In an exclusive interview the Netherlands’ Ambassador to Baku, Mr. Onno Kervers, tells the Azeri Observer Magazine about the bilateral economic cooperation as one of the main goals of his diplomatic mission, Dutch companies working in Azerbaijan, and promising areas of Azerbaijan’s economy. He also speaks on his long diplomatic career, travelling and mountain climbing in Azerbaijan and his view of Azerbaijani society.
Question: Mr. Ambassador, please present yourself to our readers. Could you tell us a little bit about your background?
Answer: My name is Onno Kervers, I am 62 and have been a career diplomat for 37 years. I am an international lawyer by education, and I see diplomacy as an indispensable tool for working towards better international relations, peace and security. During my long career I have been working not only in many different places (such as Brussels, Geneva, London, Bogota, Istanbul, Caracas and Rome) but also in many different sectors of the diplomatic world: security and disarmament, economic and cultural cooperation, consular affairs, counter-terrorism etc. My wife Sigrid accompanied me wherever I was posted, she is German and at the same time an excellent representative of The Netherlands! We have two daughters, who have dual citizenship and are now pursuing their own careers: Anne is in the arthouse film business in the Netherlands and Marthe just started working at the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin.
Q.: What are the main goals for the diplomatic mission of the Netherlands in Azerbaijan?
A.: The more traditional part of diplomacy, observing regional developments from a geopolitical point of view, is an important part of our presence here. Azerbaijan is a very strategically located country, and for Dutch foreign policy it is important to watch not only regional security developments and the relations of Azerbaijan with its neighbouring countries, but also to explore what the country can contribute to energy security and how major logistical concepts (OBOR, North-South Transport corridor) develop. With regard to the latter, as a trading nation with Rotterdam being the biggest port of Europe, such developments can provide opportunities – but at the same time we have to keep an eye on our potential competitors!
This brings me to the second goal of our presence here: economic cooperation and trade promotion. From Azerbaijan’s independence on, Dutch companies have been very active in the market here, obviously in energy-related sectors, but also in sectors where the Netherlands has a special expertise: water management and design (ports, dredging, engineering, etc.), environment, petrochemicals, shipbuilding, logistics and education. Activities of the embassy include organizing trade missions, Dutch pavilions in trade fairs and round tables for Dutch companies; assisting individual Dutch companies in finding reliable partners in Azerbaijan; carrying out market scans to test the commercial viability of Dutch products; and connecting Dutch companies to distributors.
Finally, my country aims to contribute to the strengthening of democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Azerbaijan. We discuss these issues with all different elements and layers of the Azerbaijani society, ranging from central and local authorities to parliamentarians, civil society and NGOs. We also try to put our money where our mouth is by supporting the necessary reforms with projects. These include bilateral projects aimed at promoting gender equality and contributions – either financial or in terms of providing Dutch experts and expertise – to projects undertaken by the European Union and the Council of Europe on legal reforms, combatting corruption, etc.
Q.: What is the current level of Dutch investment in Azerbaijan? What are the main areas of investment?
A.: The Netherlands traditionally belongs to the top investors in Azerbaijan. In 2014, we ranked third-largest investor in the country; this level remains high and investments are mostly aimed at traditional sectors such as energy and energy-related.
Q.: How many Dutch companies operate in Azerbaijan? What are the biggest projects that they are involved in?
A.: Presently we estimate that 25-30 Dutch companies are active in the Azerbaijani market and about half of them are actually operating in country through their own office or through a representative or agent. The biggest projects are in the petrochemical field and aimed at providing project management contractor services for oil-gas processing and setting up petrochemical complexes.
Q.: What do you see as the area with the highest potential for growth in the Azerbaijan economy? How is the Netherlands supporting development in this area?
A.: This is no doubt the agricultural sector, for two reasons. First of all, the Netherlands is the second largest food-exporting nation in the world and has the most developed agricultural sector in the world. Research and innovation, sustainability, and flawless logistics are key words here. So, we have a lot to offer, and this ties in very well with the fact that agriculture is the first priority for Azerbaijan in the diversification of its economy, as laid down in its strategic roadmap for economic transformation. We are supporting this is a number of ways. First of all, we are making the authorities in Azerbaijan and companies active in agri-business aware of what the Netherlands has to offer, by official visits, seminars and company visits. On the more academic level, the well-known agricultural university of Wageningen is working together with ADA University, through the Azerbaijan-Netherlands business hub, on what I would call a ‘master plan’ for agricultural development in Azerbaijan. I don’t want to be too technical, but this project is aimed at defining which agricultural activity (husbandry, farming, crop-rowing) can best be undertaken in which geographical area of the country, from the perspective of the climate, the soil, irrigation, etc., but also from the economic point of view (cost-effectiveness).
And lastly, we bring Dutch entrepreneurs in contact with potential clients here in Azerbaijan. Promising areas within the agri-business sector are horticulture, seeds, greenhouses and greenhouse technology, dairy products, and poultry and meat production.
Q.: You arrived to your posting in Azerbaijan more than four years ago. What preconceptions about Azerbaijan and its culture did you arrive with? How has your understanding of Azerbaijan evolved during your time here?
A.: I had the idea that the country would combine the old and the new, and I have seen in the first year of my posting here that this is very much the case. Already some years ago I read the wonderful book Ali & Nino, a romantic story set against the background of the era of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. I was looking forward to roaming in the Icherisheher, which provides much of the stage – in days of the past – of the novel. Next to that, in June 2016, from my previous posting in Caracas, Venezuela, I watched the first Formula One Grand Prix unfolding on the Baku City Circuit, and this is very much Azerbaijan in days of the present!
Although it probably takes many decades to really understand a foreign country, I have had the occasion during the past year to get to know your country a bit better. I have travelled, both professionally and privately, to many parts of the country: Quba and Shahdag, Shamaxi, Lahic and Qabala, Sheki and Qax in the north, and Masali, Lenkaran and Sebirabad in the south. Also I have explored Baku and surroundings: Absheron and Ateshgah, Qobustan and the mud volcanoes, the old oilfields of Suraxani and the very scenic old neighbourhood of Sovietsky. These travels have shown me not only the many climate zones the country has, but also the diversity and hospitality of its population.
Q.: In previous conversations with Azeri Observer, you mentioned a possible future arts or theater project to explore the differences between the way the concept of gender equality is understood in Azerbaijan and the Netherlands. What do you see as some of the differences in the way gender equality is thought about in Azerbaijan versus in the Netherlands?
A.: In some aspects, Azerbaijan is a more traditional society and gender roles can be rather predetermined. Through our experience after WWII, we have seen that more self-consciousness among women is a positive contribution to society. Giving women more opportunities to study or get a job creates a more diverse and flexible society, and this is an experience we would like to share with Azerbaijan.
Q.: You are an amateur mountain climber and have a group of friends with whom you plan yearly treks. Can you tell us a little bit about your latest trip in Azerbaijan?
A.: Yes, the group dates back to my time as Consul General in Istanbul and consists of Germans, Austrians, one Turk and me as Dutchman. They visited me and with the assistance of the Director of National Parks, we organized a hiking trip from Laza, via the base camp to Mount Shahdag and back via the base camp to Xinaliq. The nature of the Caucasus is really overwhelming and the climbing a real challenge. Personally, I unfortunately did not make it to the top of Mount Shahdag (still, I climbed as high as 3,850 m.) but a number of our group reached the summit of 4,250 m. and were impressed by the beauty over there.
Q.: And finally, our signature question: How do you view Azerbaijan? As a European or an Asian country?
Difficult to say. There are a lot of historical and social influences in Azerbaijan. Of course, as a Turkic nation, its origins are in the east, as are its ties to Iran. Then again, there is the Russian influence and the desire to look in the direction of Europe, a tendency which dates back to more than a century ago. Maybe you can say that the heart of the country belongs to the east, but with its head it is oriented towards the west!