By HE Mr Fuad Isgandarov, Head of Mission of Azerbaijan to the EU, Ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg.
Throughout its history, Azerbaijan has played an important role in bridging East and West through connecting Central Asia with Anatolia, the Black Sea and beyond. Situated on the west coast of the Caspian Sea and at the feet of the Caucasus Mountains, the country has been a pivotal point in the connection of civilizations since ancient times, welcoming merchants from across land and sea.
Traditional east-west corridor is now reinforced by huge energy infrastructure projects initiated by Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan as an enabler and contributor to the European energy security is investing on new pipelines and sophisticated interconnections across the region pledging to bring billions of cubic meters of natural gas volumes through Southern Gas Corridor. This multibillion dollar project has been inspired by successfully realized regional oil and gas pipelines such as Baku – Tbilisi –Ceyhan and Baku – Tbilisi – Erzurum, backbones of long-term diversification strategy of Azerbaijan.
The long-term perspectives of contribution of Azerbaijan to the development of east-west corridor cannot be entirely attributed to trans-regional oil and gas infrastructure projects. Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway project which is to be operational by the end of this year is widely acknowledged as an inherent component of revived Silk Road initiative. This railroad will join the ranks of the region’s most critical infrastructures once China’s Silk Belt concept comes to the fruition.
The geostrategic location has become a more valuable asset for modern Azerbaijan positioning the country as a vital centre for the exchange not only of goods and merchandise, but of ideas, customs, religions and cultures. Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shiite Muslim country, is also home to several other ethnic and religious groups, including ancient Zoroastrian, Christian, and Jewish communities.
Respect and tolerance for national minorities has played a vital role in the development of the country from antiquity to the days of the Silk Road to modernity. Today multiculturalism, religious tolerance is more than a state policy in Azerbaijan; it is a reflection of the mood of the society.
Azerbaijan’s multi-vector cooperation transcends neighboring countries and it is underpinned by the realization of far-reaching common objectives. Therefore, Azerbaijan attaches critical importance to fostering Euro-Atlantic relations.
Today practical role assumed by Azerbaijan in addressing common pressing challenges in Europe and beyond positions the country as a crucial partner in the region. It should be emphasized that unlike others Azerbaijan has never been a burdensome partner or a troublemaker in its relations with the European Union.
Quite the reverse, its engagement and partnership with the EU aimed at contributing to the realization of the latter’s strategic objectives. These objectives are not limited to securing future alternative gas volumes through Southern Gas Corridor but fighting against growing threats, such as radicalization, religious extremism which can be easily translated into deadly acts perceived as crimes against humanity.
And it is also equally important that fighting new threats should not be done at the cost of overriding fundamental values, especially those related with religious tolerance and multiculturalism. Terrorism bears no ethnicity, religion or race. It has no faith. However, the relations of the EU with Muslim world are at great risk with domestically rising political populism against Islamaphobia under the pretext of fighting terrorism which is prone to drive the EU to the possible confrontation against Muslim world. Europe should avoid becoming a side of further polarized and alienated world. Azerbaijan with its vibrant multicultural society is ready to work with its European partners through exchange of its centuries-long experience in tackling imminent challenges.
New geopolitical developments and complexities in the EU neighborhood will shape its future relations with Azerbaijan. It is due to these circumstances the EU and Azerbaijan have decided to upgrade their bilateral contractual relations which will reflect the strategic spirit of long-term engagement.
Both the EU and Azerbaijan has gone through difficult times in their relations and now both sides share the common understanding that acting on illusions and romanticism is in fact distancing each other rather than bringing them close.
The consultations have successfully been concluded in this framework and now Azerbaijan is looking forward to launching official negotiations on the draft bilateral agreement. The EU-Azerbaijan cooperation is not only bound to the critical infrastructure related projects. The success of Southern Gas Corridor will create more interdependency in the relations. This interdependency is capable to manifest itself in deepening political dialogue and further opening trade perspectives.
Unfortunately, ongoing occupation of the territories of the Azerbaijan by Armenia keeps posing threat the peace and prosperity in the region. The persistent presence of Armenian armed forces in occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and 7 adjacent regions despite the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions demanding unconditional and immediate withdrawal of occupying forces from these territories is a source of instability and frequent outbreaks of deadly military confrontations along the line of contact.
The recent provocative acts by Armenian armed forces in April 1 sparked tensions in the frontlines and triggered adequate military response of Azerbaijan. Though ceasefire deal has always been fragile so far, this time the conflict has experienced an unprecedented confrontation.
The question is why now? The devil is in the timing of provocations.
Azerbaijan hosted second meeting of Advisory Council on Southern Gas Corridor in 29 February which was attended by EU vice-president Maroš Šefčovič and joined by EU High Representative Federica Mogherini. Both vice-presidents in Baku reconfirmed the EU’s full political support and solidarity in timely realization of this project. Azerbaijan and its European partners set date to hold a groundbreaking ceremony of Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, a downstream component of Southern Gas Corridor in May. High Representative also retains the tone and emphasis of the EU’s clear position on explicit support of territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
In the beginning of April President of the Republic of Azerbaijan paid a visit to the US and held fruitful meetings with US leadership in Washington where the latter expressed support to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and also hailed Azerbaijan as a crucial partner addressing key challenges in the region.
And then it happened…
Feeling more abandoned and isolated in the region with an attempt to sabotage these developments Armenia launched unprecedented military provocations along the frontline. It was unprecedented because military operations directly targeted civilians living in the frontline areas as well as critical regional infrastructure projects.
One fact should not be dismissed. Azerbaijan’s counter military operations did not take place in Armenia-Azerbaijan border, nor in the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azerbaijan armed forces fought in the occupied districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh region.
So, what is next?
Azerbaijan’s roadmap to peace and stability is clear and based on international law. The principles are enshrined in relevant UN Resolutions, OSCE documents and decisions as well as numerous resolutions of the European Parliament adopted in this framework. They all stress support to the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Azerbaijan, call for unconditional and immediate withdrawal of Armenian armed forces from occupied territories and ensure safe return of internally displaced persons with dignity to their places of origin.
Armenia’s goodwill and constructive engagement in this regard will open perspectives for full-fledged regional partnership in the South Caucasus which will eventually create favorable and equal opportunities for all countries to benefit from existing and perspective trans-regional initiatives in the region. South Caucasus is in close proximity to the EU, thus we believe that it is also in the best interests of the EU.
Cooperation mood of Azerbaijan with Europe cannot be ruined by long-standing security challenges.