijan have the same vision with regards to the regional dimension. Let me answer this question step-by-step.
During my stay, I have taken part in the Black Sea Economic Cooperation gathering, which was among the priorities of my agenda. Every six months a new chairman country is chosen to hold the presidency of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), and Azerbaijan has successfully finalized its chairmanship of the BSEC for the last six months, up until December 2018. Starting January 1st, the new chairman country, Bulgaria, is going to step into its new role. I would personally like to congratulate Minister Mammadyarov and the government of Azerbaijan on the successful presidency of the BSEC, which was prosperous not only due to their keen diplomatic skills but also because of their strength and consistency. The Baku Ministerial of ICT achieved exceptional progress for the BSEC and facilitated extensive discussions on the opportunities of e-commerce, e-governance, online banking, and even the Fourth Industrial Revolution. I believe this is one of the main successes that exemplify the presidency of Azerbaijan, as well as trade facilitation and the removal of trade barriers between the BSEC countries. The latter, in my opinion, is consistent with the primary purpose of the BSEC, which is to abstract from the political plane and move into the economic dimension. All of these achievements, considering the unfortunate lingering lack of regional security, are commendable.
Azerbaijan and Moldova are both parts of the Eastern Partnership, a mechanism of our countries to cooperate with the European Union. Even though Moldova has signed an Association Agreement with the EU and Azerbaijan is negotiating with the EU on the free trade agreement as well as other sectoral agreements, I think we share a common European space and common European priorities. In these regards, I believe that there are more topics for us to cooperate on, one of which is a new sectorial project in energetics, as I have already discussed with Minister Mammadyarov. Other intersective projects include (but are not limited to) interconnectivity with the European Union through transport, digital connectivity, and so forth. I believe 2019 will be the year of the Eastern Partnership, as we near the 10-year anniversary of the establishment of this organization. This anniversary will be celebrated during the summit of the Eastern Partnership in May, either in Brussels or Romania. The next decade’s new goals and priorities will be established here. These goals are to be capitalized on and reached by every Eastern Partnership member.
Although Azerbaijan and Moldova are closely cooperating in the framework of the Eastern Partnership, we value country-to-country relationships much more than ones in the context of international organizations. Moldova believes in the great importance of strengthening our cooperation within the GUAM frameworks through the implementation of result-oriented projects that are aimed at developing mutually beneficial cooperation in the trade, economic, cultural, and humanitarian spheres. I want to emphasize that during this year’s Moldovan chairmanship, we achieved dynamic results in strengthening and developing multiple areas of cooperation including transport, tourism, and combating organized crime. A significant event in 2018 was the meeting of GUAM member states’ heads of government (October 5). This meeting resulted in a statement of actions toward enhancing cooperation, and in a signed protocol among the customs administrations of the GUAM member states. The protocol establishes cooperation in the fight against customs offenses related to the movement of goods by air transport across the borders of the GUAM member states. Speaking about the Free Trade Agreement, we can say that we are in the process of completing all of the necessary procedures to fully implement this agreement and establish a free trade zone among our countries. We are continuing negotiations on adopting the protocol’s origins of goods rule, which is indispensable for the full-fledged implementation of the agreement. In contrast, one might consider a CIS case: while the overall trade volume of Moldova with CIS countries continuously falls, our economic relationship with Azerbaijan tends to improve year by year.
Q.: Do you mean, that Azerbaijan and Moldova should focus more on country-to-country relationships, rather than ones in the context of international organizations?
A.: In my opinion, they should develop in parallel. Bilateral relations between countries are always more efficient and can yield faster results since they are based on personal relationships and mutual benefits. Regional connections are essential for creating synergies, and, as they say, if you want to move fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together (laughs). Thus, Moldova prefers to move far, together with Azerbaijan.
Q.: Both Azerbaijan and Moldova are members of Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA), an international transport program. How do you assess the prospects of cooperation between our countries within this program, especially after the construction of the new transport infrastructure projects in Azerbaijan, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway and the Alat International Sea Port?
A.: I think that TRACECA is another excellent example of interconnectivity that is undeniably needed in the world today. Azerbaijan plays one of the leading roles in this matter, strategically situated on the so-called Silk Road, which connects Europe and Asia via highways, railroads, and seaports. Even though Moldova does not have direct access to the sea, the Danube river is a major water vein, which ensures our connection to the Black Sea. It is for this reason that we want to cooperate with Azerbaijan on multiple levels, including the transportation sector. The goal is to finalize our transport connection and to find a faster, cheaper, and more efficient way to transport people and goods. The trade volume is directly correlated to the establishment of a proper logistics system between our countries. I believe that Azerbaijan has a very advantageous position in providing access to the Black Sea and to enable connections via highways and railroads. To reach the aforementioned goals, we will undoubtedly need the cooperation of other countries, fellow-members of the organizations that I have previously mentioned. I think TRACECA provides its member countries with a well-constructed strategy, a medium-term to a long-term action plan, a process on how to better develop connections, and the guidance to communicate this plan on the national level and define priorities. Some countries will focus on finding funding, while others should work on infrastructure developments. If we manage to overcome all of the difficulties with funding, infrastructure, and the security risks we mentioned earlier, TRACECA members will be able to have a smooth transition to an excellent logistics system.
Q.: Moldova has a Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the European Union. How can Azerbaijani companies cooperating with Moldova benefit from this agreement?
A.: To give you a short answer: open business in Moldova! To expand upon the question, I would like to stress the importance of the extended Free Trade Agreement. Currently, the European Union is one of the most prominent market players, and approximately 65-68% of Moldovan exports are sent to the EU. This has been an extraordinary economic and business advantage for multiple reasons, particularly with increasing production standards. Now that Moldovan exports compete in a region with an almost perfectly competitive market that has the widest variety of substitute goods at the highest quality, we should be able to meet the standards, fit in, and satisfy the needs of an average European consumer. The same could be applied to Azerbaijani businesses in Moldova. Increasing competition leads to a rise in the quality of goods. We are working to compel as many Azerbaijani investors as possible to not only open up a business in a free economic zone but to also establish joint ventures and partnerships in various sectors with Moldovan companies. A primary goal for our Embassy is to tighten political and economic relationships between our countries through a joint intergovernmental commission. The B2B meeting of our countries’ economic forces is essential in maintaining future cooperation for the common good.
To summarize, if Azerbaijani companies establish joint ventures and partnerships with Moldovan businesses, they will win in regards to increasing the standard of goods, quality controls, SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) measures, and so forth. Moreover, the European Union itself will undoubtedly win from this partnership since a wider variety of goods will be sold on the European market, and a broader choice for the European consumer will be available. Thus, in my opinion, joint ventures are a mutually profitable operation. A win-win, I would say (laughs).
Q.: You have a degree in international law, and you are the author of scientific publications related to the application of the international law for resolution of international conflicts and problems of refugees. With experience in this sphere, keeping in mind that territorial dispute is an open wound for both of our countries, how do you see a way to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? Is it consonant with the respective solution of the Transnistria conflict?
A.: The most civilized way to resolve any conflict is to follow the rules of international law and the UN principles. As I have mentioned, the territorial integrity and sovereignty rights of each state must be respected and preserved. The last thing the world needs today, and the last thing we as humanity should do, is to redraw the map. We cannot divide, unite, and change the territories of countries by resketching the world through pen and paper. This practice is dangerous. Moldova is categorically against foreign troops in any nation, especially within the territory of Moldova itself.
The second dimension for resolution is devoted to negotiations. Negotiations have to take place regularly, otherwise more pressure and tension occurs. A dialogue between the parties is extremely important. Under no circumstances should it ever stop.
The third element of any conflict is, and I refer to the Transnistria conflict especially, pure politics. The illegal presence of Russian troops on Moldovan territory creates an unfavorable environment for people-to-people contacts, or as we call them, confidence-building measures. 2018 was a historic year for the Republic of Moldova, as for the first time since Moldovan independence, the first time in 27 years, the government made a historic decision for the people of Moldova living in Transnistria. We created a special license plate for the cars of the Transnistria region with the Moldovan state symbol so that they can have access to the international auto-transportation. The citizens of Transnistria now have free access to the roads of the European Union and Ukraine, and, I hope, have a better understanding of the privileges and advantages of being a part of the Republic of Moldova.
On the one hand, we are using the UN dimension to reiterate the need for the withdrawal of Russian troops, the presence of which is a violation of the territorial integrity rights of Moldova. On the other hand, we have the 5-plus-2 negotiation format, which is the only internationally recognized format of negotiations to identify a long-lasting, sustainable political settlement of the conflict, which is founded on preserving the national borders of Moldovan territory. We suggest Transnistria have a special legal status within the territory of the Republic of Moldova.
The last dimension is people-to-people contacts: academic exchanges, application of the free trade agreement with the EU which includes the Transnistrian territory, opening up free economic zones encompassing the region of Transnistria as well, and so forth. This strategy might be considered slow moving, but in my opinion, it will yield more efficient results in the future.
Countries that face issues within their borders such as Azerbaijan and Moldova, as well as Georgia and Ukraine, have to put joint efforts into experience exchange. To do this, we communicate through the GUAM format. We should also work on the UN dimension and call for solidarity among fellow-member states to create positive pressure regarding border conflicts.
I am vehemently against military solutions. Military forces, ammunition, and tanks should be removed to create a positive soil for negotiations and dialogues based on the territorial integrity of our countries.
Q.: Let us speak about Moldova’s foreign policy. Polls and elections in the country show that the country’s population is split between those favoring closer ties to Russia and those who prefer integration with the European Union. What are the main goals of Moldova’s foreign policy in this situation?
A.: The principal goal of the foreign policy of the Republic of Moldova is to create a positive image of the country and to have a healthy bilateral relationship with all of the countries in the world. This is a continuing principle and a long-term priority. The immediate foreign policy priority for Moldova, however, is to become a valuable member of the EU. From this perspective, we have achieved associated member state status, and we think that the best model of development for Moldova is a European one. As an associated member state, our citizens can travel to Europe visa-free and Moldova was able to sign a free trade agreement with the EU. We are fully implementing the association agreement terms in hopes of eventually being eligible to apply for an EU-membership. My colleagues in the Ministry of Internal Affairs are working hard to make sure that the proper laws are adopted and implemented to reach this goal. Moldova is encouraging Brussels and other EU member states to prioritize expansion and to include the countries of the Eastern Partnership, such as Moldova and Azerbaijan. One might argue that the internal conflicts of the EU, such as Brexit, the notorious debt crises, and recent debt negotiations, are proof that such an organization is unstable. However, I believe that the EU member states will find the strength to overcome these challenges and stand together stronger and wiser. We can exemplify the approval timeline for the Western Balkans, including countries such as Albania, Macedonia, and Serbia, as a positive example of the EU’s integration and expansion. Even though we are a bit behind, this timeline gives Moldova a clear sign that the EU enlargement is not fatiguing. On the contrary, it is a process, a living organism, and we must make an effort to be ready to join the EU when the time comes. Moldova expects time to fly faster, but this matter is not controlled by our leadership. At the same time, we must immediately prioritize our Southeastern policies, such as increasing our cooperation with Azerbaijan.
Our relations with Russia are complicated but necessary. To be clear, we would like to have healthy and pragmatic relations with the Russian Federation, but not at the expense of our territorial integrity or sovereignty. As a diplomat, I think that Russia should withdraw its troops from Moldovan territory. Russia committed to withdrawing their troops in accordance with the Istanbul Document (1999) presented at the OSCE Summit, but the process suddenly came to a halt in 2004. Moldova is encouraging Russia to resume the process of a full withdraw.
Concurrently, we are trying to establish trade and economic cooperation with the Russian Federation. Unfortunately, we are facing difficulties in this sphere as well. Since Moldova has taken a considerable step towards European integration, our colleagues in Moscow have put limits on the volume of Moldovan imports of agricultural goods into the Russian market. In my opinion, this practice is out of line with the free trade agreement that we have with Russia and the CIS member states, and also violates the World Trade Organization’s rules and regulations.
Another facet of Moldovan-Russian relationships is the vast Moldovan community living on Russian territory. Some estimate that about 500,000 Moldovans live in Russia, both as residents and expats. For the government of Moldova and myself, as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, it is a clear top-priority.
While we are on this topic, I would like to mention that I presented in front of the Moldovan community in Azerbaijan during a meeting organized by Ambassador Leuca. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the Azerbaijani government for providing reliable living and working conditions for my compatriots. We would like to see the same attitude towards our community in every country throughout the world.
Cooperation with the United States is also a priority for Moldovan foreign policy. We are conducting strategic dialogues with Washington, and it is worth realizing that the U.S. is a dominant global player in the international arena.
Moldovan relations with Asia, particularly China, are also important. We are cooperating with Asian countries to encourage foreign investments and to assist in developing Moldova’s infrastructure.
This year, my recommendation to establish Moldovan Embassies on continents where we currently do not have Embassies was accepted by Pavel Filip, the Prime Minister of Moldova. In 2019 I will be opening the first Moldovan Embassies in Africa and Latin America. Many might argue the efficiency of this policy, but, in my opinion, we should not limit ourselves to specific regions. Nowadays, the world is flat thanks to the developing IT technologies and the World Wide Web. Our physical footprint should match our digital presence to enable more opportunities for cooperation.
In other words, the priority for me, as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, is to maintain our existing relationships with the European Union, the United States, Russia, China, and the Eastern Partnership countries, while searching for new markets and prospects. We are all different, and yet we can all find various opportunities to gain from working with one another.
Q.: Can you say, that the foreign policy of Moldova is operating under the flag of raising awareness about what is Moldova, who the Moldovan people are, and how the world can win from cooperating with Moldova?
A.: I would like to avoid labeling our foreign policy and our approach. On the contrary, it is an ambitious, open-minded, and pragmatic plan. Countries need to see that Moldova has diplomacy and vision, especially now with how the world is changing. Moldova wants to be present during these new world changes and to contribute to these metamorphoses. We would like to serve the global community for a simple reason: if the community fails, then we fail. Together with Azerbaijan, Moldova has plans and ideas to cover the globe, create more connections, and cooperate more in the future.
This is my first time in Azerbaijan, as a Minister, and I am looking forward to coming back here with my family as a regular Moldovan citizen. I want all of us to enjoy the Azerbaijani hospitality and the delicious local cuisine (laughs).