Azerbaijan and Greece: Connected by Centuries-long Bond

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In an interview for Azeri Observer, Greek Ambassador to Azerbaijan Mr. Nikolaos Piperigos, speaks about Greek legacy in Azerbaijan and the ancient historic connections between the two nations. Commenting on economic relations, he focuses on energy and trade cooperation, and prospects of tourist exchange. In addition, he talks about his trip to liberated Shusha, as well as Greek language studies in Azerbaijani universities.

BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER


Question: Azerbaijan and Greece have recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations. How many agreements and other documents on cooperation do we have by now and in which spheres?

Answer: After your independence, our two countries started to work together very quickly. Over the last 30 years, there were mutual visits at all levels: between presidents, prime ministers and ministers. So, we have already agreed to cooperate in an extensive array of sectors. Now we have around 30 agreements in a wide range of sectors from economy, industry, energy, transport, sea transport, agriculture, reciprocal protection of investments to education, culture, air travel, etc. Unfortunately, the follow up in some of the aforementioned areas of cooperation was not always optimal. However, I am confident in our future prospects. In fact, the 5th Joint Ministerial Meeting between Greece and Azerbaijan will be convened in Baku in the next semester. Then, we will jointly examine the status of these agreements, take stock of current developments and look forward to the next stage of our bilateral cooperation. In this vein, I would like also to state that the relationship between our countries is currently stable and productive.

Q.: A few years ago, however, there was a period of uncertainty between our two countries which temporarily affected bilateral relations– a fact noted even by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Do you think it’s fair to say that this has been resolved now?

A.: One of the most interesting aspects of my tenure as an ambassador to your country was the opportunity to delve deeper into our common history. Indeed, it is not well known that Greece and Azerbaijan share not only recent ties as modern states but also long-standing bonds dating back to  Ancient times, when Greeks were fascinated with the Caucasus, which you will find in Greek mythology. Later on, our presence on the Caspian shores in the time of friendship between Alexander and Atropat began their long historic journey. Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Greeks while repulsing Sassanid Persia from your area, were ruling around the Absheron peninsula  until 643, just prior to the Arab conquest of modern Azerbaijan. More noticeable in pre-modern times are the bonds under Uzun Hassan of Aq Qoyunlu and his Greek wife Despina Hatun (Despina Komnenos), who was the last ally of the Greek Pontic Empire of Trebizond (Trabzon) against their common opponents, the Ottomans of Asia Minor. Then there was Turkic-speaking Ismail Hatai, the founding Safavi ruler, who was proud of his Pontic Greek bloodline from his mother, who was a daughter of Despina Hatun. In modern times, Greeks escaping from persecution in Asia Minor, found refuge in the Karabakh Khanate, even in the 1820’s, just before the Turkmencay Treaty. Karabakh khan allowed them to live in today’s Aqdere province in Kalbajar, where they founded a unique Greek settlement, sensibly named, Mehmana, meaning “guests” in Azerbaijani. One can easily add here the historical legacy of the Greek community’s establishment in Azerbaijan in the 19th century which had a positive influence on our nation’s ties. Unfortunately, Soviet purges in 1937 considerably weakened the Greek community with executions, closing of schools, churches and even exile to Central Asia. Our modern relations date from 1992, when we established diplomatic relations. It is also important to realize that Greece first opened an Embassy in Baku in 1993, and only after that in other two states of the South Caucasus.. So, allow me to say that after this long amicable history of bilateral relations, there were indeed, some misunderstandings between us in 2020, but this can occur from time to time, between sovereign nations. From our part, we showed strategic patience, which I think, was well received here but most importantly, we have resolved our differences and continue to enjoy a very pleasant relationship. This year, we celebrate 30 years of diplomatic relations. My mission as a diplomat is to look forward, and try to do whatever it takes for our relations to flourish for the next 30 years. 

Q.: Tell us about energy cooperation between our countries. What does this cooperation mean for Greece’s energy security during the ongoing energy crisis?

A.: This is the most developed area in our relations. Greece and Azerbaijan are strategic energy partners. Greece played a leading role in the implementation of the Southern Gas Corridor through Trans Adriatic Pipeline construction (TAP). Now we receive 1 bcm of Azerbaijani natural gas within a long-term PSA, that corresponds to around 15% of our gas consumption. This is a considerable contribution to our energy security in the period of unprecedented geopolitical volatility. Moreover, once the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) is commissioned in the next few months, another 1 bcm of Azerbaijani gas will flow from Greece to Bulgaria, which will further enhance regional energy diversification.

Q.: What other goods besides Azerbaijani oil and gas are promising for bilateral trade?

A.: Greece is very strong in some sectors, like renewable energy, energy saving, IT, pharmaceutical production, as well as in modern agriculture techniques, tourism industry, consulting and shipping. Unfortunately, the customs environment was not very conducive to lead to substantial supplies from Greece to Azerbaijan. Therefore, we cannot find enough Greek products in the Azerbaijani market. Nevertheless, I feel that once direct flights are launched, more and more people would like to find our products here.

Q.: Do we have any investment cooperation by now? Are there any ongoing discussions on this issue?

A.: I cannot elaborate further on this issue, but there are definitely some ideas for more dynamic interaction between Athens and Baku.

Q.: You have visited the liberated territories of Azerbaijan. What were you able to see over there? What impression did those devastated areas make on you?

A.: Yes, I had an opportunity to participate in the first trip to those regions and finally to acquaint myself with the city of Shusha. I can tell you that what we faced surpassed our expectations. Nevertheless, I would recall that the term History was invented by Greeks. Our very long history is marked by great victories, woeful defeats, insurmountable pain under foreign occupation, as well as tragic events like exodus and living as refugees. They all form an important part of Greek historical conscience that still lives in our hearts today. From this perspective, there were enough elements in my mind to assess the pains associated with the birth of your country. I believe that when the dark shadows of the war memories fade, those areas of extreme natural beauty can become excellent tourist destinations. I do hope that the current endeavors to rebuild modern, so-called green cities could contribute to this and it will become a success story in which Greek know-hows can be very useful.

Q.: The coronavirus slowed down cross-border cultural exchanges for almost two years. Now the situation is changing. Does the Embassy have any plans in this sphere?

A.: You are absolutely right, cultural exchanges were one of our success stories of the last 30 years. Unfortunately, they fell victim to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now we plan a series of musical events. It is worth mentioning here, that in the past we had the pleasure to see even the mixture of Greek and mugham music traditions, as well as joint work in theater, cinema, literature and in some other areas. We are also very proud of the Greek Center in the Baku Slavic University and I shall also underline that Baku has a specificity worthy of the Guinness Book of Records, as the only capital in the world that has two active university programs in Modern Greek Language – in the Baku Slavic University and the University of Languages of Azerbaijan. We look forward to the creation of the second Greek center in the University of Languages of Azerbaijan this year, and also to the creation of an Ancient Languages Program, where ancient Greek will be present, among other languages such as Sanskrit, Latin and Chinese, that constitute the primordial elements of knowledge in the human history.

Q.: Tourism is another sector, which shows signs of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you see the prospects of cooperation here?

A.: I should recognize that this is one of the more important sectors in the modern world. I do really hope that the nefarious COVID side effects on this crucial sector for P2P and B2B contacts will end soon. We are in advanced discussions for Greek and Azerbaijani airline companies and tour operators to open regular direct flights as well as charter flights between our two countries. I strongly believe that Greece and Azerbaijan can cooperate in the tourism sector, where we are among the best globally, all year round. We receive around 35 million tourists compared to the Greek population of 11 million yearly. So, there is a big space for cooperation.