In an exclusive interview for the Azeri Observer magazine, outgoing Tajikistan’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Rustam Soli, speaks about the 30th anniversary of the bilateral diplomatic relations, the increasing volume of bilateral trade, and the areas of the Tajik economy, which can pose interest for Azerbaijani investors. He also refers to Tajikistan’s initiatives in the fight against climate change and opportunities for cooperation within the Europe-Caucasus-Asia transport corridor. Finally, he discusses the centuries-long cultural ties between the two countries, as well as shares his thoughts and feelings of the city of Baku.
BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: Last year, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan celebrated the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations. What are the main achievements in our bilateral relations during this period? What spheres does the Friendship and Cooperation Treaty cover?
Answer: First of all, I would like to thank the management and editorial staff of the Azeri Observer magazine for an opportunity of an interview dedicated to such an important date in our bilateral relations. Tajikistan attaches great importance to the development of comprehensive cooperation with Azerbaijan, based on mutual trust and respect. The ties between our countries have strengthened over the years of independence. Azerbaijan is a very close country to us, and it was one of the first states to establish diplomatic relations with Tajikistan. I am happy to say that our bilateral cooperation is currently performing at a high level. Based on the principles specified in the Friendship and Cooperation Treaty from 2007, the joint legal base consists of 62 agreements covering various areas and continues to develop. The exchange of high-level visits provides a solid basis for bilateral ties: President of Tajikistan, Leader of the Nation Emomali Rahmon paid official visits to Azerbaijan in 2007, 2012 and 2018, and the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev visited Tajikistan in 2007 and 2014. In addition, the presidents of the two countries hold regular meetings on the sidelines of various summits and international forums. For example, in November 2021 they met within the 15th Summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization in Ashgabat. The strengthening of inter-parliamentary ties deserves attention as well. Here, I would like to mention the visit of the Chairman of Tajik Parliament’s upper chamber and Chairman of the City of Dushanbe Rustami Emomali to Baku in March 2022, when the Tajik side donated 3,000 seedlings of fruit trees to the Azerbaijani side in honor of the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations. They were planted in the Garden of Friendship of Tajikistan and Azerbaijan in the village of Meysary in Azerbaijan’s Shamakhi region. We will definitely continue our joint efforts to further strengthen and develop our relations with Azerbaijan.
Q.: In February 2022, the fifth meeting of the Tajik-Azerbaijani intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation took place in Dushanbe. Tell us about its results.
A.: The Tajik-Azerbaijani Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation, established in 2011, is an important mechanism for coordinating economic ties – one of the main areas of Tajik-Azerbaijani relations. Within the latest gathering, the parties exchanged views on the current state and prospects for the development of bilateral trade and economic cooperation. I believe one of the key issues discussed was the possibility of increasing mutual trade. There is also common interest to create joint ventures, especially in the industry, energy and agriculture sectors. The two countries have enormous potential in these spheres, and we are working hard to implement these plans. During the meeting, the parties agreed to organize mutual visits of officials and entrepreneurs to discuss investment opportunities between the two states. I am convinced that this is a very important step. The goal, of course, is not just the sharing of information for investment purposes, but to achieve real results as soon as possible, i.e. attracting Azerbaijani and Tajik investors in various investment projects in each other’s territories. Among other significant results of the meeting, is the agreement on the involvement of the free economic zones in both countries in the process of enhancing trade and economic ties. As for Azerbaijan, we are talking about the Alat Free Economic Zone.
Cooperation in communications and high technologies is undoubtedly one of the promising areas in bilateral relations. Considering Azerbaijan’s solid experience in this sphere, we could organize many events in order to exchange information, as well as implement specific joint projects. Both countries are also interested in strengthening cooperation in the industry. We have reached agreements to consider the creation of joint ventures in wool and thread processing, carpet production, and joint industrial parks, as well as logistics centers. Therefore, we have already established grounds. However, it is important to develop cooperation not just at state level, but also to promote direct trade and economic ties between the commercial institutions of the two sides. That is why in April 2020, a Trading House of Tajikistan was opened in Baku at the initiative of the Embassy of Tajikistan in Azerbaijan. We will support the work of the House in every possible way.
Q.: In recent years, the trade turnover between Azerbaijan and Tajikistan saw a three-fold increase. Do you see opportunities for further growth in trade volumes? What Azerbaijani goods could be in demand in the Tajik market and vice versa?
A.: Yes, the trade between our countries has indeed increased three-fold over the last few years, but it still doesn’t meet the full potential of the two countries. There are huge untapped reserves, and I am sure that trade and economic ties between the relevant bodies of Tajikistan and Azerbaijan have every chance for further expansion. Re-launching of a Dushanbe-Baku flight in late May 2023 will open the way for the implementation of dozens of projects on trade and economic cooperation. As for the current turnover, its main part falls on the Tajik TALCO aluminum company’s products, which are supplied to European countries via Azerbaijani sea port and rail routes. The cooperation in the aluminum sector is gaining momentum. Speaking about imports from Azerbaijan, I would first mention petrochemical and food products. Azerbaijani food and agricultural products, namely juices, compotes, canned foods, jams and preserves produced by Azerbaijani AZERSUN holding are in high demand in the Tajik market.
Q.: Tell us about investment cooperation between our countries. What areas of the Tajik economy could pose interest for Azerbaijani investors?
A.: Tajikistan is undoubtedly interested in Azerbaijan’s investments and various joint economic projects implemented on mutually beneficial terms, especially in hydro energy, the construction of small and large hydroelectric power plants, the mining industry and tourism, as well as in the agro-industrial sphere. We consider the possible participation of Azerbaijani companies and financial institutions in joint projects in trade, construction, transport and telecommunications, agricultural sector, and new technologies, as a good basis for expanding our cooperation in the economic sphere.
We are interested in creating industrial enterprises and technology parks in cooperation with Azerbaijani investors, including in Tajikistan’s free economic zones, importing oil products and clustering value chains in agriculture. I believe that our Azerbaijani partners could benefit from our natural resources and joint ventures in medicines production, animal husbandry and beekeeping, processing of fruits, vegetables and other agricultural products and their export to the markets of Central Asia. Besides, Tajikistan has one of the largest reserves of edible salt in the world and our government is ready to support proposals from Azerbaijani investors for cooperation in this area.
Tajikistan is also rich in minerals, which create a basis for the mining industry development and construction materials production. As many as 600 deposits of minerals, metals and precious stones in our republic are ready for development, however, only a dozen mines are currently in operation and produce more than 40 types of ores. Moreover, Tajikistan’s favorable climate conditions make it possible to grow high-quality organic vegetables and fruits – that is why agriculture is one of the most important areas of our country’s economy. Using this opportunity, I invite Azerbaijani business people and investors to visit Tajikistan in order to become acquainted with our economic potential, establish mutually beneficial cooperation, create joint ventures in various fields and take part in the implementation of projects that could be quite profitable. Business cooperation plays a significant role in our bilateral relations. Therefore, if Azerbaijani investors show interest in expanding their activities in Tajikistan, the Embassy of Tajikistan in Baku is always ready to provide the necessary assistance.
Q.: How does Tajikistan encourage foreign investors?
A.: Tajikistan has signed agreements on the avoidance of double taxation with 25 countries and agreements on the promotion and mutual protection of investments with 18 countries, which creates a solid international legal framework for the promotion and protection of foreign investments. Our law envisages 240 types of guarantees and benefits for investors, including more than 110 tax and customs exemptions.
Being a member of the World Trade Organization and a number of international conventions on the protection of investors’ rights, Tajikistan brought its legislation into compliance with international standards. We have established fruitful cooperation with all international financial institutions and have economic ties with 110 countries. Moreover, the Government of Tajikistan is constantly taking measures to improve the investment climate and protect investors in line with modern requirements. Currently, more than 90 investment projects worth more than $4 billion are being implemented in our country. Tajikistan has a developing diversified economy with all the required conditions and a favorable environment for entrepreneurship and investment. Therefore, the number of foreign investors in Tajikistan is growing every year. We are ready to take effective measures to attract Azerbaijani investments and create favorable conditions for them as well.
Q.: The fight against climate change and global warming is one of the top priorities in international politics. Tajikistan is among the countries supporting international efforts in this direction. Tell us, what initiatives are being implemented in your country in this area?
A.: You are right. Our country contributes to solving problems related to climate change and water security. In particular, a number of Tajikistan’s initiatives in global water issues are duly recognized at the international level as the Dushanbe Water Process. Moreover, the fourth initiative of Tajikistan called the International Decade for Action “Water for Sustainable Development” for 2018-2028 is being implemented at national, regional and global levels. In 2018, Dushanbe hosted the First High-Level International Conference within this initiative, and the second conference will take place in our capital on June 6-9, 2022. Our country’s spotlight is on the issue of global climate change as a grave problem of the modern world and the need for joint efforts to eliminate its consequences. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, almost a third of glaciers in our country have disappeared; they account for over 60 percent of the Central Asian water resources. As you can see, this problem is of vital importance for our country and the entire region. In this regard, back in 2009, at the International Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen, the President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon proposed to create a special international fund for the protection of glaciers. In addition, in March 2021, speaking at the first online meeting of the High-Level Panel on Water and Climate, he proposed to declare 2025, the International Year for the Protection of Glaciers and establish a World Glacier Day. This problem requires prompt decisive measures at the international and regional levels. Let’s look at the statistics in order to understand its depth. While annual water supply per capita in Central Asia exceeded eight thousand cubic meters in the 1960s, this figure has decreased four-fold by now. Moreover, the melting of glaciers has led to a rising sea level, which could threaten the lives and well-being of hundreds of millions of people on Earth, especially on small islands and coastal areas. Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon spoke about this problem at the meetings of many international and regional organizations, including the UN. Unfortunately, due to climate change, the Fedchenko Glacier in Tajikistan, which is the world’s largest continental glacier covering over 75 kilometers, continues to melt. In the last 70-80 years its area has decreased by 44 square kilometers, and our concern is that it can affect not just the ecological situation in our region, but the whole world. Other Central Asian countries face similar challenges. That is the reason why Tajikistan, has identified climate change actions as one of the highest priorities within the framework of its chairmanship in the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea. Our Government will continue making every effort to urge the countries of the region and the world to take urgent measures against this challenge.
Q.: How do you assess the prospects of the China-Europe transport corridor through Central Asia and the South Caucasus and cooperation between Azerbaijan and Tajikistan within this initiative?
A.: I believe that the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway will be considered as the most stable and predictable transport route for years to come. Its commissioning, as well as the construction of the large Alat commercial port in Azerbaijan, create new opportunities for the export of Tajikistan’s goods via this corridor to the international markets at affordable rates. Tajikistan is interested in the restoration of transport communication that facilitates international trade. In this sense, the ongoing efforts within the TRACECA program connecting East and West can revive the Great Silk Road in a different, modern form. Tajikistan is an active member of this program just like Azerbaijan. I am sure that the effective use of the TRACECA member countries’ potential will make the Europe-Caucasus-Asia transport corridor more competitive, profitable and safe, and will contribute to the creating of a multifunctional transport system and attracting investment in modern logistics in the region.
Undoubtedly, cooperation in transport communications and the use of Azerbaijan’s transit potential is one of the key areas of our economic relations. Nowadays, Tajikistan exports the bulk of its products through the Transcaucasian corridor. For example, as I have already mentioned, TALCO aluminum company, which is the flagship of the Tajik economy, supplies its products to the countries of the European Union through Azerbaijan’s sea and rail routes.
Q.: The capitals of our countries have recently become sister cities. How will this fact contribute to the development of cooperation?
A.: We are constantly taking measures to develop ties between the capitals and regions of the two states. A legal framework for it is gradually being created. The agreement on proclaiming the city of Dushanbe and the city of Baku, sister cities, signed during the recent visit of the Chairman of Tajik Parliament’s upper chamber and Chairman of the City of Dushanbe Rustami Emomali to Azerbaijan, was another step in this direction. The agreement creates the conditions for the development of business relations between the organizations of two cities in the field of tourism, excursion, exhibition and fair activities. Moreover, the parties reached an agreement to encourage cooperation between sports organizations, federations, teams and coaches and promote the creation and development of links between the scientific and educational institutions of Dushanbe and Baku through the exchange of students and teachers, and publication of scientific papers. We also plan to organize art exhibitions and exchange visits of creative teams and cultural figures.
Q.: Cultural ties between Azerbaijan and Tajikistan have a long history. What joint projects in this area are under implementation? Are there any new projects on the agenda?
A.: We don’t doubt that cultural ties play an important role in bringing people closer together and strengthening interethnic relations and friendship. We have historical prerequisites for deepening such ties – the Tajik and Azerbaijani people are connected by centuries-old history, culture, friendly relations, common values and traditions. We are working on new projects in this area, and some of them have already become reality. For example, on January 8, 2022, Azerbaijani State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater hosted the world famous opera Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo, organized at the initiative and support of the Embassy with the Azerbaijani Ministry of Culture’s support. Saifullo Yusupov – the Honored Artist of the Republic of Tajikistan, Laureate of international competitions, Artistic Director of the Tajik State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater named after S. Ayni, played the role of one of the main characters – Tonio.
We have the necessary legal framework for further cooperation in this direction. For example, the State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater of Tajikistan and the State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater of Azerbaijan have signed a Memorandum of Cooperation, which will contribute to the development and strengthening of ties between the theaters and will provide wide opportunities for organizing cultural visits, joint master classes and artists exchange in music competitions, festivals and other traditional events. We plan to implement a number of other joint art and humanitarian projects. Moreover, we have close cooperation with the Heydar Aliyev Center and the Heydar Aliyev Foundation.
I would also like to draw your attention to the dynamic development of ties in education. I am speaking about Tajik students studying in Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, Azerbaijan Higher Military School named after Heydar Aliyev, the Academy of the State Border Guard Service and other universities in Baku. Higher education institutions also enhance cooperation rapidly. Besides, the academies of sciences of two countries have established direct contacts.
Q.: During our previous meetings, you have repeatedly said that you are impressed by the beauty of Azerbaijan and, in particular, Baku. Tell us more about your impressions of the city.
A.: Baku is the heart of Azerbaijan. Its beauty captivated me even before I was appointed here as an Ambassador. Since coming here as the Head of the diplomatic mission of Tajikistan almost five years ago, I have been amazed by the city’s transformations. Baku really impresses everyone with its beauty, especially its picturesque parks, boulevards and historical monuments. This city definitely combines the rhythm of a modern stylish metropolis and oriental culture traditions. However, the main wealth of Baku is its wonderful and talented people.
Tajik Ambassador Rustam Soli with his spouse Muhabbat Soliyeva in their residence in Baku.