Croatian Ambassador to Baku, Mr. Branko Zebić, in an exclusive interview with the Azeri Observer Magazine, speaks about special interest of Croatian companies in launching new projects in Azerbaijan’s liberated areas, and the technology they are ready to bring to the country. He also informs on the agenda of the next meeting of the Intergovernmental Commission between the two countries, talks about cooperation in culture, energy and tourism, and the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the bilateral ties. Finally, he shares his impressions of Azerbaijan, in particular his visit to the de-occupied territories.
BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: Croatia opened its Embassy in Baku a little more than two years ago. What has been done over this period?
Answer: Yes, you are right, the Embassy in Azerbaijan has been operational a little more than two years. Unfortunately, because of the coronavirus we partially lost over a year – in terms of the exchange of delegations, cultural programs and so on. However, before the pandemic we managed to organize two cultural events in Baku – a concert of classical and traditional Croatian and European music in the Philharmonic Hall, performed by a popular Croatian brass ensemble, and an exhibition of our two famous photographers in Landmark Hotel. In the first year since the opening of the Embassy we also had a visit of our minister of Foreign Affairs, Marija Pejčinović Burić, who is now the secretary general of the Council of Europe. Now, despite the pandemic, some of our business people still come to Azerbaijan from time to time, and we hope for many new successful projects of Croatian businesses in Azerbaijan in the near future.
Q.: What particular effect did the pandemic have on the different spheres of our cooperation? For example, was our bilateral trade affected by the restrictions imposed?
A.: The changes in the trade turnover are not too big, because the cooperation that used to exist before the pandemic continues, and cargo managed to flow the whole time. However, the pandemic was an obstacle for new projects, because business people were not able to come, to talk, to agree on new contracts. Talking about our turnover, I would like to emphasize that it exceeds half a billion dollars per year, which is a considerable amount for two relatively small countries. However, more than 95% of this sum falls on our import of Azerbaijani energy products, first of all, crude oil. Our export to Azerbaijan includes medicaments, food products, and some other industrial products, but not in huge amounts. So, there is a big Croatian deficit in the bilateral trade and one of my most important tasks is to attain good Croatian products that find themselves in demand in Azerbaijan to put the turnover in balance. First of all, I think that your country could be interested to purchase mining machines from Croatia. Because of our extensive experience, we are probably one of the best producers of mining machines in the world. Croatian demining company’s representatives have visited Baku several times. Another promising sector for cooperation is clean energy, because there are many old and small hydroelectric power plants in Azerbaijan’s liberated territories, which should be renewed or refurbished. One of our companies, which is famous for producing generators and motors for electric power plants, could help you with this. They are already in discussion with Azerbaijani Energy Ministry, the State Agency for Alternative and Renewable Energy Sources and Azerenergy, and since it has 100 years of experience and have worked in more than 100 countries in the world, I am very optimistic about it. Finally, the third sector where I see a big opportunity for Croatia is IT, because we have many state of the art IT companies. Especially, bearing in mind that your government is willing to reconstruct Karabakh according to the 21th century standards by creating smart cities, smart villages and using the latest technology. Here it is important to mention that in 2020 our Prime Minister, Andrej Plenković talked to President Ilham Aliyev at the margins of the Davos Economic Forum, and cooperation in the IT sector was one of the most important topics of discussion.
Q.: Tell us about energy cooperation between our countries and the prospects of its enhancement.
A.: Energy cooperation has big potential. As you know, the South Gas Corridor from Azerbaijan to the EU was completed at the end of last year, and it is envisaged to have a branch of this corridor called Ionian Adriatic Pipeline (IAP) to Croatia, through Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since it is a joint initiative of several countries, it is quite difficult to predict when it will be realized. However, this year is the last opportunity to include a gas project in the list of projects of common interest (PCI) in the EU, because the next PCI list will have only projects in green energy. I am pretty optimistic that this project will be on this year list, as the EU supports the gasification of South-East Europe.
Q.: In 2016 and 2018, Azerbaijan and Croatia exchanged visits on the highest level. Do you expect more high-level visits and other meetings in the near future?
A.: Yes. During my stay in Croatia in March, I proposed that my minister of Foreign Affairs, Gordan Grlić-Radman to come to Baku this year and he accepted. There is no exact date at the moment, but it is expected that the visit will take place after the summer break – in September or October. As for the presidential visit, it is the turn of the Croatian President to come to Baku, because President Aliyev visited Zagreb in 2018. I also talked to the office of our President, and it is possible that the visit will happen at the end of the year or next year. Though it not yet confirmed, it is being discussed. Moreover, we expect the next meeting of the Intergovernmental Commission before the end of the year. Speaking with Azerbaijani Minister of Culture, Anar Karimov, who is the new co-chair of the Joint Intergovernmental Commission for the Economic Cooperation from the Azerbaijani side, I conveyed him a message from our minister of economy, who is the co-chair from the Croatian side, that it would be good to hold the second meeting of the Commission in Zagreb in October. The invitation was accepted with pleasure. So, the meeting will take place in late October, and its agenda will be very broad and cover all fields of economic, cultural, scientific and educational cooperation.
Q.: Tourism is an important sector of the Croatian economy. How does it develop in the new reality? Do you see prospects for cooperation in this area?
A.: Of course, tourism is high on our agenda. Croatia is just a 4-million-people country, but before the pandemic we received 20 million tourists per year. Just before the pandemic I wanted to organize a big presentation of Croatian tourist destinations in Azerbaijan. People from the Croatian National Tourist Board were ready to come to Baku, but unfortunately everything stopped because of the coronavirus. Of course, the tourist sector is suffering now, but since the epidemic situation is a bit better now, we have launched a tourist season this summer. So, Azerbaijani citizens who have prepaid their trip to Croatia, may receive a visa and visit our country, though of course, there is the pre-condition of a negative PCR test.
Q.: The easiest way for our two countries to get to know and understand each other is through culture. What ties do we have in this area? What bilateral cultural projects and exchanges are planned for the future?
A.: We have plans in this field. For example, I agreed to a concert of Croatian vocal ensemble, Klapa Bošket in Baku, but due to the restrictions on gathering, they haven’t come yet. I hope that in autumn there will be less restriction, and they will be able to come together with our Foreign Minister. It is an ensemble of men with different voices, who sing totally a cappella and sound like an orchestra. It is old, national Croatian music, and bearing in mind your mugham traditions, I think that the Azerbaijani audience will probably be interested to hear this special way of singing. I would also like to note that Azerbaijani Culture Minister, Karimov, expresses an interest in the further cooperation of culture. So, I expect progress in this sphere to happen soon.
Q.: Do you see any similarities between Azerbaijan and Croatia?
A.: It is quite difficult to compare, because Croats from the south and Croats from the north are quite different. The common thing is that, despite being relatively small, both our countries have a very diverse nature and climate. It is also similar that our states are relatively young, but have a long history. We, just like Azerbaijan, were part of multiethnic kingdoms and empires for centuries. Though we always had Croatian Parliament and some kind of independence, we lived together with other European nations in our region. So, here we can understand each other.
Q.: Can you share your impressions of Azerbaijan with our readers?
A.: I am lucky that before this chaotic situation with coronavirus, I succeeded to see most of your country – I visited almost all the areas from south to north, and from west to east and had a chance to witness how beautiful Azerbaijan is. Baku is a great city, but the country also has many nice small cities, and wonderful nature. I like Lankaran, Sheki, Guba, Gusar, the Ismayilli region – I have been there several times. I am also very impressed by Azerbaijani art, and the number of good artists, painters, and musicians here. Azerbaijani classical music, rooted in the mugham traditions, is wonderful. During my stay in Baku, I married Gunay [Azerbaijani painter, Gunay Mehdizadeh], who, of course, helped me to learn more about Azerbaijan and its history. I also want to mention that this year I had an opportunity to visit Azerbaijan’s liberated areas, which impressed me with their beautiful nature. At the same time, the pictures were shocking – even for me, who is familiar with the consequence of war, in Croatia. The destruction we saw there had not been caused just by war; it was imposed between two wars, and was quite barbaric. We didn’t find a single unscathed building, which was a very sad picture. I hope for a better future for this part of Azerbaijan and of course we advocate for long-lasting peace in the region.
The interview was published in Azeri Observer Magazine’s Summer 2021 issue.