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Azerbaijan 2016 | DIPLOMACY | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Raimonds Vējonis, President of Latvia, on bilateral relations between his country and Azerbaijan.

Having assumed the office of the President of Latvia in July 2015, what is your outlook on bilateral relations between Latvia and Azerbaijan over your four-year term?

Although cooperation between Latvia and Azerbaijan has deepened in recent years, I consider that there is still huge potential for the further expansion of our relations, especially in political, economic, and cultural areas. I strongly believe that new initiatives to enrich our bilateral relations will be started and implemented during my four-year term as the President of Latvia. I am confident that we will continue our contacts at the highest political level. Latvia highly appreciates open and constructive political dialogue with Azerbaijan. The intensity of our dialogue is proven by the fact that our ministers of foreign affairs, economics, welfare, transport, and defence are in contact on a regular basis. Latvia is interested in expanding the cooperation with Azerbaijan in the field of education. We are delighted to see that the number of Azerbaijani students in Latvian universities has increased in recent years, and we hope that this trend will continue. We also have good cooperation between Latvian and Azerbaijani experts at the local government level regarding the issues of healthcare, education, and migration, and we hope to facilitate this cooperation even more. Seasonal direct flights are another important connection that brings our countries closer and increases our people-to-people contacts. Additionally, the Azeri community in Latvia is serving as a bridge between our two states and has become an integral part of the Latvian society.

Trade turnover between Latvia and Azerbaijan currently sits at $28 million. What are the main pillars of trade between Latvia and Azerbaijan?

Active political dialogue at the highest official level and comprehensive legislation in the field of economic cooperation have created preconditions for successful economic growth. Trade statistics in 2014 show a positive trend—the turnover for trade in goods between our countries has increased by 8.8% reaching €26.57 million, while the turnover for trade in services has reached €6.33 million. Latvia's major commodity groups for exports to Azerbaijan included livestock and animal production (mainly dairy produce like cream and yogurt, for example), food products (alcoholic beverages and preserved fish), machinery and electrical equipment (centrifuges, monitors and projectors, and telephones), and the chemical industry and its related products (pharmaceuticals) in 2015. Latvia's major services for exports to Azerbaijan are related to computing and information services, financial services, tours, and transport services (rail transport services). The major commodity groups for imports from Azerbaijan included food products (alcoholic beverages above all), and machinery and electrical equipment (mainly telephones), whereas the major services imported from Azerbaijan were transport services (rail transport services above all), other business, and financial services.

An Azerbaijani company recently invested €40 million in the construction of a freight logistics terminal at Riga International Airport. What is the current level of cooperation between the two countries in the transportation sector?

Apart from the already existing good cooperation between our countries in the field of transport and logistics, including the planned construction of a cargo terminal at Riga airport, there is still much potential. The container train project ZUBR is one of the best practical examples for our further cooperation in this field. The ZUBR project could serve as a connector of transport systems between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. We find that the development of this project into a functioning transport corridor will be made possible with the participation of the Nordic countries and the Black Sea region.

What are some areas of future economic growth between Latvia and Azerbaijan?

In addition to already existing fields of cooperation, which account for the major volumes of bilateral trade and investments exchange, I would like to add metal processing and machinery, IT, life sciences, healthcare, timber industry, green technology (CleanTech), and the food industry. I consider the promotion of Latvian franchise companies in the fields of cosmetics and fashion, such as Stenders, Dzintars, Madara Cosmetics, Lauma Lingerie, Attirance, and Rosme, in the Azerbaijani market as a promising prospect of economic cooperation.

How does Latvia view Azerbaijan as a partner in the South Caucus region?

Azerbaijan is an important partner of the EU in the energy and transit sectors. We highly value the role of Azerbaijan in the implementation of the Southern Gas Corridor and the ongoing work on the expansion of the South Caucasus Pipeline, the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). Latvia, as a firm supporter of strengthening the relations between the EU and Azerbaijan, believes that the cooperation in the framework of the Eastern Partnership should be continued. Focusing our work on the implementation of the decisions made at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga and moving forward with the deepening of the differentiation principle are important. An individual approach should be applied in cooperation with each country, taking into account the level of ambition in each country with regard to its cooperation with the EU. It also requires an update of the legal framework of the EU and Azerbaijan. Enhanced mobility of citizens in a secure and well-managed environment remains a core objective of the Eastern Partnership. Latvia welcomes the progress to date in the implementation of the EU and Azerbaijan Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements. Latvia supports the opening of a visa dialogue with Azerbaijan in due course.