THE MULTILATERAL APPROACH

Azerbaijan 2016 | DIPLOMACY | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Heinz Fischer, President of Austria, on relations between Azerbaijan and Austria and areas of cooperation.

What additional possibilities for cooperation do you see in the framework of the Austrian OSCE chairmanship in 2017?

Austria, in general, attaches great importance to multilateral diplomacy. The Austrian OSCE chairmanship will build on the excellent work of the current German OSCE Chairmanship. We are fully aware of the central and sensitive issue of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The dramatic increase of violence in 2015 along the line of contact is a matter of serious concern. I am aware of the frustration of Azerbaijan with respect to the efforts of the Co-Chairs of the Minsk group in solving the issue. Nevertheless, we are convinced that the Minsk Group is the only practical platform for conflict resolution. We, therefore, hope that that Azerbaijan will continue to work closely with the Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group and within all other structures of the OSCE. The solution based on the Madrid Principles of 2007 is still on the table and, as far as I have been informed, the Russian Federation is promoting a similar solution along these lines. In this regard, we regret the decision of the government of Azerbaijan in July last year to close the office of the OSCE Project Coordinator in Baku. This step has unfortunately significantly weakened the positive role of the OSCE in Azerbaijan and might also carry the danger of an isolation of Azerbaijan within the OSCE. In the light of the importance of OSCE as a conflict solving organization, Azerbaijan might be interested in reviewing its decision and consider a reopening of the office. I am sure a discussion about the exact mandate of the office is possible taking into account Azerbaijan's concerns. Austria would be glad to offer its good offices and assist in placing a stepping stone to the solution of this long lasting conflict.

With an active Austria-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce in place in Baku, what is your assessment of the current level of economic relations between Austria and Azerbaijan?

Economic relations between Austria and Azerbaijan can be qualified as well-established and on a solid base. Azerbaijan enjoys a significant trade surplus with Austria due to its exports of oil, which comprise over 90% of exports. This economic data illustrates the high dependency of Azerbaijan on one export commodity. This dependence has increased Azerbaijan's vulnerability in times of crises, as 50% of GNP and 97% of exports stem from the oil and gas sector. Austria appreciates that Azerbaijan, under the leadership of President Aliyev, is trying to introduce reforms and diversify its economy. This is a difficult and long-term process, especially as most countries in the region are facing similar problems. I would like to mention that bilateral trade has increased nearly tenfold in the last 10 years. In 1H2015, Austria was Azerbaijan's fifth most important import partner. In 2010, the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber opened an office in Baku, with the aim of contributing to the development and expansion of bilateral trade relations. Last year, two business missions with more than 30 Austrian companies from various industrial sectors were organized. In addition, the office of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber supported the activities of individual businesses and entrepreneurs.

As more than 45 Austrian companies are currently operating in Azerbaijan, what role can Austrian companies play in assisting the development of Azerbaijan's technical and technological sectors?

President Aliyev has mentioned his eagerness to improve and diversify the Azerbaijani economy several times. Austria is ready to work together with Azerbaijan in this endeavor. Many Austrian companies are engaged in the planning, architecture, and construction business. As a supplier of high-quality machinery in the field of oil and gas, Austria has contributed to the technological development of Azerbaijan. This is also true for the pharmaceutical sector, which is an important Austrian export to Azerbaijan. Furthermore, there is ongoing cooperation in the field of education. The strengthening of university and academic cooperation in the technological field would therefore be beneficial.

Which areas offer the most potential for Austria and Azerbaijan to increase mutual cooperation efforts moving forward?

Azerbaijan and Austria in many respects share similar features. Our countries and population are of approximately the same size, we share similar climate zones, especially mountain ranges and forests, and geopolitically, both countries are placed between large and powerful neighbors on essential trade routes. I believe that both countries can profit and learn from each other's experience. As the focus of Azerbaijan is shifting to the diversification of the economy, Austria would like to be a substantial partner. Tourism offers excellent possibilities for an extended partnership. The Austrian Tourism University of Krems closely cooperates with the University of Tourism and Management of Azerbaijan. Austria is working in close cooperation with the administration of the Old City of Baku on the restoration of several monuments. We were successful in restoring the Maiden Tower, and now we are working on the restoration of the Baylar mosque and a grave in Shirvanshah palace. We have further plans which need closer discussions and would like to continue this work. The Shahdagh tourism complex is an excellent example where Austrian engineering met Azerbaijani wishes. One must not forget that Azerbaijan's main market for tourism is not Austria or Europe, but Russia and Iran. Tourist promotion, also in light of heavy regional competition, is essential. Austria has great experience in this sector and would like to assist Azerbaijan with its expertise in this field. Another important field with huge potential for cooperation is the agricultural sector, from production to the promotion of products, taking into account the high sanitary standards products need to enter the European market. Another area of cooperation could be an exchange of expertise in the area of mountain farming, as substantial parts of both our territories are covered by mountains. Mountain farming is a niche product, but essential for local communities and has proved to be a corner stone of Austrian agriculture, especially as Austria has placed itself as the Feinkostladen, or delicatessen store, of Europe. In addition, the areas of machinery and plants (in particular in the oil and gas industry as well as in food processing) and the renewal of the energy infrastructure offer significant opportunities for Austrian companies. Last but not least, I would like to underline that Azerbaijan, as Austria, is a country on an important international trade link. We are following with great interest Azerbaijan's endeavor to position itself on the cross roads of the silk and spice route. I believe that Austrian know-how in the road and railway sectors could be beneficial for Azerbaijan. I believe that the future of Azerbaijan will be in its function as a trade hub, as it is excellently placed for both directions, East-West and North-South. In this respect it is worth mentioning that Austria has great experience in the field of railway construction. Austrian companies are global leaders when it comes to machinery and equipment for the development and maintenance of railway infrastructure.