Trend's exclusive interview with Ambassador of France to Azerbaijan Zacharie Gross
Question: How do you assess the current level of cooperation between France and Azerbaijan in various spheres of economy?
Answer: France and Azerbaijan have good cooperation across a broad spectrum of activities. To take a few examples : over the last few years, with the support of the EU, French experts have helped formulate economic and social reforms in Azerbaijan, including on mandatory health insurance, on pensions’ reform, on measures to empower women at work, on the social inclusion of people with disabilities, and on the development of a national strategy for water treatment and cooperation. The French Development Agency (AFD) is providing significant financial and expertise packages to support the modernization of Azerbaijan’s railways (ADY). France and Azerbaijan cooperate in outer-space activities.
Companies like Alstom, Thales, Schneider-Electric, Suez, Technip, Total, Lafarge-Holcim have a strong footprint in Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijan-France Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCIAF) successfully brings together business and policy makers in a regular dialogue.
But, frankly, we should be doing more. Leading French companies are keen to work in Azerbaijan. There is no question they can contribute to the wellbeing and security of consumers and citizens in Azerbaijan, by introducing the best standards in water and air depollution, recycling of solid waste, quality construction, clean energy, sustainable urban development and transport, etc. France, through AFD, is also keen on providing funds and expertise for the implementation of such projects.
The current oil crisis demonstrates how important it is for Azerbaijan to diversify its economy, train its youth and experts, reform its banking sector and develop its small and medium enterprises. If Azerbaijan so wishes, France can be a partner in all of this, with a focus of innovation and sustainable development. Because, if there is one lesson to be learnt from the Covid19 crisis, it is that development must be sustainable and inclusive.
Q.: In which spheres do the two countries intend to develop their bilateral cooperation? Which measures are underway by both countries to this end?
A.: Bilaterally, I’d like to see the strengthening of political dialogue, cultural and business ties. I’d like to see more cooperation in agriculture. I’d like to see academic cooperation deepen. On this point, the French University of Azerbaijan is very successful. But although France has top-level universities with courses taught in English with very modest fees, and although France is the 4th top destination worldwide for foreign students, there are still too few Azerbaijani students choosing to study in France.
One of the ways that we seek to achieve our goal in academic cooperation is through a set of government and business grants : on average, every year, the French Embassy delivers 15 grants to young Azerbaijanis for Masters courses in France. This year we have also delivered two grants for PhD students. And French energy company Total and the Embassy have signed an agreement by which 10 additional grants will be allocated to top students from UFAZ and other universities. Moreover, an extra 6 Eiffel French government grants have been attributed to bright Azerbaijani students on a world-wide competitive basis.
I’d also like to help grow the next generation of French language teachers in Azerbaijani schools and universities. For this reason, every year, the French Embassy organizes Summer training courses, here and in France, for over a hundred Azerbaijani teachers.
Turning to global issues, since Azerbaijan chairs the Non Aligned Movement, I’d like to see more partnering on multilateral security issues, from public health to climate change and to cybersecurity. I have delivered a number of invitations to join several multilateral initiatives that Azerbaijan could make a useful contribution to. And we should also continue our good anti-terrorist cooperation.
Q.: How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the collaboration between France and Azerbaijan? How do you predict the development of bilateral relations in post-pandemic period?
A.: The French Embassy in Baku has remained active throughout the crisis, as has the Azerbaijani Embassy in Paris. As mentioned, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates that the world needs more international cooperation, not less. We need a strong UN, a strong WHO, we need a rules-based international order. Both our countries can contribute to this.
In the coming days and weeks, I look forward to meeting the members of the new Milli Majlis, including the head of the foreign affairs committee, the head of the Azerbaijan-France Parliamentary friendship group and the heads of the committees for relations with the EU and with NATO.
Clearly, after the reshuffling of the presidential administration, the designation of a new government and after the parliamentary elections, Azerbaijan is entering a new phase of its political development. This is an important moment to take stock, decide on new orientations and launch new initiatives. And France is keen to be part of this process of reform and transformation in Azerbaijan and in the region. This is true not only for France, but also for the European Union which is by far the largest trade partner of Azerbaijan, the largest economic bloc worldwide and a major actor for security and stability in the region and globally.
One important milestone that I hope we will soon reach in this respect is the finalization of the partnership agreement between Azerbaijan and the EU. In the post-COVID19 world, we will need more partnership between Azerbaijan and the EU, so this agreement comes at the right time.
Q.: Energy is one of the crucial spheres of cooperation between France and Azerbaijan. French Total is engaged in a very important project for development of Azerbaijan’s Absheron gas field. How do you see the future of the relations in energy sphere? What are the prospects for cooperation in the sphere of alternative energy?
A.: The current expectation is that there will be an economic recovery in 2021. Energy will of course remain a strategic asset for growth. And gas is a relatively low-carbon source of energy which is complementary to renewable energies. So I’m confident Azerbaijan has a bright future, including as a key energy partner of Europe.
Regarding your question, I believe Total is ready to invest massively in the future of Azerbaijan. The question is whether Socar wants to expand the existing partnership with Total and share capital investment or if it believes it can do it alone. I don’t have the answer.
Incidentally, the decision on the construction of modern petrochemical plant is also due for which French-US company Technip has made a bid.
Regarding renewable energies, Azerbaijan is blessed to have strong winds and a lot of sunshine. What it needs is a strategy for the development of renewables, appropriate legislation, investment, including in its electricity grid, and international partners that can supply the technologies and have global experience. French companies such as Total-Eren and Lucia-Quadran have expressed their interest to invest here, but it takes two to tango !
Q.: What is the dynamic of trade turnover between France and Azerbaijan over the recent years? What are the main goods of export/import between the two countries?
A.: The trade turnover between France and Azerbaijan grew by 22 percent in 2019, reaching 750 million euros. Azerbaijan exported 606 million euros’ worth of oil to France, which exported 143 million euros worth of industrial goods to Azerbaijan - mainly mechanical, electronic and electrical equipment, chemicals and cosmetics. So France has a very large annual trade deficit with Azerbaijan of above 460 million euros. I hope it will be able to somewhat close this gap.
Q.: Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the work on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’s settlement continues. Recently, Azerbaijani and Armenian foreign ministers met via a videoconference with participation of OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs. Which steps are still needed to achieve tangible results in resolving this long-standing conflict?
A.: You are right, negotiations on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh have not stopped. The latest meeting was held on-line on April 21st between Foreign Ministers Mammadyarov and Mnatsakanyan and the co-chairs of the OSCE group of Minsk. These were substantial discussions. As mentioned in their Joint statement, the Foreign Ministers and Co-Chairs agreed to remain in close contact and to continue negotiations in person as soon as possible.
The Co-Chairs drew attention to the 23 March appeal by the Secretary General of the United Nations for global ceasefire measures during the current health crisis. Indeed, here too, robust implementation of the ceasefire along the line of contact and at the international border is very important.
In my view, other positive steps would include preparation of the populations for peace and ending hate speech. The solution to the conflict does not lie in more conflict, so moving away from hawkish statements would be beneficial. Also, I personally believe that civil society can have a positive role to play. The EU has been supportive in this area through its initiative for the peaceful settlement of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK). When I was posted in Israel at the time of the 2012 and 2014 conflicts with Gaza, I was struck by how few people actually engaged thoughtfully about the conflict - whether in government, academia, the media, political parties or NGOs. I think it is a collective mistake when we do not engage in these issues.
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