Independence – a dream becomes reality
25 years ago a dream came true for the Azerbaijani people, the restoration of national sovereignty and independence. With the dissolution of the USSR the Azerbaijani people got a second chance to fulfil, what the fathers of the nation between 1918 -1920 had envisaged but not been able to implement; an independent, sovereign, democratic, internationally respected and economically prosperous Azerbaijan. The new Azerbaijani Republic like its predecessor had to go through an ordeal of international conflict, domestic turmoil and economic difficulties. However the Azerbaijani people set the course to develop their country in every way as an independent country. Azerbaijan has also established itself as an autonomous player in international politics at the crossroad of various political influences, religions, cultures and traditions.
Unlike 1918, this time Azerbaijan and its people were not alone in their endeavours and enjoyed a broad support of the international community. At that time the European Communities and some of its member states were among the first international actors to officially recognize Azerbaijani independence and to support its fledgling statehood diplomatically and financially. Soon the today EU and some Member States will be able to celebrate their respective 25-th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations.
The foundations of the EU and Azerbaijan partnership
During 25 years, EU and Azerbaijan have built a strong partnership in many fields. Not surprisingly, landmarks in the Azerbaijani history are also considered landmarks in EU-Azerbaijan relations. Azerbaijan today plays an important role in the EU foreign policy and different fora for EU-Azerbaijan dialogue are established. Azerbaijan has gradually but successfully established itself as a strategic energy partner of the European Union. This strategic cooperation works on a mutually beneficial basis as European direct investment goes hand in hand with long-term contracts and development of the Azerbaijani energy sector based on latest technical standards. On the other hand European countries profit from reliable energy deliveries. The EU strongly supports the Southern Gas Corridor, a key priority on EU’s energy diversification project as confirmed by the Council in the Energy Diplomacy Action Plan adopted in July 2015.
Today the EU-Azerbaijan relations rest on a number of legal and political agreements which serve as the foundation for the broadening and deepening of the EU-Azerbaijan relations. The most important of them is the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) of 1996, the European Neighbourhood policy of 2004, the Eastern Partnership Agreement of 2009 and the MoU on Strategic Energy Cooperation of 2009. In 2013 a Mobility Partnership was signed and in 2014 a Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreement entered into force which paved the way for enhanced people to people as well as business to business contacts. Furthermore, in 2014 a Protocol on participation in EU programmes and Agencies was signed, which allows Azerbaijan to fully access certain EU integrated structures.
The EU and Azerbaijan also work together in other international organization such as the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the United Nations. The membership and adherence of Azerbaijan to respective conventions, principles and commitments in those organisations are important factors for the EU as they define some basic EU foreign policy principles as the respect for democracy, fundamental human rights and the rule of law.
Conflict resolution and sustainable development
25 years after gaining independence Azerbaijan is still suffering from the consequences of the Nagorno Karbach conflict which started in the dissolution phase of the USSR and which has left scars across the whole region.
The EU provided humanitarian assistance to affected people in the aftermath of the conflict. This contribution has been recognised by the Azerbaijani authorities. The EU has also supported international efforts toward peace and has engaged with the sides of the conflict and relevant international actors. The EU regards its peaceful resolution a foreign policy priority. In this vein, the conflict settlement makes part of the dialogue between the EU and Azerbaijan at the highest political level, including during the recent visits of the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, in July 2015 and the High Representative /Vice President, Federica Mogherini in February 2016. As President Tusk and High Representative Mogherini stated in Baku, the EU supports the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of Azerbaijan. The EU and its Member States have not recognised Nagorno-Karabakh. Its future status is subject to negotiations in the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group.
The EU continues to support the mediation efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs and their proposals for a settlement based on the Madrid principles. Recent unprecedented escalation of violence along the Line of Contact has shown that the status quo is unsustainable. The EU calls for strengthening of the ceasefire and 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. The EU complements the efforts of the Minsk Group Co-Chairs through the current EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia, Herbert Salber, who has paid eight visits to Azerbaijan since he took office in July 2014. The EU has supported people-to-people contacts and civil society peace-and confidence building activities across the conflict divide, in particular through the ongoing “European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh”.
The conflict and its consequences have also been discussed in the format of bilateral cooperation mechanisms established following the launch of the European Neighbourhood Policy in 2004. The appointment of EU Special Representatives for the South Caucasus, as of 2003, allowed keeping open a channel for regular communication between the EU and the sides to the conflict, with the Minsk Group Co-Chairs, as well as for contacts with local stakeholders.
Azerbaijan – many developments in many fields
In order to in some way assess the many developments Azerbaijan and its people have undergone in this quarter of a century one just need to have a look at its beautiful, bustling and rapidly growing capital Baku. Many visitors from EU countries do hardly recognize Baku after having visited the city in the last century. But it is not just the capital that has been changing. Infrastructure all over Azerbaijan has been renovated, enlarged or newly created. Today, Azerbaijan is on the verge of becoming one of Eurasia’s transportation hubs. More importantly, Azerbaijan has embraced the revolution in telecommunications and is now not only boosting a modern infrastructure but also a population which is actively using modern technologies to communicate and do business. The energy sector has profited from favourable investment conditions and respective large inflows of mostly European financial and human capital. Azerbaijan’s energy infrastructure is still displaying in many ways the same pioneering spirit as more than a century ago with state of the art solutions and cutting edge technologies being applied. But it is not just the surroundings which have developed also the Azerbaijani people themselves have adapted to new political and economic framework conditions, new responsibilities and challenges. Azerbaijan has managed to integrate a growing number of young people into the labour market and to significantly decrease poverty. Azerbaijan has set up some of the finest educational institutions in the region like the ADA University and the State Oil Academy which enjoy a high reputation across its very borders. Azerbaijani students have been venturing abroad, particularly to European destinations, to accomplish first class education and acquire the know-how that is necessary to make their home country competitive not only in energy but also other branches of the economy. In a competitive world it is always important to look at necessary reforms and innovations. The EU, as a long term reliable partner to Azerbaijan, has been continuously supporting these efforts at all levels of society: central government, regional administrations and civil society. It is our European experience and belief that in order to develop a stable and prosperous society, state, business and civil society structures must work hand in hand.
25 years of EU-Azerbaijan Partnership: from support to assistance, from assistance to cooperation
Since the establishment of Azerbaijan’s independence the EU has been a reliable and strong partner and supported the country in various ways and forms. Starting with a more humanitarian approach, the EU slowly progressed to more complex and comprehensive programmes using various instruments to implement projects. The EU is the largest foreign grant donor to Azerbaijan and has made available over 600 million EURO of bilateral EU external assistance (grants and in kind) since 1992. In addition, Azerbaijan – as an Eastern Partnership Country – benefits from substantial regional EU external assistance, such as through TRACECA (transport), INNOGATE (energy), the SME Flagship Program (private sector development), Council of Europe (Justice, democratic governance).
Bilateral EU external assistance to Azerbaijan has evolved in line with the dynamic development of the country itself: from humanitarian support and rehabilitation of conflict damaged infrastructure in the early days of its independence to peer-to-peer Twinning support to bring Azerbaijan closer to EU standards and best practices at present. Throughout the 25 years of Azerbaijan’s independence, the EU has been a partner of the country, providing EU external assistance fully aligned to the country’s needs and development agenda.
In the wake of the country’s independence, the EU has been providing humanitarian assistance – including food aid – through the European Community Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) and the European Community Food Security Program. Through the EU Rehabilitation Program, key socio-economic infrastructure (water and electricity supply, schools, irrigation) in conflict affected regions have been financed. The Technical Assistance Program to CIS (TACIS) has been operational since 1992. In the period 1992-2000 it mainly supported economic and infrastructure development, as well as institutional, administrative and legal reform. Through the TEMPUS/ERASMUS program support to universities and the country’s education sector has been provided since 1995.
With the political and economic developments of the country, EU humanitarian support, infrastructure rehabilitation and food support was eventually phased out in 2000, while the provision of EU technical assistance through the TACIS program was gaining prominence. In the period 2000- 2006, emphasis of TACIS assistance has been on strengthening the capacity of key government institutions (notably in the areas of environment and justice), as well as EU assistance in the area of social protection and economic development, trade and investment.
Starting 2007 in a context of high economic growth and reduced poverty, Azerbaijan has become eligible to the European Neighbourhood Partnership Instrument (ENPI/ENI) which replaced TACIS in 2007. Initially, the main form of EU assistance to the country was in the form of budget support. Between 2007 and 2011, the EU undertook four sector budget support programmes in the areas of energy efficiency, justice, agriculture and regional development. Since 2011 no new Budget Support programme has been adopted. Instead, a main EU assistance instrument used in Azerbaijan is that of high level peer-to-peer expertise in the form of Twinning with EU Member States public institutions. Since it has become eligible for Twinning in 2007, Azerbaijan has benefitted from 31 Twinning interventions, one of the highest rates in the region. A 2012 evaluation of the Twinning instrument confirmed that Twinning has been successful in supporting Government’s efforts to modernize its administration and to approximate to European standards and practices in selected sectors. Most of the past beneficiaries of the instrument have applied for Twinning support for a second or even a third time, and have recommended Twinning to other governmental entities which underlines the success and effectiveness of the programme. Past beneficiaries were for instance the Ministry of Taxes, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, the State Committee for Standardization, Metrology and Patent, and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
EU-Azerbaijan cooperation – working together with different actors
It is important to reiterate that the EU does not see any contradiction between its security /economic/energy interests and its values agenda – European and Azerbaijani interests are best served by stable societies based on the rule of law, respect for fundamental freedoms and democratic participation. In this sense EU support to civil society, freedom of expression and democratic processes in Azerbaijan have been contributions to strengthen Azerbaijani society and help initiatives which improve the quality of life of ordinary citizens, in a large extent through grass root activities. In order to be able to continue with these activities the EU has a vested interest in having a conducive environment which allows for further meaningful EU engagement with all parts of society, including civil society. Civil society organisations (CSOs) have been an important partner for the EU in Azerbaijan since the beginning of the cooperation. Between 2007 and 2014 the EU has awarded 76 grants with a total value of approx. EUR 21 million to support civil society activities in Azerbaijan, which makes the EU the largest foreign grant donor to civil society in the country. A variety of sectors and areas have been covered through this funding: media freedom and pluralism, women empowerment, promotion of equality and anti-discrimination, fight against domestic violence, property rights, access to justice for children, promotion of free and fair elections, legal aid to victims of trafficking, prevention of torture and ill-treatment, access to justice for IDPs, improving public finance management in Azerbaijan, rural and regional development, local income generation, community empowerment, poverty reduction, social inclusion of vulnerable populations.
Outlook into the future
As both domestic and international framework conditions have evolved since the start of EU-Azerbaijan relations – not the least the EU has been transformed from an economy centred European Community to a more politically oriented European Union – the EU is currently in exploratory discussions with the Government of Azerbaijan on a new contractual framework that in our view could replace the current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement of 1996 and that would reflect the strategic nature of our relations in different fields. Overall the EU looks forward to develop our relationship with Azerbaijan for the next 25 years.
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary
Head of Delegation of the European Union to the Republic of Azerbaijan