In an exclusive interview for the Azeri Observer Magazine, Czech Ambassador to Baku, Mr. Milan Ekert speaks about the development of bilateral trade, major Czech investment projects in Azerbaijan and the activity of the International Visegrad Fund. He also addresses joint humanitarian and cultural initiatives, and shares his expectations from the next meeting of the Joint Intergovernmental commission, as well as his personal view of Azerbaijan.
BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: Azerbaijan and Czech Republic enjoy good political relations. Could you give us the main achievements in this sphere?
Answer: We count Azerbaijan among our strategic partners, and more importantly, our friends. This year, we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Czech Embassy in Azerbaijan. Of course, the history of our diplomatic relations is much longer, but our presence here is an indicator of the importance we pay to our cooperation. Besides, five years ago the two countries signed a Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership, which gave an impetus for the further development of our relations and raised the interest of Czech business in Azerbaijan. You have a very interesting country. To be honest, I envy Azerbaijan, because you have nine out of eleven climatic types, so it is possible to find everything here – you can swim in the sea, you can go to the mountain resorts, go skiing. I also like Azerbaijani agricultural products very much and believe Azerbaijan has the best tea in the whole world, the best tomatoes, cucumbers, very delicious rice. It is also worth mentioning, Azerbaijani wine. Czech winegrowers have visited Azerbaijan and highly valued its quality and taste, and they only give such an assessment to few wines.
Q.: Azerbaijan is the second biggest oil supplier to the Czech Republic. What else do we trade in large amounts?
A.: The annual bilateral trade between our countries exceeds $2 billion. Oil is the basis of our trade – we have a Crude Oil Tank Farm next to Prague, which stores only Azeri Light, and every third car in the Czech Republic is fueled with Azerbaijani oil. That makes the volume of all other commodities traded between our countries look comparatively small. We should try to balance out mutual trade since the volume of Czech exports to Azerbaijan is only about $70 million. Over the last few years, the construction material for railway tracks for Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, was the most important component of our exports to your country. We have also supplied one third of the BakuBus company’s bus fleet. These buses were produced by Iveco in the city of Vysoké Mýto in the Czech Republic. Additionally, we export three-four types of Czech beer. In Czech Republic, we love beer and have a long history of brewing. I should mention beer, because I come from the city of Plzeň – which is the capital of light lager – where the internationally known Pils recipe comes from. Interestingly, I studied in the University in České Budějovice, where well-known Budweiser is produced, which you actually can find in Azerbaijan’s markets. So, all the main movements in my life are somehow connected with beer [smiles]. Our brewery specialists also helped to launch the Stara Praga beer factory in Azerbaijan.
Q.: Does the Czech Republic import Azerbaijani wine? What other Azerbaijani products could find demand in the Czech market?
A.: Not yet. We should work hard to introduce Azerbaijani wine and also Azerbaijani tomatoes to the Czech people. I hope my Spanish colleagues will not feel offended if I say that Azerbaijani tomatoes are much tastier than Spanish ones. I think that together, with the newly appointed Azerbaijani Ambassador to the Czech Republic, we will try to let the Czechs learn more about Azerbaijan. First of all, I would like to see Azerbaijani food products in the Czech Republic. If Azerbaijan opens a Trading House in Prague, it will facilitate this process. Besides, we are discussing an issue of a direct flight between Prague and Baku, which would also be very helpful in this regard. At present, we only have it in the tourist season – from mid-June to mid-September. I hope this issue will be included in the main protocol of the next meeting of the Joint Commission on Economic, Technical-Scientific and Cultural Cooperation.
Q.: When will this meeting of the bilateral Intergovernmental Commission happen?
A.: The exact date has not been defined yet because of the situation with the coronavirus. In my opinion, there is still no full understanding of how the coronavirus works. I visited Prague at the start of the pandemic and came back on March 13, right before the closure of Azerbaijan’s borders. The restrictive measures were already in place there, and was so unusual to see completely empty streets without tourists. The city somehow lost its atmosphere. It is not clear yet, how and when, we will return to normal life and be able to implement all the planned activities, which are expected to foster our bilateral relations.
Q.: Are any other meetings and visits expected?
A.: During his last visit to Azerbaijan, our President Miloš Zeman, invited President Ilham Aliyev, to pay a return visit to the Czech Republic. This invitation stands open. If technically possible, we would like to welcome President Aliyev in Prague in the 2nd half of 2020.
We are also interested in the consultations between the consular departments of the Foreign Ministries of our two countries. Such consultations are indispensable in order to increase the bilateral tourist exchange. We had an opportunity to host Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister, Khalaf Khalafov in Prague last year, for a round of talks on a variety of issues, and we hope to continue these consultations in Baku. Last year the Chairman of Deputies of the Czech Parliament, Radek Vondráček visited Baku and we would like to invite the Speaker of the Azerbaijani Parliament Sahiba Gafarova, to pay a return visit to Prague. I am very pleased that there is an Azerbaijan-Czech Republic friendship group in the Azerbaijani parliament and that Mrs. Gafarova headed this group, before her appointment to the post of speaker. So, we have many plans, and all these plans will be implemented as soon as the invisible enemy called coronavirus, allow us to do it.
Q.: You mentioned tourist exchange. Do we still have space to increase it?
A.: Most certainly! Azerbaijanis like visiting the Czech Republic, I hope we will welcome Azerbaijani tourists again, when the situation with coronavirus improves. However, they mainly go to two destinations – Prague and Karlovy Vary. We would like them to discover the other regions of the Czech Republic too, because we have a lot of things to offer and to show. The Czech Republic, for example, lacks the sea, and it is a good opportunity to attract Czech tourists to the Caspian Sea.
Q.: Tell our readers about the investment cooperation between our countries and the most notable joint projects.
A.: From 2010, we have been engaged in large infrastructure projects in Azerbaijan – the modernization of the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway corridor, implemented by a consortium of Czech companies led by Moravia Steel, highway construction, supply of banners for central streets. Czech businesses regularly participate in entrepreneurial missions here. Now we are waiting for the next meeting of the Joint Intergovernmental Commission and hope that it will develop a framework for some new and large investment projects. In the Czech Republic, we have good technology in the development of renewable energy sources, energy saving, remediation of petroleum-contaminated soil; we also produce equipment for solar and biomass power plants, and we are ready to offer them to Azerbaijan.
Q.: Many Azerbaijani students go to study at the Universities in Czech Republic. Tell us about cooperation in this sphere.
A.: Student and academic exchange is of immense importance in our bilateral relations, as it opens up people’s eyes and helps to eliminate prejudice. Czech Universities regularly participate in the education fairs in Baku. The Czech education has a good reputation and is free of charge. There are some additional costs – accommodation, living expenses, etc., but it is possible to get a scholarship to cover these costs. The Embassy does not issue Czech scholarships in Azerbaijan, but we do issue Visegrad scholarships, and several dozen students from Azerbaijan receive these scholarships annually. We are the embassy contact of the International Visegrad Fund, therefore all the Azerbaijani students who want to receive support from this fund for their studies, should contact us. In addition, some students study in the Czech Republic on their own account, and some get scholarships directly from Czech Universities. Now, about 1,000 Azerbaijani students study in our country.
Q.: What humanitarian and cultural projects does the Embassy implement in Azerbaijan? How does this cooperation help to bring the two nations together?
A.: Over the last few years, our Embassy has been supporting projects focusing on energy efficiency and development at schools in the Shamakhi region, with the development of student technical skills. The energy-saving technologies supplied by private Czech companies are free of charge, thus will allow the decrease of energy consumption by 70 percent.
We participate in many festivals in Azerbaijan. For example, last year, Czech director Daria Kashcheeva, whose short-animated drama film was earlier nominated for an Academy Award, received two awards at the international short-film festival in Baku.
Last year, we also managed to bring the best Czech folklore ensemble called Ondráš to Baku. They performed at the celebration of the Czech National Day in Baku and the National Conservatory of Azerbaijan and were very welcomed by the audience. We also take part in the events organized by the European Union in Azerbaijan. For instance, we presented Czech films at the annual European Film Festival, in Baku. One of them (Dark Blue World) mentions our pilots who supported Soviet troops in the battle for Czechoslovakia in WW2, though it was not the main topic of the film. These pilots could not cross Europe because of the war and therefore passed through the Mediterranean Sea, with the headquarters in Azerbaijan. This year we have participated in the Imagine online festival. I would also like to invite a talented Czech band to take part in the Baku Jazz Festival, because it is a very good festival, so this will be my next task.
In 2019, we started to work on the tourist trail marking system project. In Czech Republic we have about 88,000 kilometers of marked trails for pedestrians, and the Embassy are trying to create a similar system in Azerbaijan, in cooperation with the Azerbaijani Ecology and Natural Resources Ministry as well as the Azerbaijani State Tourism Agency, in order to help the country develop its tourist potential.
Finally, the former counselor of the Czech embassy in Baku, Petr Vagner, wrote a very interesting book about Czechoslovakian-Azerbaijani relations. He worked in the archives and found many links connecting our nations. For example, he discovered the information about Czech pilots, whom I mentioned before, and about the visit of the Czechoslovakian President, Edward Edvard Beneš to Baku during WWII – though we cannot find any written sources confirming this fact. This book will be translated into Azerbaijani and Russian languages.
Q.: What measures have been taken for the development of cooperation between The Visegrad Group and the Eastern Partnership countries within the presidency of Czech Republic in the group?
A.: The main focus of the Visegrad Fund is the provision of Visegrad scholarships. In April 2020, our Foreign Minister hosted a virtual meeting of the Visegrad Group (V4) Foreign Ministries, aimed at supporting the Eastern Partnership and raising its profile within the external policies of the EU. One of the decisions made at this meeting was to establish the V4 East Solidarity Programme, which will provide aid for the strengthening of health, social and economic resilience of vulnerable groups affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in the Partner countries, including Azerbaijan.
Q.: What are your brightest impressions of Baku and Azerbaijan?
A.: Our countries have many similarities – the size of the territories, population number and the location between two big powers – The Soviet Union and Germany in the case of the Czech Republic, and Russia and Iran in the case of Azerbaijan. Therefore, the mentality of our people have many things in common. I have travelled around the country and I especially liked Sheki, Astara and Lankaran. It is so unusual and amazing to see trees with real tangerines, tea and rice fields. Last, but not least, I cannot fail to mention the hospitality of the Azerbaijani people.