USA Ambassador to Baku, Mr. Lee Litzenberger, in an exclusive interview, tells Azeri Observer about the priorities of US foreign policy in the South Caucasus region, partnership with Azerbaijan on regional and global issues and US support to the diversification of Azerbaijani economy. He also explains why he wants to increase people-to-people ties between the two countries and what measures could open the doors to a new wave of foreign investment to Azerbaijan.
BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: What are the priorities of the US foreign policy in Eastern Europe, Caspian region and the South Caucasus?
Answer: A strong and free Europe is of vital importance to the United States. We are bound together by our shared commitment to the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. Today, Europe is one of the most prosperous regions in the world and our most significant trading partner. The South Caucasus region is an important part of that partnership, both in its own right, but also through its connections to the Caspian region. Azerbaijan has long been called a crossroads, and that is no less true today. Our partnership with Azerbaijan and many other countries in bringing the Southern Gas Corridor to completion is a perfect example of this, as it adds further to Azerbaijan’s contribution to Europe’s energy security. Our policies seek to ensure Azerbaijan’s continued independence to pursue a multi-vector policy that serves the interests of Azerbaijan, not those of outside actors.
Q.: How would you characterize Azerbaijan-US relations under President Donald Trump’s administration?
A.: It is clear to me that the Trump Administration recognizes how valuable Azerbaijan’s partnership has been and continues to be. We have seen a number of personal letters exchanged between President Trump and President Aliyev over the past few years, and our colleagues in Washington, DC pay close attention to developments here and in the region. Collaboration on energy resources is a key part of the relationship. Our partnership on important regional and global security issues such as NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, counter-terrorism efforts, and counter-narcotics efforts are areas where Azerbaijan has proven its commitment to vital regional and global security priorities. We have also seen a strengthening of our development assistance partnership, including a number of new areas of coordination between United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the government. We also recognize the value Azerbaijan places on its strategic independence. We understand this means we will not always agree, but disagreement is always a part of close relationships, and we are confident our partnership with a sovereign, independent Azerbaijan can continue to grow and strengthen, to the benefit of both countries.
Q.: What do you consider your main goals during your tenure in Baku?
A.: I have a few very specific goals for my time here in Baku. First, I want to increase the number of exchanges between the people of Azerbaijan and the people of the United States. There is no better way for our two countries to grow closer than through face-to-face, personal contact between our citizens. We have a strong network of over 6,000 alumni who have been to the United States on some of our exchange programs, such as the Fulbright Program and the FLEX exchange program for high school students. But for a country of ten million, this simply is not enough. I want to double or even triple the number of exchanges occurring each year, but that cannot happen without help from the Azerbaijani government and private sector. Internships, study trips, professional exchanges – these all provide tremendous benefit to both our countries and strengthen the ties between us.
Second, I want to improve the investment climate in Azerbaijan. This country has such a wealth of resources – not just its abundant energy resources, but also its people, and we want to help them reach their full potential. Creating a stronger investment climate here and raising awareness among foreign companies of what Azerbaijan has to offer are a large part of that effort.
Third, and closely tied to the first two, I want to increase the access to and quality of English language learning here. In today’s world, speaking English unlocks countless windows of opportunity wherever you are. Learning to speak English well is crucial in today’s globalized economy and is a critical part of being a global citizen, and we want to help Azerbaijan increase its ability to teach English to all who want to learn it. I would love to see the Peace Corps return to help teach English here by bringing native English speakers to teach in universities, at youth centers, and at our American Corners.
Q.: How does the US assess the ongoing political and economic reforms in Azerbaijan?
A.: We welcome Azerbaijan’s decision to seek economic diversification away from an overreliance on the energy sector. We support policy reforms dedicated to reducing corruption, improving the rule of law, creating more competition in the economy, increasing transparency, and improving the delivery of government services. Our development assistance activities have also supported competitiveness in the agricultural sector, working in areas like hazelnut and berry production, assisting Azerbaijani farmers to improve the quality of their products, and to access high value foreign export markets. Azerbaijan’s shift in focus from investment in physical capital to investment in human capital is timely and welcome and should lead to improved productivity and attract high quality foreign investment. Hand in hand with economic diversification and reform is the importance of democratic principles and rule of law. We fully support the government’s stated goal of justice sector reform, and we anticipate the generational change among government personnel will strengthen respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan. We know these issues have been a source of tension in relations between the United States and Azerbaijan at times, but we truly believe that democratic principles such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, respect for a free media, and others go hand in hand with helping Azerbaijan realize its full economic and social potential in the coming years. Azerbaijan’s greatest resource is not its vast oil and gas reserves, but its people. We trust them to chart a bright future for Azerbaijan.
Q.: The US always pays a lot of attention to the issues of energy security. Could you tell our readers about partnership in this area?
A.: The United States has been committed to supporting Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and independence since 1991. We believe the ability of Azerbaijan to develop its abundant energy resources and exporting them on commercial terms to world markets, are fundamental elements of that sovereignty and independence. US support for the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline ensured Azerbaijan could export its oil globally at market prices, and our continuing support for the Southern Gas Corridor will increase the EU’s energy security while unlocking a wave of Caspian Sea gas bound for Turkey and Europe. We see Azerbaijan as an exporter not just of oil and gas, but also of stability and security to all its energy partners.
Q.: What non-energy sectors of economy have the best prospects for development of bilateral cooperation?
A.: Through economic partnership and development assistance, the United States has been a strong supporter of Azerbaijan’s efforts to diversify its economy. We have engaged with the Azerbaijani government on a number of priority sectors, including agriculture, information and communications technology, transportation, and tourism. To bring Azerbaijan closer to its goal of becoming a regional digital hub, our embassy continues to work with several government ministries and agencies to highlight the importance of protecting intellectual property and promoting cyber security. Our USAID Mission, through its Private Sector Activity, is helping farmers in rural Azerbaijan get their products from the regions to Baku and even international markets, and is working with the Agro Procurement and Supply Company to help them explore new business opportunities like agritourism. Azerbaijan’s geographic location also makes it a potential candidate for growth in the transportation sector, and we have partnered with institutions including the State Customs Committee to build institutional capacity. We also recently organized a tourism exchange in partnership with the State Tourism Agency and Azerbaijan Airlines, and we hope for increased tourist flows between Azerbaijan and the United States. Azerbaijan is a beautiful country, and its people are some of the most hospitable in the world.
Q.: What are the most promising areas for investment cooperation? What measures could Azerbaijan take to become even more attractive to US businesses?
A.: The overall investment climate in Azerbaijan continues to improve, although significant challenges remain. Over the past few years, the Azerbaijani government has worked to integrate the country more fully into the global marketplace, seeking to attract foreign investment, diversify its economy, undertake needed economic and market reforms, and maintain growth. It would benefit Azerbaijan a great deal in this area by becoming a WTO (The World Trade Organization) member. Azerbaijan’s efforts to promote innovation, establish free trade zones, and streamline business licensing should all be commended. However, continued limited transparency and allegations of corruption in regulatory matters remain a problem, and could deter potential foreign investment into Azerbaijan. In light of that, we welcome changes to the judicial system designed to increase court capacity to handle commercial matters. One particularly troublesome area that continues to be a concern is intellectual property rights. In order to make the decision to invest in Azerbaijan, American businesses need to know that their intellectual property here will be protected. By taking measures to promote transparency and protect intellectual property rights, Azerbaijan could really open the doors to a new wave of foreign investment.
Q.: Could you tell us about the social projects and initiatives that the US supports in Azerbaijan?
A.: We sponsor a wide range of activities and events to bring Azerbaijanis and Americans together to learn about each other’s cultures, share ideas and experiences, and find ways to work together to tackle the challenges of today’s world. Every week we have new activities, programs, and visitors for audiences in Baku and in the regions. We have an American Center at the Azerbaijani University of Languages in Baku, as well as American Corners in four regional cities – Salyan, Ganja, Khachmaz, and Kurdamir. At these spaces, Azerbaijanis, including young students, can learn more about America, have access to English language books, and participate in classes, cultural programs, and other activities. Information about all of these can be found on our Facebook page. We also have USAID-funded programs that work with the government to support local civil society organizations that provide a range of beneficial services to communities in different regions of Azerbaijan, including business development skills for women and shelters and rehabilitation services for survivors of trafficking in persons and domestic violence and their families.
Q.: How does the US, as a co-chair of the Minsk Group, assess the recent exchanges of delegations between Azerbaijan and Armenia? Do you believe that they will help to find solutions to the protracted Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?
A.: The United States remains strongly committed to helping the sides achieve a lasting peaceful settlement to the conflict, and our active engagement demonstrates we take that role very seriously. Dialogue and building understanding of how others see things is a crucial part of finding a peaceful settlement. We therefore welcome and are encouraged by the continued willingness of the sides to conduct high-level meetings under the auspices of the Minsk Group Co-Chairs. After the Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Geneva in late January, the Co-Chairs, including the United States, reiterated their full commitment to helping the sides find a peaceful solution to the conflict and the principle of confidentiality in the settlement process, as well as the need for creativity and a spirit of compromise to achieve a fair and lasting peace. This is my hope for the process as well. In addition to the official settlement process, the United States also supports efforts to increase people-to-people ties between the sides and throughout the South Caucasus region. Such contacts are extremely important for reducing negative stereotypes and creating a better understanding of the other side’s perspective, which we hope will not only advance the settlement process but also lead to a more peaceful and prosperous future for the region as a whole. The United States has consistently supported programs aimed at building these ties. We will continue to do that and are considering how we can be more active in this area.
Q.: To end our interview on a lighter note, could you tell our readers about your impressions about Azerbaijan, its culture, cuisine and its people during your time here?
A.: Though I have been here for a year now, I continue to be amazed at the warm hospitality of the Azerbaijani people. The cuisine is wonderful – I love seeing all the fresh fruit and vegetables in the markets around town and out in the regions, and you just cannot beat a grilled lamb kebab here. And the architectural beauty and diversity of Baku is a treasure that makes Azerbaijan a must-see country for any world traveler.
EarleLitzenberger, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, class of Minister Counselor, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate January 2, 2019 as U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan.
Ambassador Litzenberger served previously as Senior Advisor and Senior Bureau Official in the Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. He also has served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Mission to NATO, Brussels (2014-2017), the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia (2010-2013), and the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (2006-2009). He was the NATO Deputy Senior Civilian Representative in Kabul, Afghanistan (2013-2014).
Ambassador Litzenberger’s other overseas assignments include the U.S. Mission to the European Union, Brussels, and the U.S. Embassies in Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, and Algeria, as well as the U.S. Consulate General in Marseille, France. He has held several other positions at the Department of State in Washington, DC, including in the Office of the Deputy Secretary, and as State Department Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
Ambassador Litzenberger holds a B.A. in History from Middlebury College and an M.S. in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College. He speaks French, Russian, Bulgarian, and Serbo-Croatian. He is married and has two grown children, and two grandchildren.