Hungarian Ambassador to Baku, Mr. Viktor Szederkenyi, in an exclusive interview, tells Azeri Observer about the biggest ever Hungarian investment in Azerbaijan, promising areas for the economic cooperation, and the prospects for bilateral projects in Azerbaijan’s liberated territories. He also speaks about Azerbaijan’s role in European energy security and the embassy’s activity aimed at the promotion of Azerbaijan-NATO cooperation. Finally, he addresses new formats of bilateral cultural projects in this Covid reality and explains how intensive ties in education contribute to the future.
BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: The coronavirus pandemic and related restrictions have affected a lot of international projects and initiatives. What effect did it have on the bilateral cooperation between Azerbaijan and Hungary?
Answer: Our bilateral relations have strong, solid foundations. They are both strategic and friendly. We don’t have any outstanding political problems. Hungary has been consequently supporting Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. So, in general terms, nothing has changed in the character of our relationship. However, in practical terms, it of course affected the way we normally maintain our relations. For example, usually, our foreign ministers meet bilaterally 3-4 times a year, in our capitals or at international conferences. We did manage to have a foreign ministerial visit to Baku in July when important documents were signed, but the pandemic obviously affected the frequency of personal encounters between our politicians. We have adapted though to the new – hopefully temporary – realities; for example, we have more phone calls, videoconferences. The restrictions naturally affected other areas too: business exchanges, people-to-people contacts, not to mention tourism. But again, we have a solid basis to build upon.
Q.: In 2020, Hungarian MOL Group completed a deal on the acquisition of the third largest stake in the Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli (ACG) oil and gas field and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline. What does it mean for the bilateral relations between our countries?
A.: That it what I was referring to. Despite all the difficulties, we managed to complete our biggest ever investment in Azerbaijan last year. With the oil and gas sector being of strategic importance for both countries, investment and cooperation in this sector are a true manifestation of the excellent state of our bilateral relationship. This also means that we are confident in the long-term success of the “Contract of the 21st Century”. I believe it may open up new opportunities for our two leading companies. Both MOL and SOCAR have a diverse business portfolio; they are quite active in many European and Asian countries, so there is room to expand their cooperation.
Q.: Tell us about the activity of other Hungarian companies operating in Azerbaijan.
A.: Hungarian pharmaceutical brands from Gedeon Richter and EGIS have been well known in Azerbaijan for decades, as well as the popular HELL energy drinks, which are also Hungarian products. In addition, we have been shipping livestock to Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, we focus on joint projects also, that bring mutual benefits, and offer innovative technologies and know-how. For example, our companies were engaged in projects in the agriculture and IT sectors here.
Q.: Are any new bilateral economic projects under discussion?
A.: Exploring new opportunities is our Embassy’s primary task and we are discussing a lot of them in line with the priorities determined at previous high-level meetings, including the 7th session of our Intergovernmental Commission on Economic Cooperation in February 2020. So we don’t start from scratch here either. We can build on existing or previous cooperation’s, like the one we had between Azersu and Hungarian waterworks companies or between our IT firms. There are also ongoing projects to be completed, like a greenhouse complex construction in Azerbaijan. It is worth mentioning that the Hungarian EXIM Bank has a special credit line available for joint projects by interested Hungarian and Azerbaijani companies. Obviously, lifting travel restrictions would help a lot in intensifying business relations.
Q.: Do you think that some Hungarian companies could be interested to start new projects in Azerbaijan’s territories liberated from the Armenian occupation? In what spheres?
A.: Absolutely. I think the reconstruction of these territories – a giant endeavor indeed – will create new opportunities for deepening our economic cooperation. This issue was already raised at a video-conference between the Co-Chairs of our bilateral Intergovernmental Commission on January 14. I can think of several spheres, given the potential of these territories, like agriculture, smart solutions in urban development, water management or thermal water resources use, since Hungary is considered as a thermal water “powerhouse” so we can offer our knowledge here.
Q.: Azerbaijan has recently started supplying gas to Europe by the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). Do you expect it to reach Hungary in the short- to midterm? Has there been any progress in the implementation of the interconnector projects, which will link Hungary with the Southern Gas Project pipeline?
A.: These are wonderful developments. TAP will certainly play a significant role in enhancing Europe’s energy security. As for Hungary, we have already expressed our interest to include Azerbaijani gas to our energy mix in the future. Hungary has already built all internal transmission system elements; the construction of the interconnectors in South-East-Europe is underway, and once it is completed, there will be no obstacles to our access to the Southern Gas Corridor.
Q.: The Hungarian Embassy has been serving as the NATO Contact Point Embassy in Baku since 2017. Tell us about your activity in this area.
A.: We have served 4 years as the NATO Contact Point Embassy. In this capacity, we facilitated the two-way communication between Azerbaijan and the Alliance, assisted organizing visits by NATO officials. What I take from this work is that Azerbaijan is a reliable and contributing partner of NATO. You know, before coming to Baku, I served at the Hungarian delegation to NATO. In my public diplomacy activities here, I used my experience in Brussels to highlight what NATO does.
Q.: Hungary is one of the most popular destinations for university studies among Azerbaijani youth. What makes Hungarian Universities so attractive?
A.: On January 6, on behalf of my ministry, I signed a new 3-year bilateral cooperation programme in the field of education. Through this programme, Hungary continues to provide 200 full scholarships for Azerbaijani students annually. This is a flagship programme in our bilateral cooperation and yes, there is a growing interest to study in Hungary – we have almost 1,000 Azerbaijani students in Hungary and not only through this programme. Hungarian universities offer great value, the highest standards, internationally recognized diplomas, and let’s not forget that your students are in a friendly country. For us, it is an investment into the future; we hope that many of these students will enhance ourmutual bilateral relations.
Q.: How does our cultural and humanitarian cooperation develop in the new COVID-19 reality?
A.: I hope that it will not be a long lasting reality. Although we tried to make the most out of the virtual space, to maintain – with the obvious limitations – the rich variety of cultural activities our Embassy offers to the Azerbaijani public. Last year we organized online photo and drawing contests about Hungary, a webinar on the preservation of cultural heritage, virtual museum tours, film screenings and unique concerts. We are especially proud of the Azerbaijani folk song, Sari Gelin, performance by several foreign singers organized by our initiative. Additionally, we always try to showcase Hungarian gastronomy at our events. Last year we did it a little bit differently – two Hungarian pastry chefs created a cake with a Hungarian culinary recipe, using typical Azerbaijani ingredients symbolizing our friendship. We named it, Honey-Pomegranate Friendship (“Bal-Nar Dost”), and in the absence of diplomatic receptions, distributed it through the DOST Social Services Agency. The mutual flow of tourists unfortunately stopped, but we hope for the lifting of the restrictions and the resumption of the direct flight between Budapest and Baku as soon as possible.
Q.: Hungary is the only non-Turkic country in the Turkic Council. How does your country see its role in this organization?
A.: Hungary is highly interested in engaging more and more in the work of the Council – not just with issues related to the preservation of the shared historic and cultural traditions, but also in the political and economic cooperation with the Turkic speaking world. That is why we became observers in the Council in 2018. We also want to serve as a window for the Turkic world to the European institutions. To facilitate this dialogue, we opened the Council’s Representation Office in Budapest, in September 2019.
Q.: What is on the bilateral agenda for 2021?
A.: Due to the obvious reasons, it is hard to give an answer filled with exact plans for visits, meetings, conferences, etc. We are continuously reshaping and adapting our plans. But the bottom line, the overarching goal, remains the same: to expand our cooperation in every possible field. There is a strong political will from both sides to do that.
Q.: To finalize the interview, could you say a couple of words about your impressions about Azerbaijan? Have you found any similarities between our nations and cultures?
A.: I enjoy working in Azerbaijan. Both, because of the similarities and the differences. Azerbaijan is a very diverse country, culturally, geographically, and I wish to explore it more. I feel welcome here, personally and officially. Among the similarities, I would mention the hospitality, the devotion to families and family values, personal relations and friendship.