Baku, 1 March 2016 – Newtimes.az
Yesterday, the European Union High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini paid a visit to Azerbaijan and during this visit she met with not only the state and government officials but also foreign diplomats based in Baku and Azerbaijani civil society representatives. Therefore, it is important to analyze this visit from her vintage point – what this first visit allowed her to discover in and about Azerbaijan. Aim of this article is to try to create a brief overview.
First, this visit that comes at a very important moment in bilateral relations provided an opportunity to have an open and very good discussion with Azerbaijan’s top level officials on a range of issues and about the future direction of engagement, in order to upgrade those ties and develop them to their full potential through a new bilateral agreement. It is important to mention that Azerbaijan introduced the draft Strategic Partnership Agreement to the EU on the margins of Eastern Partnership Summit held on 21 – 22 May 2015 in Riga, Latvia. Azerbaijan is looking forward to entering into official negotiations with the EU on this draft Agreement and therefore, hopes that the European Commission would acquire a respective mandate from the EU Foreign Affairs Council as soon as possible.
Undoubtedly, the EU and Azerbaijan share a difficult, challenging, sometimes promising, but in any event complex region, where Azerbaijan plays a key role, as Mogherini mentioned in her press conference held at Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry. In this respect, this visit was an excellent opportunity to discuss in detail the current geopolitical challenges and the perspectives for cooperation that is so crucial for both sides.
This visit allowed High Representative to witness the role that Azerbaijan plays as a bridge between cultures – contribution that is particularly welcomed and recognized in view of the challenges that the European societies are facing today. As she underlined in her press statement, Azerbaijan’s contribution to the dialogue of cultures must be reflected in the future bilateral agreement, taking into consideration the experience and the nature of Azerbaijani society, extremely valuable for Europe and beyond.
Naturally, one of the major issues discussed during the visit was economic cooperation, given that the European Union is already Azerbaijan’s main trading partner and one of the most important investors and because Azerbaijan has the potential to become one of the EU’s major commercial partners in the region. From this point of view, energy issue is and will long remain a corner stone of this relationship. As Mrs. Mogherini mentioned, Azerbaijan is a strategic partner with regard to European energy security. The Southern Gas Corridor plays a key role in EU’s strategy to diversify their energy supply sources and transportation routes and Azerbaijan is pivotal for the development of this project. It is important to remember that the Southern Gas Corridor was defined as a key priority in both the European Council Conclusions and EU Energy Diplomacy Action Plan annexed to the Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions adopted last July.
They confirmed that the European Union’s foreign policy would give particular priority to partners and initiatives that are instrumental for better diversification of the EU energy sources. The second essential point to note, when it comes to energy issue, is that the visit coincided with the Southern Corridor Advisory Council’s Second Ministerial Meeting, where the High Representative also participated together with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and European Commissioner for Energy Maroš Šefčovič.
This visit allowed her to witness the great importance that Azerbaijan attaches to the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression and association. Indeed, the meetings with representatives of civil society created an excellent opportunity for Mrs. Mogherini to see for herself that Azerbaijan has about 5,000 media outlets affiliated with a wide range of political and public bodies or private organizations and individuals. There are some 40 daily and more than 200 weekly and monthly newspapers. Throughout Azerbaijan, 9 countrywide, 1 satellite, 14 regional and 14 cable TV channels operate freely. In addition, more than 50 information agencies are operational. The country boasts genuine freedom of Internet. The latest statistics indicate that around 80 percent of the Azerbaijani population are Internet users. The number of NGO’s functioning in Azerbaijan stands at around 3000.
One other issue on the human rights front – arrests and detentions. The High Representative was able to ascertain that arrests and detentions of certain individuals highlighted by some international institutions and NGO’s are related to specific criminal offences under the Penal Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan and have nothing to do with political and human rights related activities. By the way, these activities do not imply that those individuals can place themselves above the law and avoid legitimate legal proceedings.
This visit was also helpful in terms of illustrating why the Azerbaijani side urged its European partners to accord the same degree of attention to the violation of human rights of more than 1 million Azerbaijani refugees and internally displaced persons. Those people have been expelled from their native lands for more than 20 years as a result of occupation of Azerbaijan’s territory by Armenia.
Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno Karabakh conflict was of course the last but not least important issue for Azerbaijan during the talks. It is very important to repeat what the High Representative mentioned in her press statement: “As stated also by President Tusk during his visit last July, the EU supports the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of Azerbaijan. The European Union and its Member States have not recognized Nagorno-Karabakh. The status quo, we believe, is unsustainable and the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains for us a top priority. We continue to support the mediation efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs. The European Union calls for the intensification of high-level talks towards peace. The conflict does not have a military solution and needs a political settlement in accordance with international law”. This has been the position that the Azerbaijani side has supported from the very beginning.
Finally, this visit was an appropriate message to the Armenian side. It was the next opportunity for Armenian officials and people to understand that today the international community recognizes the leading place that Azerbaijan has and the important role it plays in this region.
I think it is time for the Armenians to acknowledge the reality and learn their lesson. One cannot violate the international rules time and again and seek foreign protection to maintain the status-quo. It is time to withdraw from the occupied territories, allow refugees and IDPs to return to their homes and accept the universal legal and moral rules of peaceful coexistence with the neighbors. Otherwise, tomorrow can be too late.
Dr. Turab GURBANOV