Bringing Azerbaijanis and Dutch Together

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The Netherlands Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Mrs Pauline Eizema, tells Azeri Observer how she overcame her challenging first year in office, her plans to empower women, and the Dutch influence inAzerbaijani architecture. Determined to build bridges between Azerbaijan and the Netherlands, Mrs Pauline Eizema began her mission in the midst of the COVID pandemic, just as hostilities broke out again in Nagorno Karabakh and the surrounding territories. She is an economist by profession with a 26-year diplomatic career. But above all, she is a woman determined to contribute to gender equality in her environment.

After several years serving in the Dutch foreign service, Mrs Eizema realised her capabilities were more than enough to reach the culmination of a diplomatic career. So, accompanied by her enterprising and supportive husband, Peter Kloprogge and their two daughters, she has made Baku their home. Now she has firmly settled into her position, Mrs Eizema has given her first interview as Ambassador to the Azeri Observer magazine.

BY KELLY CHAIB DE MARES

AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER

Question: With your vast experience, what is the primary legacy you intend to pursue in Azerbaijan?

Answer: Being a diplomat and serving in many different positions taught me that all countries are different and that it is important to listen to each other. It is interesting that in the 21st century, with all its digitalisation, diplomacy is more important than ever. Ambassadors play a very important role to convey messages, but also to understand the country they are posted in and to try to build bridges. I started learning Azerbaijani to gain a better understanding of the country, culture and people.

As an economist, I always analyse carefully how the Netherlands can contribute to any country I live in. As a diplomat, my main drive is to bring people together. I always see linkages between topics, themes, and especially between people. Together we can achieve so much more. This is what I aim to do here as well – to create more mutual understanding and to share points of view.

This is my first posting as an Ambassador. Even though the number of female Ambassadors in the Netherlands is increasing, we are still in the minority. I have noticed that reaching this position, inspires young women to be ambitious too. There are only a few female foreign Ambassadors here in Azerbaijan; this also brings a special focus to my work. I have met many strong Azerbaijani women here and I hope we can be a source of inspiration for them as well.

Q: Having been nominated as Ambassador to Azerbaijan in September 2020, how would you describe the balance of your first year? Which areas have you pondered developing?

A: My first year was indeed special. Due to the pandemic our Embassy was not able to organise any physical events. However, virtual meetings were possible and I worked hard to extend my network. This helped me to get a better understanding and to analyse in which areas our countries can cooperate further.

The armed conflict was closely followed in Europe, including in my country. It meant I had to use my diplomatic skills immediately after my arrival. The Embassy reported extensively on the conflict, and I know these reports were read very carefully by my capital. I also explained positions and conveyed many messages. I spent a lot of time reading about the conflict, talking to people and attending briefings. This was very important for us to fully understand what was happening. After the end of the armed conflict on 9 November 2020, we are still following the developments. We sincerely hope that a peace agreement with Armenia can be concluded in the foreseeable future.

I see a lot of areas how our countries can work closer together. Our special focus will go to contributing to the sustainable development of Azerbaijan and providing support regarding human rights, social development and vulnerable groups.

Q: You are already actively working in these targeted areas. On the occasion of “TogetherForTheSDGs”, you stated that “the NL Embassy in Azerbaijan stands for respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights and accelerates progress on sustainable development”. What are your cooperation plans in the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals?

A: For us, it is important that our efforts contribute to the sustainable development of Azerbaijan. A good example is the water sector. This is a main sector for the country I worked in before, Vietnam. We supported Vietnam in many aspects: drinking water, water management, water issues related to agriculture, etc.

Water is also very important for Azerbaijan. With its nine different climate patterns, and a predominant semi-arid climate, water availability is relatively low and strongly seasonal. This means that different sectors are competing for the same water, leading to the risk of overexploitation and degradation of water resources.

A few years ago, the government of Azerbaijan asked a consortium of Dutch water companies, to make an inventory of water resources. The aim would be a more integrated water resource management for the country. This requires in-depth knowledge of the water system, availability, and demand. In addition, tools to support decision making, centralised data storage and coordination between the different water-related agencies and ministries need improvement. This project was stalled for several reasons, but we hope it will be restarted soon.

Q: Continuing with your areas of most significant interest, which strategies do you have to support the advance on human rights, social development and vulnerable groups in your hosting country?

A: Strengthening democracy, the rule of law, human rights and combating corruption are essential pillars of the foreign policy of the Netherlands and important topics for our work. We discuss these issues with different layers of the Azerbaijani society, ranging from central and local authorities to parliamentarians, civil society and NGOs.

With our projects we also support the reforms in this country. These include bilateral projects aimed at promoting gender equality and contributions – either financial or in terms of providing Dutch expertise – to projects undertaken by the European Union and the Council of Europe on legal reforms, combatting corruption, rule of law, etc. 

As I mentioned earlier, gender equality is very close to my heart. Among others, I am worried about the developments regarding gender-based violence. It is important we listen carefully to the stories of women that are affected by this and see how we can support them.

As you know, the Netherlands has a strong policy regarding equity and diversity. In our view, members of the LGBT community have the same rights as everyone else. In other countries it is not always easy for these people to express themselves. Together with international partners, we are liaising with this community and supporting them where possible.

Q: Recently, you visited the Women Resource Centre in Bilasuvar; what is your impression of this Azerbaijani initiative?

A: This project was financed by the Netherlands and was implemented by UNDP and the State Committee for Family, Women and Children affairs. It was a pleasure to visit this project in Bilasuvar, together with the Resident Representative of UNDP, and the Deputy Chairwoman of the State Committee. I was impressed by the impact this Centre has for local women. It allows many of them to improve their lives, and they will be a beautiful example and inspiration for others. I visited several small businesses that were opened by women on the basis of the small grants provided by the project, like a beauty shop and a keeper of bee hives. They were all very happy this project allowed them to realise their dreams of owning their own business.

We also visited a school for which a small Water and Sanitation (WASH) project was realised – a new toilet block was built for the students. The parents were grateful that their children now have these new facilities, and are nowadays much better equipped to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and other (infectious) diseases.

It was really impressive to see how much impact a project like this can have. Our next project will be to support establishing a similar women resource centre in Jalalibad.

Q: Considering your background in the economy, how do you think Dutch expertise and investment can contribute to the diversification of the economy of Azerbaijan?

A: Dutch companies continue to be involved in the energy sector, which is the most important sector in Azerbaijan. However, we welcome the efforts of Azerbaijan to diversify its economy. This is not only important to avoid reliance on only one sector, but also with a view to the environment and climate.

We notice that Azerbaijan is choosing to focus more on sustainable options. We welcome the choices for smart cities, sustainable agriculture and green energy. We think these are areas in which Dutch companies could be supportive.

We hope to support these efforts towards diversification in several areas, such as agriculture, water management, renewable energy, logistics and sustainable urban development.

In regards to renewable energy, Azerbaijan has a lot of wind along its Caspian Sea coast, so there is a natural predisposition to develop and use this source. The World Bank Group has started consultations on this issue and the development of a roadmap. This project is financed from the ESMAP (Energy Sector Management Assistance) programme which is co-funded by the Netherlands.

We think that offshore wind has a lot of potential in Azerbaijan. The Netherlands has started the development of offshore wind development in the North Sea many years ago. This is not an easy process, but now these projects are being executed by the private sector without government subsidies. We have a strong consortium of companies under the heading of ‘wind water works’. We are keen to share our experiences.

In terms of sustainable urban development, Dutch companies are providing sustainable lighting options for Baku and other cities. This will contribute substantially towards energy saving.

Another topic I would like to mention is cooperation in education. We think this is a really nice way to bring people together and share experiences and knowledge. There is already cooperation between Dutch and Azerbaijani universities, such as the ADA University and Maastricht School of Management. The vice dean of ADA University recently invited me to meet a group of alumni that had studied at Maastricht. I consider these alumni to be my co-Ambassadors of the Netherlands. It was such a pleasure to listen to their experiences of my country. Several interesting ideas came up in which we can cooperate. I am sure there is much more scope for cooperationin education, for example in agriculture.

Q: Talking about economic diversification, is your country cooperating with Azerbaijan in the agri-business sector?

A: The Netherlands has become the second largest food-exporting nation in the world by investing a lot in research, innovation, sustainability and logistics. Therefore, we have a lot to offer and this ties in very well with the ambitions of Azerbaijan in the diversification of its economy. Areas in which Dutch companies and experts are active, are sustainable and smart agriculture, horticulture, food safety, agricultural machinery, seeds and cattle breeding.

We usually participate in the annual agriculture trade show, Caspian Agro. It was not possible this year, but next year we hope to be back with a large Dutch pavilion.

I also see scope for further imports of Dutch products. I have not seen cheese or chocolate from the Netherlands in the shops. I know Azerbaijan has excellent wine, but I believe Azerbaijanis would be interested to taste Dutch wine as well. In addition, I am sure there is also an appetite for our signature cookies ‘stroopwafels’.

Next year an important International Horticultural Exhibition will take place in the Netherlands, called the “Floriade”. This will be held for six months from the 14th of April 2022. It will be a showcase of green solutions from national and international innovators that can make cities more fun, more beautiful and more sustainable. Considering Azerbaijan’s interest in developing green and sustainable cities, I am convinced this would be of great interest for this country. I sincerely hope that Azerbaijan will join this important event.

Besides, this sector provides an excellent basis for cooperation at the academic level. The well-known University of Wageningen developed a ‘master plan’ for agricultural development in Azerbaijan a few years ago. This project was aimed at defining which agricultural activity (cattle breeding, modern farming, crop-growing) can best be undertaken in which geographical area of the country, from the perspective of the climate, the soil, irrigation and from the economic point of view.

Q: How can you describe bilateral trade relations? What are your plans in this regard?

A: Before Covid, the overall trade in goods was almost 200 million Euros. Due to the pandemic, it was difficult for companies to travel which slowed down the development of the trade relations between the two countries. Now that we are moving beyond the pandemic, we hope that the mutual trade can increase again.

We are also keen to support the further development of the business climate in Azerbaijan. The business surveys that are done by the EU, AHK and others show that foreign companies encounter obstacles due to bureaucracy, corruption and the lack of transparency. They are also facing difficulties finding skilled labour.

We regularly meet with Dutch companies who are working here. The Dutch Business Group has not met regularly this past year due to Covid, but we intend to have more regular meetings soon.  One of my goals is to identify the issues that these companies encounter while doing business, and working together with other international partners and the government to find solutions. Dutch companies all adhere to responsible business conduct standards and can share their knowledge and experience in those fields.

Q: Changing the subject to geopolitical issues, how do the Netherlands take advantage of the Azerbaijani geostrategic position?

A: Azerbaijan is a strategically well-located country and as such it plays an important role in the energy security of the region and beyond. In that regard, the Southern Gas Corridor is very important.

The Port of Baku has an interesting cooperation with the logistics hub, Venlo in the Netherlands. The Port signed an agreement with a Dutch company, Cabooter Group. This cooperation will help attract other Dutch and European businesses to the Port of Baku. The development of the free economic zone will make it even more attractive.

The Port of Baku has also started a training program with two Dutch education institutions: Fontys University and Gilde Institute. Employees of the Port, representatives of the logistics companies in Azerbaijan, as well as other candidates who want to work in the transport, trade and logistics field will be attending a 4-month training program in the Netherlands. They will gain knowledge in international logistics and global port industry, warehouse management, port operations and custom procedures. I recently discussed these initiatives with the Port of Baku and look forward to support further cooperation.

Q: Currently, the Azerbaijani agenda is focusing on the reconstructions of the liberated territories, as well as reactivating the economy while overcoming the pandemic. How will the Netherlands plan to cooperate in these regards?

A: We see a lot of drive and effort to reactivate the economy after Covid and to invest in the former conflict zones.  I had a chance to visit these territories myself and it is clear that a lot of reconstruction is needed.

The main challenge for these territories is of course, demining. This is a former conflict zone, with many mines and unexploded ordnances. I have attended several briefings on the process, and I understood it will unfortunately take many years before the mines will be cleared from the whole area. There are also Dutch companies who could be helpful in this process; one has recently demonstrated its technology to ANAMA. We hope that the demining process will proceed smoothly, so that the areas become inhabitable again.

This conflict and its aftermath have shown again how harmful anti-personal mines are. The mines leave many victims, even after the conflict. This year the Netherlands is the chair of Ottawa Treaty, the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention. We hope that Azerbaijan will consider signing this treaty in the near future. 

Q: Recently, you celebrated the “Netherlands heritage in the Architecture of Azerbaijan”, could you briefly illustrate us in this matter?

We are so happy we could host this event, which was only the second one since I arrived because of the pandemic. We discovered that there is much more of a Dutch influence in the architecture of Azerbaijan than we thought, and decided on a few creative ways to build an event around it.

It was held at the National Art Museum of Azerbaijan – the former mansion of Leo Martin de Boer, who was born into a Lutheran family of hereditary Dutch sailors. We organised the evening with well-known Azerbaijani architect, Professor Elchin Aliyev, who spoke about the centuries-old ties in the architecture of the two countries.

Representatives of the Dutch UNStudio architectural bureau discussed their infrastructure projects in the White City of Baku. In addition, the world-famous company Dutch Wheels, talked about the complex technical structure of the 60-meter-high Baku Ferris Wheel located in the new part of the Baku Boulevard.

There was also an exhibition featuring the works of such companies as Jos de Vries (architect of Bravo supermarkets), as well as the Signify lighting company, which provides sustainable lighting for Baku and other cities.

The event ended with a live music performance by three excellent Azerbaijani musicians. The event brought together diplomats, representatives from government, companies, architects and the cultural sector. It was a wonderful basis to explore our ties in this area, and I am sure we will host similar events in the future.

Ambassador Pauline Eizema poses with her husband in their residence in Baku.

Q: To end, please let our readers know a little about an Ambassador’s personal life; how do you plan to benefit from what Azerbaijan has to offer? I understand that your hobbies are music, culture and cycling.

A: Azerbaijan is a beautiful country, and Baku a very comfortable city to live in. What has surpassed my expectations is the friendliness and hospitality of the people. It is very normal for Azerbaijani people to invite you to their house to drink tea and eat Azerbaijani delicacies.

Before coming here, I already heard that Baku has a lot to offer in terms of culture. I looked forward to enjoying the many theatres, music performances and opera. But, unfortunately, due to Covid that has not been possible yet. I am very happy to see things are slowly opening up again, and I cannot wait to start joining these performances.

I play the piano myself and recently bought a grand piano for the residence. I look forward to hosting small music recitals with the many excellent Azerbaijani musicians.

I love to cycle, but have not been able to do much of it so far. It is still rather difficult to cycle in Baku due to the heavy traffic. As you know, the Netherlands is famous for its cycling and every city has an excellent network of bike lanes. If there is interest, it would be great if we could contribute to the development of more bike lanes here in Baku and in other cities.

We have not been able to travel a lot so far. My family and I visited Lankaran during the summer holidays, and we cannot wait to explore other regions as well. I am sure we will have a very good stay duringthe coming years.