AUSTRIAN AMBASSADOR TO BAKU, ALEXANDER BAYERL, IN AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW FOR THE AZERI OBSERVER MAGAZINE DISCUSSES IF THE AUSTRIAN GOVERNMENT’S RESIGNATION HAS ANY EFFECT ON BILATERAL RELATIONS. HE ALSO SPEAKS ON THE MOST NOTABLE BILATERAL PROJECTS; THE RISING INTEREST OF AUSTRIAN COMPANIES FOR THE AZERBAIJANI MARKET, PROSPECTS OF COOPERATION IN CONSTRUCTION, TOURISM, AGRICULTURE AND BANKING, AND REFLECTS ON WHAT AUSTRIAN TECHNOLOGIES WOULD BE IN DEMAND IN AZERBAIJAN. FINALLY, HE EXPLAINS WHY HE WISHES TO WORK IN BAKU AND WHICH LOCATIONS IN AZERBAIJAN INSPIRE HIM ARTISTICALLY.
BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: Could you give your assessment of the current level of bilateral relations between our countries? What are the strengths and weaknesses of our cooperation?
Answer: The bilateral relations between Austria and Azerbaijan are very good and based on friendship and mutual respect. We have frequent bilateral meetings at high levels; both bilaterally as well as within international fora like the OSCE (Organization for Security for Cooperation in Europe) or the Council of Europe. This applies also for the UN. The recent visit of our national delegation at the grand annual UNESCO Meeting in Baku bears recent witness to it. This was a fantastic meeting for the organization and conduct, of which your Minister of Culture, Abulfas Garayev, deserves many thanks.
I am very happy that H.E. President Ilham Aliyev visited Vienna at the end of March 2019. Naturally, this was an excellent opportunity to strengthen our bilateral relationship. I am relatively new in the country; I came to Baku in November 2018, and it is of course very fortunate that we had already such a meeting of our Heads of States.
We have a special connection due to the fact that Austria is very popular in Azerbaijan, as a tourist destination. Vienna was always a traditional transport hub for Azerbaijan. I would be extremely happy to see a direct flight again between Baku and Vienna. The negotiations on this issue are already taking place, so let us be confident.
Q: You mentioned tourism. Could you tell us a little more about the cooperation in this sphere?
A.: Tourism is a field of growth in Azerbaijan. I think the country is doing well. In this context we are natural partners because in tourism, Austria is a super power. We have more Azeri’s travelling to the Alps, not just for skiing during the winter season. Vienna is a popular ‘all seasons’ destination. In general, the number of tourists is climbing –as well as here in Azerbaijan – we can see more and more tourists on the streets. Azerbaijan is developing its tourism infrastructure and has become a popular spot, particularly for visitors from the Middle East.
Baku has the ability to gain even further popularity because it is a very attractive city, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. I think my country can provide inspiration to the development of tourism in Azerbaijan, because Austria is a super power in terms of tourism. We are a classic tourist country with expertise in this field. Our tourism partnership is already at high level, including Austrian experts who were invited to the newly created Azerbaijan Tourist Board.
Q: Did the recent collapse of Austrian government force any delay in planned bilateral negotiations and meetings? Are there any high level visits planned for the near future?
A.: It had some temporary effect because we had scheduled a few high ranking visits. However, this is merely a transitory situation and has no negative impact on bilateral relations. It’s just a normal procedure in western democracies. When we have a new government, working visits will resume as usual, and since the elections are in September, it will happen very soon.
Q: How many Austrian companies work in Azerbaijan? In which industries do they work? Has their number changed over the years? What is the amount of Austrian investments in Azerbaijan?
A.: At the moment, the amount of investments in absolute numbers is not terribly high, but we have always had a special relationship with Azerbaijan. I am very proud that the Austrian company Atelier Erich Pummer, who work on the restoration of old castles and churches in Austria, Italy and Germany, restored the beautiful Maidens Tower, a landmark in your city. The Maidens Tower was in need of restoration due to the closeness of the sea-line, the sun, the birds nesting in the holes and grass growing from the stones. There were concerns that it would be impossible to save it. However, the Austrian company did a fantastic job.
Austria is also present in the construction field; for example, Austrian companies built the Marriott Absheron Hotel, designed the Carpet Museum and advised on the construction of the Shahdag Mountain Resort. The lifts you are using there are Austrian.
Austrian companies are also currently interested in agriculture, which is developing in Azerbaijan. For example, the Austrian company Manner (110 years old) that produces hazelnut candy, intends to grow their own hazelnuts here. So, they launched a plantation project in Guba. The company sells from Los Angeles via Moscow to Tokyo, therefore in the future, many people worldwide will eat hazelnuts from Azerbaijan.
We did the interior design of the new building for the Oil Fund of Azerbaijan. Waagner Biro, famous for its construction of the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi, did the glass and steel construction for the new airport terminal in Baku. We did the new interior design of the exhibition at the Shirvanshah’s Palace. The building of the Baku Convention Centre was partly in the hands of Austrian architectural company, Coop Himmelblau. The leading Austrian railway construction company, Platzer, also cooperated with Azerbaijan. I think there is an opportunity for even more bilateral projects in different fields to move towards the envisaged diversification of economy. Not long ago we wanted to be a partner within oil and gas as well, within the Nabucco project, supported by our OMV company. However, since Austria is well known for its diversified economy, I believe we can build a partnership in any area, from services to agriculture and tourism.
Q.: You mentioned the Nabucco pipeline project, which was supposed to deliver Caspian gas to Europe. Unfortunately, the project failed. Do you believe it could be resumed? How do you assess the prospects of supplies of Central Asian gas through Azerbaijan to Europe, since the status of the Caspian Sea has been resolved?
A.: Since Azerbaijan is in a central position, it is a natural hub. Any project augmenting this, is also welcome to us, particularly if we are involved too. It would be good for the Central Asian states as well. So, let us hope.
Q.: Are there any spheres of Azerbaijani economy, where Austrian companies are not present so far, but could be attractive for Austrian investors?
A.: Again, Oil and Gas of course. But sometimes it can go the other way round; Azerbaijan just opened its first SOCAR petrol station in Graz, Austria. Besides, Austrian companies would be interested in Azerbaijani banking and the financial sector. Should Azerbaijan decide to open the financial market and have foreign banks in the country, certain Austrian companies would probably come. However, this is a decision to be taken here. Austria has always been one of the first countries to go into Eastern European markets. Currently, Austrian Raiffeisen is the only big western bank operating in Russia. It is also the leading western bank in Belarus. We were also pioneers in Ukraine. Why should we not be here? This would be an interesting market for us.
Q.: What Austrian technologies and experience would be useful for Azerbaijan?
A.: Almost in every field where you have interest. I think we can hardly find a field where we do not have expertise and prospects for cooperation. For instance, Austrian companies are experts in managing an excess number of people during big mass events, like Formula 1. Projects in this domain were already implemented. We can also provide Azerbaijan with expertise in the introduction of a new car security system. It envisages a technical check of cars in certain intervals. Safe vehicles mean fewer victims. I think this system would be very useful for Azerbaijan. It is corruption free, which is considered very important. We have so many small and medium size companies, which focus on small but beneficial areas where they become world leaders. SMEs are the strength of the Swiss, Northern Italian, German and Austrian economies, who are very often world market leaders.
Q.: Do these companies come to Azerbaijan to explore possibilities of the market?
A.: Yes, our active Austrian Chamber of Commerce, who bring together all Austrian industries and companies, organizes study trips to Azerbaijan and business-to-business meetings, several times per year. We have already had two this year. There is a huge horizon for cooperation, and we can do many things. Azerbaijan is an interesting and sizeable market with good economic potential.
Q.: This year a Cooperation Council of Austria and Azerbaijan has been created. What are the powers and goals of this body?
A.: The aim is simply to increase the economic exchange between Azerbaijan and Austria as much as possible, to bring enterprises together and establish contacts between companies. It has been very effective. We had the first meeting in Vienna in the spring and then several visits of Austrian companies to Azerbaijan. They had meetings in SOCAR, with the transport and agriculture ministers. More visits will happen in autumn. So, we have the Chamber of Commerce, the Cooperation Council, bilateral agreements between ministries, and governmental contacts. I think this multifaceted approach is very successful.
Q.: Could you tell our readers about cultural cooperation between our countries? Do you plan any Austrian cultural events in Azerbaijan in the near future?
A.: I think we should do much more in the field of culture. This is something I think about. When I worked in Kiev, I had a double function – I was a deputy head of mission and director of the Austrian Cultural Forum. I liked that work because doing cultural things is fantastic: you plan, implement and finish successfully. At the moment I do not have a cultural officer at the embassy in Baku. However, it is something I would love to change, because the level of cultural events in Baku is very good. A lot is being done, not only by Azerbaijan, but also by my colleagues in the diplomatic community. Since Austria has a reputation as a cultural nation, it is natural that we should do more. I would like to work together with the Mugham Center and the Philharmonic Hall of Baku. For instance, we recently put together Austrian medieval music from the 12th-14th centuries as well as ancient Azeri music, at a beautiful concert at the Mugham Center in Baku.
Q.: Could you speak on your hobby? How did you start to paint? What do you like to paint?
A.: When I was a small boy, I always wanted to draw sketches. So, it started in my childhood. Then my university friends, who were also interested in painting, inspired me. I love to paint landscapes. Usually I paint images that I remember, places, which I found beautiful. For me it is a perfect pastime. I am not a friend of overly modern paintings; sometimes I do not even understand the intention of contemporary art at all. What appeals to me is –apart from my general admiration for Italian art – the style of classic English, French and German landscape painters of the 18th-19th centuries. I have never had any painting classes. It is just a hobby, but I develop on my own. I try to understand how people painted in bygone ages, how to use chalk, oil, color, etc.
Q.: Could you tell us about your impressions about Azerbaijan? Have you have time to explore and feel the country?
A.: In my previous position I was in Minsk, where I was the first Austrian diplomat to open the office, and later the embassy. There are many positive things to remember. However, there were two things, which I suffered from – the absence of mountains and the weather. I am a Mediterranean person. I am from the south part of Austria with a lot of sunshine, and I spend my holidays in Italy or on the Croatian coastline whenever I can. Therefore, the absence of sun for many weeks in a row, constant rain and long winters were increasingly difficult for me. So, I like the warm climate here, the sun, the richness of colors and the variety of landscapes a lot. We travelled already to the northern border of Dagestan, the southern border of Iran and the western border of Georgia. There are many things to explore and discover. We are looking forward to exploring beautiful Nakhchivan soon.
Q.: What are your impressions of Baku?
A.: I think Baku is an interesting place to visit because it is in the middle of the ancient cultures of the orient; at the same time it is a European city, located on the fringes of Asia. So, it is a transition zone, which mirror influences from the north, west, south and east. I like the Boulevard along the Caspian Sea, which is excellent for walking and I like the old town. I am very happy about the decisions to invest more into green areas and parks. It is important to supply people with parks, and when I see how many people frequent there every day, it is clear this is the right decision. I am very fond of the classical buildings from the 19th century/beginning of the 20th century, and I am always astonished at your love for ornamentation, which we have unfortunately lost in Central and Western Europe. Modern buildings are still built with a lot of appealing beautiful decoration and sandstone carvings, which sometimes remind me of old Mediterranean cities. I am happy to see this sense of beauty is still alive here.
Q.: Have any places in Azerbaijan inspired you for painting?
A.: Of course, the mountains are my first inspiration. Then the old town and some historic buildings like the Maidens tower or the Ismailiyya Palace. I am also inspired by the paintings of Azerbaijani painter, Sabina Shikhlinskaya, and great artist, Tahir Salahov. Baku gives ample inspiration.