Trend's exclusive interview with Bulgaria's Ambassador to Azerbaijan Nikolay Yankov on the occasion of Bulgaria's Liberation Day
Question: Ambassador Yankov, on 3rd March Bulgaria is celebrating its National Day. Could you tell us more about Bulgaria?
Answer: On the 3rd of March Bulgaria celebrates its Liberation Day and the restoration of the Bulgarian statehood back in 1878. This is a remarkable day for my country as it set the beginning of the development of Bulgaria as a modern and prosperous state, which is now a proud member of the European Union, NATO and many other international organizations. A country with friendly and good neighborly relations with its neighbours and partners around the world, including Azerbaijan with which we have relations of strategic partnership.
Last year the Embassy of Bulgaria marked this day with a diplomatic reception, but now the situation is not suitable for holding big social events. I thank you very much for this opportunity to share with the Azerbaijani friends some interesting facts about Bulgaria and the Bulgarian-Azerbaijani relations.
Q.: What do Azerbaijani citizens know about Bulgaria, according to your personal observations?
A.: After being almost 3 years in your beautiful country I observed that Azerbaijani people remember pretty interesting facts about Bulgaria. On the top of the list is the famous “bolgarskii perec”, followed by the Bulgarian “brinza”, the “Bear Blood” and other wines, Bulgarian rose oil, tomatoes and canned vegetables, even the cigarettes we exported in the 70s and 80s. Some people from the older generations still remember the famous oracle Baba Vanga, others know very well our great football player Hristo Stoichkov. Many people have visited our capital Sofia and the “Golden Sands” and “Sunny Beach” resorts at the Black Sea. I am glad that there is increasing interest in visiting Bulgaria from the younger Azerbaijani generation. Unfortunately, the global pandemic put a halt to the opportunity to expand the touristic exchange.
Q.: Could you share with our readers some less popular facts about Bulgaria?
A.: Yes, there are some facts which are maybe less known to the Azerbaijani public and I do believe if I share them, it will raise the interest in visiting my country.
Bulgarian state was founded in year AD 681 and is one of the oldest inhabited territories in Europe. It is not very much known that it holds the third place in number of archaeological sites and artifacts, after Italy and Greece. For example, Bulgaria is a home of the oldest golden treasure in the world, found in an Eneolithic necropolis, near Varna city in 1972. The Varna treasure attracts the attention with its more than 3000 golden artifacts dating back more than 6000 years. Other archeological treasures of Bulgaria worth to be mentioned are the Vulchitrun golden treasure dated back to 1300 BC, the Panagyurishte treasure dated 400-300 century BC, the Rogozen treasure dated 400 - 300 century BC, and many others, which are evidence for thousands years of history inherited from the Bulgarian state.
Bulgaria is one of the leading destinations for SPA tourism and recreation in Europe. There are about 600 operating deposits of mineral water and 1,600 springs with a total capacity of 4,900 liters per second. With its variety of chemical and mineral content and temperature of some up to 103°C, the Bulgarian mineral waters have proven healing qualities. Therefore some of the oldest settlements in Bulgaria were established around thermal springs ever since the ancient Thracians, such as Serdica (the old name of our capital Sofia), Hisar, Sandanski, Kyustendil and many others. That is why Emperor Constantine the Great used to say: "Serdica is my Rome!”. Today, the city of Velingrad is known as the SPA capital of the Balkans.
For years Bulgaria has been famous worldwide for its rose oil production (approximately 85 % of the world production) but it is less known fact that in recent years Bulgaria has become the world top producer of lavender oil, as well. The Bulgarian lavender plantations cover 180 sq km with annual production of approximately 300 tones, which are used in various industrial products including perfumes, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, personal and home care.
Bulgaria is among the leading countries in the IT sector outsourcing and holds 3rd place in the world for IT specialists per capita. Bulgaria has strong traditions in the IT sector dating back to the 1980s when the country was known as the “Silicon Valley” for its huge role in production and supply of hardware to all Eastern Bloc countries. When Bulgaria officially joined the EU in 2007 a new era for the software business started and since Bulgaria has been a prime destination for IT and business outsourcing companies with its internet amongst the ten fastest in the world, and high skilled software developers.
Q.: Bulgaria and Azerbaijan established diplomatic relations in 1992 but, as you mentioned, the relations and the friendship between them are much older. What currently connects Bulgaria and Azerbaijan?
A.: Of course there are many things that connect our countries. For the past almost 30 years of bilateral relations we have been developed the foundation for more intensive relations in various fields, with more than 100 cooperation agreements signed in almost all range of bilateral relations – energy, economy, transport, security, culture, education, agriculture, military, in social field, to include a Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership. Our bilateral political dialogue has been very active, especially in the recent 10 years. Just in 2019, the pre-pandemic year, we had numerous very successful bilateral visits here in Baku – starting with the Minister of Energy, the Bulgarian Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Parliament, the Foreign Minister, the Minister of Culture, the Minister of Labour, and we closed the year with the visit of the Minister of Interior. Last year, our foreign ministers had two phone calls and our Prime Minister H.E. Boyko Borissov had a phone conversation with your President H.E. Ilham Aliyev.
But let me illustrate the close connections between Bulgaria and Azerbaijan with some concrete examples. First of all, the accomplished Southern Gas Corridor already brings Azerbaijani gas to Bulgaria and contributes to our energy diversification. Next, what brings our people closer, is the exchange of knowledge for both countries cultures and languages. There is a Center of Bulgarian language and culture here at the Baku Slavic University and a Center of Azerbaijani language and culture operating at the Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”.
Another bright example of a strong link between our states is the support Bulgaria received from the Heydar Aliyev Foundation for the preservation of the “Trapezitsa” Architectural Museum Reserve in the city of Veliko Tarnovo, with the personal engagement of the Vice President of Azerbaijan H.E. Ms. Mehriban Aliyeva.
And of course, the cultural proximity is a natural connection between the Bulgarian and Azerbaijani peoples. We have many common dishes in our national cuisines like - dolma, pahlava, pickels, kebap, and many others. We have many common words in our languages – such as “nar”, “turşu”, “divan”, “pərdə”, „kartof”, “çanta”, “corab”, and many others. These small similarities make us feel here like home and I am sure it is the same for the Azerbaijanis when visiting Bulgaria.
Q.: You mentioned the giant Southern Gas Corridor project, which alongside with other countries brings together Bulgaria and Azerbaijan. It has already started operations. How will this project change Bulgaria’s energy map?
A.: Indeed, the Southern Gas Corridor is a huge project and Azerbaijan was an important driving force for its successful realization. Its implementation was an example of what can be accomplished when governments, private companies and financial institutions are having the motivation and desire to work together and I am proud that Bulgaria was a part of this endeavor from the very beginning until now. This wouldn’t be possible without the long-standing and friendly bilateral political relations between our countries, which have naturally developed into a strategic partnership, including in the energy field. As a matter of fact, now Bulgaria is the only country through which the SGC is not passing but is still receiving 1 billion m3 of Azerbaijani gas annually. This may not sound a big number to you but this amount represents 10% of the TAP capacity at this stage and about 30% of Bulgaria’s annual consumption. In this way Azerbaijan becomes the second largest supplier of gas to Bulgaria and a symbol of real diversification of both the sources and routes for gas supply. Thanks to the SGC development, Bulgaria started the construction of a new gas interconnector with Greece, which will be operational before the end of this year. Its capacity will allow transit of Azerbaijani gas to other neighboring countries, thus contributing to the diversification of energy supplies in the Southeast Europe. IGB together with the well-developed national gas transmission system and already existing gas connectors with Turkey, Greece and Romania will provide to my country an opportunity to become a real regional hub for gas distribution from different sources and different routes to a number of consumers, which in fact is the essence of the diversification. So, the SGC has changed not only Bulgaria’s energy map but the one of the entire Balkan region.
Q.: Which other opportunities do you think both countries have to further boost their energy cooperation?
A.: In my opinion, same as in the case of the SGC, Azerbaijan will remain the driving force of future cooperation. If Azerbaijan continues to further develop new gas fields and if the SGC consortium decides to enlarge the current TAP’s annual capacity to 31 bln m3 then, of course, Bulgaria will be very much interested in benefiting from this, if not as an investor, at least as an end-user and a transit country. As I said before, Bulgaria has the ambition to become an important gas distribution hub on the Balkans and thus it will need more gas flow from different sources and routes.
I do not see any obstacles before Bulgaria to further deepen its energy cooperation with Azerbaijan having in mind the existing excellent bilateral relations. I am already full of hope with what the Honorable President Ilham Aliyev said on February 11 at the opening of the VII Ministerial meeting of the SGC Advisory Council, namely, that we should be looking towards the future now. He said Azerbaijan will continue the development of new gas fields, including in the Caspian Sea basin after signing a Memorandum of Understanding with Turkmenistan in regard to “Dostlug” gas field. This is a good sign that more natural gas will be available in a near future and a call to the European governments and energy companies to start planning for further expansion of the SGC capacity and building of new gas interconnectors. Bulgaria will also have the reason to enhance the IGB’s capacity in order to transit more gas from the SGC.
I would also like to use this opportunity to mention that our invitation for SOCAR to invest in household gas supply network in Bulgaria is still on place.
So, I am sure that Bulgaria will keep its role of facilitator of all future Azerbaijani and European projects in the energy field, including in the renewable energy field.
Q.: How do you assess the investment opportunities between the two countries?
A.: Bulgaria and Azerbaijan are quite similar countries in terms of territory, population and some fields, such as the agriculture and tourism. Both countries are open for fresh investments to further develop their economies. It is really difficult for the businesses and exporters from both countries to find the crossing point of their interests. In order to identify the exact potential areas for cooperation Bulgaria and Azerbaijan mainly rely on the annual work of the Joint Intergovernmental Commission for Economic Cooperation. The next session of the Commission has been planned to take place this year, here in Baku.
So, I may say that the excellent bilateral relations are a prerequisite for successful mutually beneficial trade and investments, but unfortunately this existing potential has not yet been fully realized in visible economic results. Now, after the end of the 44-day war, a lot of work is ahead for Azerbaijan for the economic and social reconstruction of the liberated territories. H.E. President Ilham Aliyev has already invited participating states in the SGC to take part in the implementation of large and important projects in the liberated territories, such as "smart city" and "green energy", and I hope that Bulgarian companies will take advantage of this opportunity. Bulgarian companies have capacities and, if invited, could also participate in the future implementation of other construction and recovery projects in these territories.
I would like to thank you for the opportunity for this interview on the eve of the National Day of Bulgaria, and to take this occasion to wish the Azerbaijani people health and prosperity.
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