IN AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH THE AZERI OBSERVER MAGAZINE, ITALIAN AMBASSADOR TO AZERBAIJAN, AUGUSTO MASSARI, SPEAKS ON LARGE-SCALE BILATERAL ECONOMIC COOPERATION, PROJECTS OF COMMON INTEREST IN ENERGY AND NON-ENERGY SPHERES, EXCHANGE OF EXPERIENCE IN EDUCATION AND BUSINESS, AND CULTURAL EVENTS PLANNED BY THE EMBASSY FOR THE NEAR FUTURE. HE ALSO SHARES HIS VIEW ON THE SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES BETWEEN OUR TWO COUNTRIES AND REVEALS WHAT SURPRISED HIM THE MOST ABOUT AZERBAIJAN.
BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: After almost two years in Baku, you have finally accepted an interview with the Azeri Observer Magazine. What changed your mind?
Answer: I am not particularly keen to give interviews. However, I am happy to be here with you. Thank you so much for this opportunity.
Q.: High officials of Azerbaijan and Italy meet and exchange visits regularly. How does this help the development of bilateral cooperation?
A.: Many friends, who are not diplomats, often ask me the purpose of such visits at the international level. I used to say to them that “inter-national” relations are like “inter-personal” relations. People meet because they care for one another. So, it is the same for nations. If you have a friend and you never visit them, it is not a real friendship. Because we are friends, Italy and Azerbaijan conduct many high-level official visits with each other. As the substance of our relationship grows, it is only natural that our bilateral visits increase. We can certainly list the State visit of our President of the Republic, H.E. Mr. Sergio Mattarella, in July 2018, as a historical landmark, since it was the first visit of an Italian Head of State to Azerbaijan. Only two months later, the First Vice President of Azerbaijan, H.E. Mrs. Mehriban Aliyeva, paid her first official visit abroad in Rome, where she met our Head of State at the Quirinale Palace. Moreover, in October of last year, the second highest-ranking official of the Italian Republic, the Chairman of the Senate Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, made her first visit to Baku as well. Early last May, the President of Milli Mejlis (Parliament), H.E. Ogtay Asadov, paid a visit to Rome. We are now working to coordinate a visit to Italy for President Ilham Aliyev next year. To us, high-profile visits are much more about substance than protocol. These visits help us bring priorities into focus, set the agenda for months – sometimes even years – to come, and establish a mutual trust at the highest levels, which makes the bilateral relationship smoother and easier across the board.
Q.: The oil sector is the leading sphere of cooperation between our countries. Could you give our readers some details about projects of common interest in this sphere?
A.: For years, Italy has been by far the largest importer of Azerbaijani oil worldwide. Our imports reached a peak of over 8 billion euros in 2011, decreased in 2015-2016 due to a fall in global prices, and then picked up again, surpassing 5.5 billion euros in 2018. This amounts to roughly 15% of Azerbaijan’s total GDP, a sum that is sufficient to understand how strategic our partnership is and why we do not limit it to oil. We regard the economic-industrial partnership as a part of the broader sphere of our bilateral cooperation. We are steadfast in the belief that durable, successful cooperation must be built not only on trade but also on investments and industrial partnerships. Some of those partnerships in the industrial sphere have grown over time. SAIPEM was the first Italian company in Azerbaijan and for more than 15 years has continued to be a reliable partner in the oil industry. Another example of the partnership was the decision of our two Presidents last July to jointly inaugurate the Sumgayit polypropylene plant developed by the SOCAR Polymer and Maire Tecnimont of Italy. I see a vast scope for improvement in this respect. We are in constant touch with our Azerbaijani counterparts on key industrial projects ranging from hydrocarbon transformation to environmental protection, from agriculture to connectivity, and from steel production to transports.
Q.: The Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) will deliver Azerbaijani gas to Italy for further distribution in the European Union. What is the current state of its construction?
A.: The Trans Adriatic Pipeline is progressing according to schedule. Last April 26th the micro-tunnel was completed. The Pipeline Receiver Terminal plant works are ongoing, as well as the onshore pipeline. During the summer, preparatory works for the offshore pipe will be completed. The project is currently 86.5% complete and is due to deliver Azerbaijani gas to the EU markets by 2020.
Q.: How will the TAP contribute to the development of economic cooperation between Azerbaijan and Italy?
A.: Once the project is complete, our bilateral relations will be even more strategic as Italy will not only be the first worldwide importer of Azerbaijani oil, but also the second worldwide importer of the country’s natural gas. From 2020 on, a physical infrastructure of strategic importance will directly link Azerbaijan and Italy. I firmly believe that this will not only generate a large stream of revenue for Azerbaijan, but it will also have a multiplier effect on overall bilateral cooperation by creating new partnerships between companies of our two countries. We believe that Italy’s sizable role in Azerbaijani commercial transactions should create extensive opportunities for Italian companies to be more present in Azerbaijan. This was one of the consistent messages during the visit of our Head of State in Azerbaijan and will be even more apparent once the gas is added as a significant Azerbaijani export to Italy.
Q.: How do you assess the prospects of gas supplies from other Caspian countries via the TAP? Is there any progress with the negotiations on this issue?
A.: Coherent with the EU policy, we would very much favor linking the Southern Gas Corridor with new resources from the other countries of the Caspian basin. This would be necessary to help nourish the consumption of our national industry, given the limited resources coming from the Shah Deniz fields. I know that Azerbaijan’s government is also interested in these opportunities, and we are encouraged by the climate of cooperation among the Caspian countries, which led to last year’s historical Caspian Convention. With time, I hope that this project will come true, but of course, it is up to the interested countries to be the driving forces behind it.
Q.: Italy is the primary importer of Azerbaijani products and the first trade partner for our country. Do you see any opportunities to further increase the bilateral trade, and in particular, non-oil supplies? Which Azerbaijani products could find demand in the Italian market?
A.: When it comes to Azerbaijani exports, our economic relations already go beyond oil and gas. Through our multinational company Ferrero, Italy has become the most substantial worldwide importer of Azerbaijani hazelnut products. In this sector, there are already projects in the pipeline to increase the yield and productivity of Azerbaijani crops, which will increase the volume and competitiveness of its exports. So, agriculture is an influential field in which Azerbaijan can successfully strengthen its role in international markets. This is one of the primary goals of a new project being led by Italy and financed by the EU. The project will also include two other European countries, Poland and Lithuania. Last May 1st, our experts started working with colleagues of the Azerbaijani Ministry of Agriculture with the goal of enhancing the impact of this sector on the national GDP. Some recent investments by Italian small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Azerbaijan will also widen the sphere of our imports. These SMEs are the BioGroup company, which recycles waste tires for the production of industrial oils, and Techniconsult, a pharmaceutical company. The Partnership Agreement between Azerbaijan and the EU should represent a new opportunity to expand Azerbaijani exports.
Q.: Azerbaijan pays a lot of attention to the diversification of economy and development of agriculture, transport, tourism, chemical industry, etc. Do you think Italian experience in these spheres could be applied in Azerbaijan?
A.: Without a doubt. The projects I mentioned are clear examples. The Azerbaijani government and the country’s private sector know that Italian companies can offer top-notch expertise in all spheres. There is a pleasant cliché about Italian exports, where many people only think about our food, wine, sports cars, and high-end clothes. I will tell you a story. Before arriving in Baku, I was in China, and I spent a lot of time reminding my Chinese friends that to identify Italy only with luxury brands and lifestyles is a bit inadequate and limited. I explained to them that Italy is the second largest industrial manufacturing country in the EU, after Germany, and is a top-ten world exporter, not because of the fashion or food industry. In fact, the bulk of our industrial production comes from advanced technology, innovative machinery, robotics, and pharmaceuticals. I do not need to remind Azerbaijanis of this because they already know our technology very well. They know that our ability “to do things” comes from long ago in our history. Companies in my country today can find inspiration from the heritage of our past and in every corner of life. When you are surrounded by beauty, it is easy to produce beauty. This is a richness, and it allows us to link traditions and innovations.
Italy and Azerbaijan have completed many projects together, and I am sure that our futures together will also be bright. Italians are proud of their ability to establish successful cooperation, respect, and understanding with peoples of different cultures and backgrounds. We do not impose ourselves, we propose ourselves. It truly is in our DNA. When an Italian company comes here, it does it with the utmost respect and with a desire to establish genuine connections, going beyond simple business, and embracing personal ties.
Q.: Do Italian companies show interest in cooperation and investments in the non-oil sector of the Azerbaijani economy?
A.: Yes they do, as witnessed by the growing participation of Italian companies in non-oil exhibitions taking place in Baku, such as Caspian Agro and Caspian Ecology. Last November, a group of Italian companies active in environmental protection had the opportunity to present their expertise to the Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources, H.E. Mukhtar Babayev. Italian companies are already supporting the government’s effort to build more roads and highways across the country, while DBA Group of Italy has been supporting the Port Authority of Baku in building the new IT infrastructure for the Alat terminal. We are also looking at some promising projects in the field of connectivity as well as agriculture. All in all, the potential is there to expand cooperation in all of the areas. The Italian companies want it, and I sense great openness in this direction from all of our Azerbaijani counterparts. The mutual commitment at the political level to intensify relations is a vital ingredient of any effort. At this moment in time, I see the right conditions to approve more and more joint projects in the coming months.
Q.: In the past two years the Italian Embassy has organized a number of events to promote Italian culture in Azerbaijan, including Italian Language Week, Italian Cuisine Week, Italian Design Day, Italian Film Festival, performances of Italian opera singers and jazz musicians, and Italian exhibitions. What was the feedback from the Azerbaijani audience?
A.: We have experienced a feeling of great warmth towards our culture and a widespread enthusiasm for our events. This is why our Embassy devotes a considerable amount of time in organizing cultural events which help deepen and broaden the mutual knowledge between our cultures. The response has always been exceptional. For example, in two years the Italian Design Day has grown from being one single conference with an Italian designer to a multi-day showcase of Italian craftsmanship, design, engineering, mixing of cultures, luxury, and specialized expertise. Another initiative we have been extremely pleased with are the Italian Opera Days. The idea came during a conversation I had with the Minister of Culture, Abulfas Garayev. Last year, I decided to launch the project, and contacted the Director of the Theatre of the Opera and Ballet, Mr. Akif Melikov, to assist. Without him and his support, it would not have been possible to organize the Italian Opera Days in Baku. The incredible framework of the Opera and Ballet Theater makes this initiative fascinating. Witnessing that beautiful, historic theater’s full house applauding the joint performances of Italian and Azerbaijani artists was a tremendously emotional experience. We decided with Director Melikov to invite the Azerbaijani singers and artists to perform in our theatres in Italy. Sincerely, this is an incredible partnership.
Q.: Do you have plans for any other cultural events in the future?
A.: Of course! Culture and promotion of the Italian language will remain a priority of the Embassy’s activities. In addition to the second edition of the Italian Opera Days, which were held on May 12th and 18th, we are planning some exceptional editions of the Italian Cuisine Week for next November, as well as more initiatives in cinema including outdoor summer movies. We will also invite an Italian-poetry-center from Bologna to the Nasimi Festival in September 2019. In addition, we are working on a project in favor of people with different abilities. We invited Azerbaijani networks to the “International Festival of Different Abilities,” which will be held at the Italian cities of Modena and Carpi. The idea is to invite an Italian companionship of artists with different abilities to perform music, theatre, and the arts in Baku next year. I am proud that the UN agencies in Azerbaijan have decided to join efforts in this project. We are currently researching to create events for the 43rd session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which will be hosted in Baku this year from June 30 to July 10. Another principal goal we have is to better frame and promote the teaching of the Italian language in Baku and across Azerbaijan. In recent months, I was extremely happy to note that two more schools in Baku had obtained the authorization to make examinations for recognized Italian language certificates. This is a great sign, but more improvements can be undertaken. We plan to make additional efforts to bring high-quality Italian language courses to local students and adults. Finally, I hope to move forward with some projects involving key Azerbaijani institutions such as the Heydar Aliyev Foundation. We have built a special relationship with them, characterized over the last few years by great trust and mutual support. However, some of these projects are still in the works, so let me keep them a surprise.
Q.: Could you tell our readers about the bilateral education cooperation, scholarships, and exchange programs that Italy offers for Azerbaijani students?
A.: Let me start with two pieces of information. First, Azerbaijan is one of only 15 countries in the world targeted by the Italian government’s program “Invest Your Talent in Italy.” The program seeks for outstanding students specializing in scientific fields. Second, on the occasion of his State visit to Azerbaijan, our President of the Republic decided to personally hand out 17 government scholarships to Azerbaijani students. I believe this gives you a sense of the importance that Italy attributes to the cooperation with Azerbaijan in education and research. It is a commitment we will maintain this year and in the future. In fact, last May 10th, a joint call with the Azerbaijani National Academy of Sciences was launched to identify and co-finance different projects in four separate areas. Our goal is to improve the number of joint research projects and to push the boundaries of our cooperation towards ever more advanced fields.
Q.: There is an opinion that Azerbaijanis and Italians have many things in common. Do you share this opinion? What are the main similarities and differences between our people?
A.: The thing we certainly share is the latitude of our geography. You may remember that the philosopher Montesquieu used to say, in his lively and persuasive style, that climate has a great influence on a person’s character. Recognizing this, I think we share similarities in sensibility, passion, and emotions. The profound value of family is also a significant value that we share. Since our latitude is the same, we also grow many of the same products on our lands. But let me be a bit patriotic for a moment, as I believe that our gastronomy has a little bit more variety than you do.
The main differences lie in the histories of our two countries. Before Italy’s political unification in 1861, the Italian territory was divided into seven or eight different kingdoms or duchies. Each of them was in competition to have the best cathedral, the most beautiful palace, the nicest city, etc. Every king wanted to have at his court the greatest architect and the most preeminent painter. This is why you can find pieces of unique art in little Italian towns everywhere. That phenomenon enhanced the individual initiatives of the people and contributed to a great variety of lifestyles. This is the richness of our country in terms of socio-economic initiatives and cultural heritage.
Q.: What is your impression about Azerbaijan after almost two years of service here?
A.: What is positively surprising me the most is the capacity of your nation to have a peaceful co-existence between different cultures and religions. It is an important achievement. Last April, I attended the V Forum of intercultural dialogue in Baku. There, President Ilham Aliyev speech stated that the Azerbaijani model is both a policy of the government and a conquest of the people. I am convinced that the Azerbaijani model must be told in Europe. My desire and will is to organize a high-level conference in Italy on that matter. Due to our location at the center of the Mediterranean, my country for centuries has been the meeting point for different cultures and religions, and we are ready to share our experiences with Azerbaijan.