In an exclusive interview, Lithuanian Ambassador in Azerbaijan, Mr. Egidijus Navikas, tells Azeri Observer about Lithuanian efforts to promote Azerbaijani-EU partnership, as well as spheres where Lithuanian companies might be interested to work in Azerbaijan including in the liberated territories. He mentions what Lithuanian products are present in Azerbaijan, shares information about cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries and ideas for their development. Finally, he speaks about Turkic ethnic minorities in his country, and mutual understanding in the multiculturalism policy between Baku and Vilnius, as well as sharing his view of the Azerbaijani people mentality.
BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: Lithuania is a part of the EU and takes a lot of measures to promote cooperation between the EU and Eastern Partnership countries, and Azerbaijan in particular. Could you tell us about activity in this sphere?
Answer: As you know, Lithuania has been a member of the EU since 2004, and we are very active regarding the Eastern Partnership program, which is the EU policy towards six eastern neighbors. It has been on the agenda of the EU since 2009, i.e. for more than 10 years, and in this regard we try to help as much as we can. Just to give an example, there are so called EU twinning projects, which means that countries, in this case, Azerbaijan, send a request related to a kind of modernization or reform they want to do in some area; the EU dispatches these requests to member states and the latter make proposals. We are very much engaged in this sphere, and we have 13 projects in Azerbaijan – completed or ongoing – that cover different areas: agriculture, education, anti-corruption, pension reform and health insurance.
Every year we have small but successful development cooperation projects in various Azerbaijani regions: in the past we have focused on women empowerment and children, last year we had a project in the area of environmental education ‘SOS for Nature’.
Another example is our efforts in the political sphere. We do a lot to gain more attention from Brussels and from the leaders of the European Union to the South Caucasus, in general, with Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan-Armenia relations in particular. We advocate for more EU participation and engagement in these issues. Undoubtedly, EU-Lithuania-Azerbaijan ties are a large topic I could go on and on. To make it brief, I just mentioned the highlights.
Q.: Let’s talk about your activity in Azerbaijan. You came to Baku in 2019, and then in 2020 the pandemic hit, which should make your work here much more difficult. What obstacles has it created for you? What did you do to overcome them?
A.: We have all been affected by the pandemic. I mean everybody, regardless of profession. As for the Embassy, the biggest difficulty was the cancellation of different kinds of events and visits which are a big part of our work. We managed to switch some meetings to online, but it cannot fully replace offline gatherings. For example, in 2020 we had an online meeting of the bilateral Intergovernmental Commission. In a normal situation, a delegation led by the Lithuanian Foreign Minister would have come to Baku and met with a number of representatives of different ministries. As for cultural events, it is even more difficult to organize them during the pandemic, since an online format is totally different and arouses much less interest. However, I have to say that I am happy to have a dedicated and motivated Embassy team, who adapted themselves to different situations and kept a positive spirit the whole time. Luckily, since spring 2021 all the possibilities of work and activities have been increasing, and we have had some cultural events, visits, bilateral and multilateral meetings, conferences.
Q.: The Lithuanian Foreign Minister visited Azerbaijan twice in 2021. What has been the outcome of these visits?
A.: You are right, Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Gabrielius Landsbergis came here twice last year. The first time was in April, and it was a visit focused on bilateral relations, though the geopolitical and regional situation was also discussed. The second visit happened in June, when he came to Baku with a group of other EU ministers on behalf of the whole EU, all organized through his initiative. As I already mentioned, our minister is very active in convincing Brussels to be more proactive regarding the South Caucasus region, and all the countries of this region. To tell the truth, Georgia has quite enough attention, with existing extended relations and cooperation between Georgia and the EU, while the other two countries still remain in shadow. To some extent, it is natural, since Georgia has a goal towards EU membership. However, looking at the regional situation, especially in this post-Karabakh war period, we think that it is important that the EU is present in this region as much as possible. Therefore, representing Lithuania, my minister tries to make sure that cooperation with the South Caucasus doesn’t stop in Tbilisi, but goes further beyond. I can even tell you that Lithuania worked a lot to encourage the leadership of Brussels to engage more with this region.
Q.: Do you expect any more visits and meetings at such a high level in 2022? If yes, what will be on the agenda?
A.: Yes, we do have high-level meetings planned, though it is a bit early to make announcements about the dates. I can say that every President of Lithuania visits all Eastern Partnership countries, except Belarus at moment; current President has already visited Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, and he plans to visit Azerbaijan and Armenia this year. The Chair of Azerbaijan’s Milli Majlis [Parliament] also plans to go to Lithuania this year, and we hope this visit will take place very soon. The Intergovernmental Commission is also planned for this year: this time it will take place in Lithuania, so we expect that Azerbaijan’s Economy Minister, Mr. Mikayil Jabbarov will go to Vilnius with a delegation. The Intergovernmental Commission covers a number of areas, but I think that at the next meeting the biggest focus will be on agriculture, education and all the possibilities of cooperation in the IT area, since Azerbaijan has a big interest in it and Lithuania has quite a lot to offer.
Q.: What spheres of economic cooperation do you consider the most promising?
A.: The trade figures between the two countries are not very big – around $30 million per year on average. However, the modest figures are just because the products that we trade are not very expensive. We mainly export food stuff – dairy, meat products, etc. – and you can find a wide variety of Lithuanian products in many Azerbaijani supermarkets, and Lithuanian fish products producer, Vici, has an office here. Moreover, there is a chain of food stores called Pribaltika in Baku, which is not Lithuanian, but the majority of their assortment are from Lithuania. As for exports from Azerbaijan, a big part of it falls on hazelnuts. Then come various machines, equipment, processors, and packaging stuff. However, despite modest figures, if we look at three South Caucasus countries, Azerbaijan is the country, which we have the biggest trade with. Azerbaijani businesses have some investments in the hotel and restaurant sphere, and real estate in Lithuania.
Q.: Lithuania has a lot of experience in food production, agriculture. These technologies and experience could help Azerbaijan in the restoration of the liberated territories. Are there any discussions about cooperation in this sphere?
A.: Of course, there are some discussions, though no concrete decisions have been made yet. In this case, there is nothing about politics, it is about private business interest. I think there might be companies that could be interested, especially considering the fact that Azerbaijan plans to create a green area and build smart villages and smart cities in those regions, and the EU countries, including Lithuania, have quite good experience in these spheres. Though, it will not be a very quick process, because the ongoing demining works will take time. Another sphere where we can help is the restoration of cultural heritage in the regained territories and Lithuanian specialists in this area are already in touch with Azerbaijani counterparts.
Q.: In February 2021 the Lithuanian Embassy signed a memorandum of cooperation with the International Turkic Culture and Heritage Foundation aimed at the protection of the cultural heritage of ethnic minorities of Turkic origin in Lithuania. Could you tell us more about activity in this area?
A.: Yes, we signed the memorandum last year, but we started contacts with the Foundation a year earlier. And I must say that we did a lot. Here it is worth mentioning that the Lithuanian Parliament declared the Year of Lithuanian Tatars History and Culture in 2021 and the year of Karaims of Lithuania in 2022. Both Tatars and Karaims are Turkic ethnic groups and they have been living in Lithuania for more than 600 years. In numbers their communities are not very big – there are about 3,000 Tatars and less than 1,000 Karaims in our country – but they were able to keep their own culture, identity, religion and language through the centuries. Together with the International Turkic Culture and Heritage Foundation we managed to organize an online communication and an offline scientific historical conference, several exhibitions, and a documentary film screening in Baku about these Lithuanian ethnic minorities. Delivering speeches at all these events, I stressed that multiculturalism is one of the most important values Lithuania and Azerbaijan share. We know perfectly there are also a lot of different ethnic groups in Azerbaijan and appreciate that your country pursues a multicultural policy – just like we do in Lithuania. I must say that all the communication and events related to our Tatar and Karaim minorities that we organized here, were very welcomed, and not only because they are Turkic but also because of the multiculturalism understanding between Lithuania and Azerbaijan. I would like to express my particular thanks for this fruitful cooperation to President of International Turkic Culture and Heritage Foundation Ms. Gunay Afandiyeva.
Q.: Tell us about cooperation in education. Lithuanian Universities are quite popular among Azerbaijani youth.
A.: The average number of Azerbaijani students in Lithuania is around 200 per school year, though it was a little less during the pandemic years. We also have some Lithuanian students studying in Azerbaijan, but in much smaller numbers. There are several agreements on cooperation signed between Lithuanian and Azerbaijani Universities. Lithuania provides scholarships for students from the Eastern Partnership countries, including Azerbaijanis. Besides, Azerbaijani students can benefit from all EU programs – Erasmus and others – to study in Lithuania. Just before the pandemic we created an informal alumni network of Azerbaijani students who had studied in Lithuania and had a friendly gathering of its members here in the Embassy. They are back to Azerbaijan, have their jobs, but still remember Lithuania and keep a positive impression of it. Currently we have different ideas of deepening cooperation in education and bringing it beyond just student exchange to issuing double degree diplomas, recognition of diplomas, lecturer exchange and organizing joint online scientific conferences, and we are in discussions on these issues with several Azerbaijani Universities.
Q.: Cultural exchanges lay the foundation for building ties between countries. However, the pandemic seriously hampered opportunities for such exchanges. How does our cultural cooperation develop in the new reality?
A.: Before the pandemic we had a lot of cultural exchanges, and a number of events on both sides. Unfortunately, that was not the case in the past year and a half. Unfortunately, cultural life suffered the most during this period. However, the situation is improving, and this year we plan to organize at least two Lithuanian concerts in Baku, and I know that my Azerbaijani colleague in Vilnius also plans some cultural events with the presence of artists. At the end of November, 2021, Baku already hosted a concert of an orchestra called Kremerata Baltika, consisting of artists from all Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Though it was a commercial event, and wasn’t organized by the Embassy, I think it was a good relaunch, which allows us to hope for more cultural exchanges this year.
Q.: You have quite an unusual hobby – horse riding. How different is practicing it here in Azerbaijan from doing it in your home country? Have you had a chance to ride famous Azerbaijani Karabakh horses?
A.: I wouldn’t say that it is an unusual hobby. Maybe it is just less popular in Azerbaijan than in Lithuania and especially in Western Europe. I have been horse riding since the age of 12, and it was not just for pleasure – I was in a professional sport until University, then when I started working, it became just a hobby. Now, I don’t have much time for it and I ride a horse maybe once every few weeks. No, I haven’t ridden famous Azerbaijani Karabakh horses yet, but maybe I will have such an opportunity someday.
Q.: To end the interview, tell us about your experience in Azerbaijan.
A.: People in Azerbaijan are very friendly and welcoming, and it’s not just out of curiosity about foreigners, as it happens in some other countries. People really respect their guests; it is in their mentality, in their culture. That is of course very nice and pleasant, which you don’t see in every country. I have travelled to many countries in this part of the world, even before 1990, so I can say that the mentality is quite familiar to me and I understand it quite well.
Q.: Were you able to travel around Azerbaijan and see its regions?
A.: Yes, I visited different regions in Azerbaijan last summer when the restrictions were lifted and traveling within the country became possible. My family and I were in Lankaran, Gabala, Guba, Sheki, Naftalan, Ganja, Goygol, Lahich – so many beautiful places. However, my favorite place here is the Caspian Sea coast. It is nice to live by the sea-side; I swim a lot in summer, and I will really miss it when I leave.