Interview of Report News Agency with the Head of the European Union (EU) Delegation to Azerbaijan Ambassador Peter Michalko

– How do you assess the visit of EC President Ursula von der Leyen and the signed memorandum on cooperation in the energy sector? How will it contribute to cooperation between Azerbaijan and the EU? What is the role of Azerbaijan in ensuring energy security in Europe?

– Indeed we just completed something that required weeks or months of the series of important meetings that took place in Baku and in Brussels.

The visit of the President of European Commission Ursula von der Layen was a top moment in our relations as the opportunity to underline the importance of our relations for both sides and perspectives of our further cooperation. It is related to perspectives of increasing cooperation in the energy area, and the signed memorandum on strategic partnership in the field of energy confirms that we have excellent potential for the future in this area.

What makes it also important is that the EC President stressed in her statement is that “Azerbaijan is seen by the EU as a reliable partner in the field of energy, like energy supply and energy security”. As you know, in the context of Russian aggression and war against Ukraine, the totally unjustified war, the EU decided to turn away Russia in terms of energy supply. Obviously, we are interested in working with our partners. In terms of energy supply and energy security, Azerbaijan is seen as a reliable partner. This is also based on our long-term cooperation and partnership.

The signed memorandum is a continuation of the memorandum that we had signed in 2006 and then another memorandum was signed in 2011, that already focused on the construction of the South Gas Corridor. Today, SGC is a reality, it is connecting us and it is an excellent project and excellent example of cooperation and partnership.

Of course, the visit was also focused on the future cooperation, other fields were also discussed including the perspectives of conclusion of a new bilateral agreement. But these issues were also discussed in terms of expanding economic cooperation, trade, connectivity. In the field of energy other topics that are very important, for example, the perspectives of renewable sources of energy. This is also a priority for the EU Commission and for President Von der Leyen. Azerbaijan has a great potential in renewable energy, in wind and solar energy. Also issues related to fighting against climate change, global methane pledge and other topics of cooperation were also discussed.

– How do you assess the assistance of the President of the European Council Charles Michel and the European Union in general in the normalization of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan? Why is this topic so important for the EU?

-The involvement of president of European Council Charles Michael is a natural expression of not only the interest but also the will to contribute to peaceful, secure and prosperous of Caucasus. It is natural for the EU to make it because Eastern Partnership, Southern Caucasus is the part of our neighborhood and it is a natural interest of the EU as well as our partners in region achieve stability, strengthening security and to see prosperous region in the future.

We are glad that with the meetings mediated by President Charles Michael in December last year and several meetings that took part this year there were points of progress achieved. Agenda that has been agreed by two sides, who follow with talks on future peace agreement is one important point as well as set up of joint commission for delimitation and demarcation of the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia? as well as for transport connections and other issues. As you know, the EU is ready to continue these efforts and steps needed to support peace, security in Southern Caucasus with our involvement and support for demining. Our effort also continues with the intensive work of the EU Special representative in South Caucasus Toivo Claar.

– What support does the EU provide to Azerbaijan in the field of demining the liberated territories and what expertise can the EU provide to our country in restoring these lands?

-On demining, the EU is already the largest international supporter in Azerbaijan in this important area indeed. It is crucial in terms of reconstruction. We’ve just announced and it was also underlined by the President of Council of Europe Charles Michael that there is a new package of support by EU for 25 million euros on demining and we will continue further activities in this regard for proper demining. But we also have in our previous package spent up to the 2.25 million euros the activities in mine awareness because it is a very important part especially for people who will be returning to this territories. We are preparing the project that could be also supportive for victims of landmines that unfortunately are happening. Aditionally to that a number of EU member states have expertise and also possibilities to support Azerbaijan directly in terms of technology and know-how.

– According to the EU Business Climate report, most EU companies operating in Azerbaijan have plans to expand operations in the country. 54% of respondents are interested in participating in projects in Karabakh and East Zangazur, 14% have already begun active work in this direction. What EU companies are interested in participating in projects to restore liberated lands? How many of them are involved today, what areas do they represent?

– Our economic commercial cooperation is growing and even during the pandemic period, we saw growth in 2021, we had record levels of commercial exchange beyond 15,4 billion euros. EU is the number 1 commercial partner of Azerbaijan, it is the first export destination for Azerbaijan and it is also the largest source of investments for economy potential of Azerbaijan.

We also see that this positive tendency continues, we expect that this year could be even better in its results.

Obviously, we are also very proud that there are many European companies presented in the country and coming with more investments or the new investors are appearing.

They are interested in activities in many sectors, and reconstruction in regained territories is one of them. Several companies from a number of member states are already present there.

Their presence or activities are mainly related to the project that is is contacting by the government for currently ongoing major projects of reconstruction. But of course there is a growing interest, and therefore we also welcome the information that we can receive what the plans and priorities of further projects are.

As you know, the EU together with the UN and with the World Bank is involved in the activity of expert assessment for recovery needs. We recently had an expert group here; it worked to prepare such an assessment mission. We are in close communication with the government on this, according to the priority and needs of Azerbaijan.

Also the announcement of the 2-billion euro package of economy and investment plan, as you can record, was made in February during the visit of European Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi. This economic and investment plan has 5 flagship initiatives that are much in line with priorities of the government, including priorities for reconstruction projects when we speak about green transition, when we speak about Port of Baku, but not only this.

This is very much also about renewable sources of energy. We know that it was announced that the regained territories or conflict-affected territories will be mainly the area with the use of energy from renewable sources with zero net emissions target.

Also other areas like the digital transformation, like smart cities and smart villages, development of rural areas and support to 25 thousand of small and medium enterprises. All these projects can be supported countrywide.

– How are the negotiations on reaching a new agreement between Azerbaijan and the EU going? When is it planned to hold the next round of negotiations in this regard and can we expect them to be completed before the end of the year?

-The negotiations are ongoing in increased dynamics. Actually, the communication is taking place regularly and frequently. As we speak, we hope that the conclusion of the agreement will be possible soon. The interest for conclusion of the agreement was also expressed during the talks at the highest level last week in Baku. Also it was mentioned during the cooperation council that took place in Brussel also last week.

– How is the cooperation between Azerbaijan and the EU progressing within the framework of twinning projects? What areas does it cover?

– This question allows me to show how strong the partnership between EU and Azerbaijan is. Twinning is actually a form of sharing reforms, because it gives an opportunity to institutions from member states of the EU and partner country, to whom Azerbaijan works together and exchanges information, know-how, practical experience from the area of interest. In this regard Azerbaijan is actually a front-runner among partner countries of Eastern Partnership, when it comes to twinnings.

Above 50 twinning projects have been conducted or are taking place right now. These projects are usually financed between 1-2 million euros each and are mainly focused on sharing of expertise that means meetings and activities that aimed to support creation of structures or legislation or secondary legislation.

One important aspect is that the form of cooperation support is adjusted to the needs and interest of a partner country. We will continue this intensive cooperation in the future, it is very truthful and very appreciated by partner institutions in Azerbaijan.

It is important that legislation that is created in these activities adopted and developed into practical use. This makes benefits for the citizens, for business environment that brings investments again, creates work places and in general improvment.

It shows how strong the partnership between EU and Azerbaijan is and how we can work together achieving highest standards in the world. We consider that what we have to and can offer is interesting for our partner.

– Against the backdrop of the ongoing events in Ukraine, there are more and more statements that the Eastern Partnership program is not working and the EU needs to develop a different approach to the partner countries of this program. What do you think? Has this format justified itself, or should the EU develop a new approach to its eastern neighbors? And what do you think it might be? Can the approach/format of the Eastern Partnership change in connection with the war in Ukraine?

– Honestly, I am very surprised to hear such a question. I didn’t see any reason why Eastern partnership should be changed in current circumstances of the tragedy of war and aggression that Russia started against the Ukraine. That was a totally unjustified and unprovoked act. The killing of innocent people of Ukraine by Russia must be stopped immediately.

When it comes to Eastern Partnership everything that we discussed shows how beneficial this project is for Azerbaijan as a partner country and for countries in the Eastern Partnership, in general. Eastern Partnership is a part of the European Neighborhood Policy that means that we worked with our neighbors and our partners and we work together for our joint benefit.

We’ve mentioned important areas in this regard: economic cooperation and trade exchange that bring prosperity, workplaces for people, investments and reforms that have a scope of sustainability and even more development for the partner countries. For that, the EU offers support to reforms and as we said working jointly at the highest standards in the world. Then the Eastern Partnership has proven its open and flexible approach when it comes to bilateral track of cooperation, it is very well adjusted to what partners want to achieve in this partnership and there is also a multilateral track that is opened for working in multilateral format. Everybody can benefit from that.

What we saw recently with the summit of Eastern Partnership in December last year is that we all understand the need for recovery and resilience and reform. I think we all also saw the importance of partnership during the pandemic, when with the joint cooperation, a number of countries could see easier way out of this situation. We can see how to cooperate to overcome these kind of challenges. We will continue to develop Eastern Partnership.

– Has the pandemic affected the implementation of the EU educational programs such as Erasmus+? Has the number of Azerbaijani students studying in EU countries on this and other educational and humanitarian programs decreased?

– Erasmus + is very good example of programs that are developed and offered to the partner countries in Eastern Partnership and how people can benefit from Eastern Partnership in a very concrete manner. Another program is, for example, “Creative Europe” or “Horizon Europe”, that is for culture or for scientific cooperation at top level.

Erasmus+ is a form of exchange at the people-to-people level. During the pandemic it was affected in terms of physical participation and education activities in other countries because this is related to traveling. Perhaps, there was a decrease in terms of numbers but, on the one hand, a number of activities moved online during those years. Now we see an intensive effort for recovery and reinstating numbers of students who will indeed travel and spend certain amount of time at universities in other contries, come back and use gained knowledge for the benefit of the country, of the academical institutions and interpractical professional life in the future. This is the essence of Erasmus+.

I think that Erasmus+ that offers to countries that are the partner countries in EU is focused on the number of areas, scholarship being one of those. Because there is also a part that is open for professors. On the scholarship, we know that with the current budgetary cycle of the EU, the financial resources dedicated to Erasmus+ have been increased twice. So there is overall a better opportunity for getting scholarship or traveling to universities.

In a number of member states, these activities are very much enhance of universities, it is a very flexible and centralized program that is very much appreciated by young people in Azerbaijan, but also European students that can come to Azerbaijan. There is an exchange partnership and there is a very dynamic exchange of Azerbaijani students to European member states and students from EU member states to Azerbaijan.

I recently met with several of those who came from various EU member states. This week I will also meet with Azerbaijani students, they are preparing to go to European universities usually for one semester.

We are also very proud that we have “Young European Ambassadors” and we are informing public in Azerbaijan about EU and cooperation that we have between European Union and Azerbaijan and how people in Azerbaijan can benefit from various parts of this cooperation projects and offers.

Young European Ambassadors is the group of very enthusiastic young people who are very active exactly in terms of communication of this information, bringing it to people and helping to develop activities that will be beneficial for Azerbaijan in cooperation with EU.