IN AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH THE AZERI OBSERVER MAGAZINE, PAKISTANI AMBASSADOR TO BAKU, MR. BILAL HAYEE, SPEAKS ABOUT THE LONG HISTORY OF CONNECTIONS BETWEEN THE TWO COUNTRIES AND THREE PRIORITY DIRECTIONS FOR FURTHER PARTNERSHIP. HE ALSO TALKS ON PAKISTAN’S SUPPORT TO AZERBAIJAN IN THE ISSUE OF NAGORNO-KARABAKH, COOPERATION IN THE MILITARY SPHERE, AND EXPLAINS WHY HE FEELS FORTUNATE TO WORK IN BAKU.
BY ElENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: You arrived in Azerbaijan just a month ago. What goals were assigned to you in this new post?
Answer: I am very fortunate that my first Ambassadorial assignment is in Azerbaijan, which is a brotherly country. There is immense goodwill and respect in Azerbaijan for Pakistan and I have experienced it first-hand since I arrived here in mid-September. During my calls on the Pakistani leadership before coming to Baku, I was advised to work towards further strengthening the cordial ties between our countries. In this context, my priority would be on the three main areas. First, enhancing economic engagement with special focus on energy cooperation and bilateral trade, especially in agriculture, pharmaceutical, education and industrial products. Second, make efforts to further deepen the strong defence relations and military to military cooperation. Finally, working towards bringing the people of the two countries closer through tourism, parliamentary, media and student exchanges. I am confident that during my tenure in Baku, I will be able to make some contribution to realizing these objectives.
Q.: Azerbaijan and Pakistan have close contacts within many international organizations, such as the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, etc. How do these contacts contribute to the development of our bilateral cooperation?
A.: Yes, both Pakistan and Azerbaijan have common memberships in many important international organizations where diplomats of the two countries work closely to align positions on various issues of mutual interest. Pakistan supports the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in line with the UN Security Council Resolutions. Regarding the recent escalation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, our Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a number of statements in support of Azerbaijan, and the Foreign Minister of Pakistan has also personally spoken with his Azerbaijani counterpart.
We are also fortunate to have the consistent support of Azerbaijan on Pakistan’s principled stance over the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. Pakistan greatly appreciates the statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan, in wake of illegal and unilateral Indian decision to abrogate Articles 370 and 35A, regarding special status of Jammu and Kashmir.
Q.: Pakistan has always supported Azerbaijan’s just position on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Actually, Pakistan is one of the strongest supporters of our country in this conflict. How can you explain such a high level of understanding between our countries despite the distance?
A.: You would recall that Pakistan was amongst the first few countries, which recognized Azerbaijan after its independence. Being a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 1993-94, Pakistan, played an important role in the adoption of the UN resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh, which created a legal framework for Azerbaijan’s just position on the issue. Since the beginning of the recent conflict, Pakistan has stood with Azerbaijan. Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued several statements in support of Azerbaijan. I am very happy to see Pakistani flags being flown at various places in Azerbaijan, along with flags of Azerbaijan, which reflects the warm sentiments and affection of the people of Azerbaijan for Pakistan.
Q.: Our countries enjoy effective cooperation in military and military-technical spheres. Could you tell us about the contacts and joint initiatives in these areas?
A: The defence cooperation between the two countries is robust. There have been frequent military exchanges between the armed forces since the establishment of our diplomatic relations. Both countries have signed defence agreements to promote defence cooperation. A Joint Working Group on Military Cooperation meets regularly to earmark new projects wherein both armed forces could collaborate. Azerbaijani military personnel are offered regular training courses in Pakistani military training institutions. Our defence authorities have offered technical support in the development and maintenance of the defence equipment. Both countries have also been participating in defence-related EXPOs in the respective countries and there is high-level interaction between senior defence officials on a regular basis.
Q.: How has the pandemic influenced our trade and economic cooperation? What are your forecasts for cooperation in energy, transport and trade?
A.: The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely impacted the bilateral trade due to disruption with international flights and lockdowns. In recent months, both Pakistan and Azerbaijan have tried to contain the pandemic but the resurgence of a second wave cannot be ruled out, as the weather is turning colder. Regarding cooperation in energy, transport and trade, I see immense potential for a deepening partnership between our two sides. Soon after the pandemic, we have plans to start direct flights between Pakistan and Azerbaijan, which will reduce the travel time significantly and contribute towards facilitating both trade and tourism.
Q.: The number of Pakistani tourists in Azerbaijan has greatly increased over the last few years. How do you assess the prospects of the further tourist exchange? What do you plan for the post pandemic period?
A.: In 2019, there were more than 40,000 Pakistani visitors to Azerbaijan. Looking at the increasing international traffic between Pakistan and Azerbaijan, direct flights have become commercially viable. Necessary homework has been done and I hope that after the pandemic, the direct flights will commence which will facilitate tourism from both sides.
Q.: Some Pakistanis informed me there was a plague epidemic in Pakistan in the beginning of the 20th century and Azerbaijani philanthropist, Hajji ZeynalabdinTaghiyev, helped your country fight to overcome it. Could you give us some details about it?
A.: I am also familiar with this story of renowned philanthropist, Hajji ZeynalabdinTaghiyev, who sent thousands of vials of vaccine against the pneumonic plague that affected parts of the subcontinent, now in Pakistan during the early 20th century. The vaccine helped in saving precious lives in Muslim populated areas of the subcontinent. This incident demonstrates the historical connections between our two countries, which go back, even before the creation of modern nation states of Pakistan and Azerbaijan.
Q.: Are you working on any new joint projects in the cultural and humanitarian spheres?
A.: We have some ideas to start projects in the cultural and humanitarian spheres on both sides, to further strengthen the brotherly ties between our two countries. Visits of historic sites in Pakistan and Azerbaijan and joint ventures in the production of life saving drugs, could be given priority in this context.
Q.: Tell us about your impressions of Azerbaijan. How does it feel to work in Baku?
A.: This is my first time in Azerbaijan and I am very excited to be living in your country, and among people who love and respect Pakistan. I notice the warmth and affection of the beautiful people of Azerbaijan on a daily basis while going to work, out shopping and during official meetings. I receive many letters from ordinary Azerbaijani citizens showing their love for Pakistan, which makes me feel humbled and overwhelmed.