His Excellency, Mr Fakhraddin Gurbanov, presented his credentials to Her Majesty The Queen on 1st November 2007 as the Ambassador of Azerbaijan to Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Having studied foreign languages, international relations and governance at universities in both Azerbaijan and the US, he is a highly respected diplomat with a wealth of experience, particularly in North America. He has kindly taken time out of his schedule to answer some questions about Azerbaijan for Open Central Asia magazine.
We welcome Azerbaijan to Open Central Asia magazine as a gateway to Central Asia. Please tell us a little bit about your background and career to date.
Firstly let me take this opportunity to thank you for interviewing me and including Azerbaijan in the area of interest your magazine pursues. I believe we will be able to build long-term and cooperative relations and work together in the years ahead. I have been working in Azerbaijan’s diplomatic service since the very first years of Azerbaijan’s independence as first secretary, director of information and then chief of the Protocol Department at the Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry. In 1993 I was appointed first secretary and consul at Azerbaijan’s Embassy in Washington where I served until 2001. Before taking up my present position I was Ambassador to Canada in 2004-2007. I was appointed Ambassador to the United Kingdom in 2007 and presented credentials to Her Majesty the Queen in November 2007.
How do you view the potential of Central Asia (in the broadest sense) to play a significant part on the world stage?
I believe the Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan have increased their international standing and achieved a great deal of influence in the last two decades. These are the countries enjoying an indispensable geo-strategic position coupled with huge energy resources. Apart from that, one thing which sometimes goes unnoticed is a relatively young and highly skilled population. The combination of these three elements with a visionary and coordinated policy would increasingly help this region to achieve its well-deserved place in the international arena. Azerbaijan enjoys friendly relations with these countries and is pursuing a policy of further consolidating these links. I am confident that the countries in the region have a capacity to emerge as a new energy and trade hub in a rapidly evolving global environment. In that context Azerbaijan is a key country well-positioned at the meeting point of civilizations and economic powers which would serve as a trade, communications and transport hub between Central Asia and Turkey and Europe as a whole.
What work is being done to foster trade relations and co-operations between Azerbaijan and the UK? Why is this important?
You might be aware that the UK-based companies were at the forefront of foreign companies to establish their operations in the country in mid 90’s. And these economic and trade links have been instrumental in implementing a range of regional energy projects that have brought mutual benefits to both countries. We are now taking steps to move this cooperation beyond energy and broaden into new areas of potential cooperation. With this in mind the UK-Azerbaijan Business Council was set up last year and has arranged two trade missions to Baku with a third shortly due to involve numerous British companies. Last year the Lord Mayor of the City led a business delegation of British companies to hold talks with Azerbaijani authorities and business circles to explore opportunities of cooperation. These trade missions have proved very successful as some companies have already managed to begin their operations in Azerbaijan. The companies keen to start businesses in my country are engaged in a range of areas representing financial services, agriculture, insurance, banking, education, consulting and tourism. These are the key sectors which have been identified by Azerbaijani Government as of priority significance to establish a diversified economy and to focus on the non-oil sector. Apart from trade missions, in order to raise awareness of the business opportunities Azerbaijan offers we have supported Adam Smith Institute-organized business conferences. These have provided an excellent opportunity to showcase what benefits British companies could get through establishing business in my country and also enabled private companies from both countries to come together and discuss business opportunities.
With the energy challenge a significant part of the political agenda, how can Azerbaijan play a critical role in providing more energy for less environmental impact?
I think you raise an interesting point. The challenges facing the world with securing long-term sustainable energy supplies on one hand and making efforts to bring environmental impacts under control on the other are two interlinked problems. It is quite an extraordinary task to achieve both without compromising on one of them. As you rightly pointed out Azerbaijan is now placed at the centre of new energy dynamics in the region and has contributed to the energy security of Europe. We have succeeded in building a multiple and well-diversified energy export infrastructure. My country has now become an energy supplier for almost all regional countries and also affords energy outlets towards European markets. International consortiums tasked with the construction of regional energy projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipelines have made their best efforts to reduce the degree of environmental impact and to put in place a sustainable and eco-friendly way of exploitation of energy resources. Consultations have been made with the participation of environmental NGOs and local people to work out a functioning mechanism to ensure the lowest possible environmental impact. However, I think we need to increasingly turn our attention toward renewable energy sources, which are now seen as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. In light of this Azerbaijan has recently established a State Agency for Alternative Energy to coordinate efforts to develop this new sector and to create international cooperation with countries who have an extensive expertise in this sector. I hope in the long-run renewable energy sources will increasingly come on-stream thus reducing the share of fossil fuels in domestic consumption and power production.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Azerbaijan in the near future? How is the government responding to meet this challenge?
Azerbaijan has been on a path towards establishing a mature democracy and high living standards for all people over the last two decades. We have succeeded in carrying out reforms that have made the country stronger, resistible in the face of challenges and providing fair opportunities for all. There are challenges alongside achievements. The hardest of all is that Azerbaijan’s territories are now under Armenian occupation and we have engaged in peace talks to reach a durable and lasting solution to the conflict. The prolonged state of unresolved conflict is not only a threat to regional stability and broader cooperation but also increases the risk of resumption of military operations in the region. We have remained committed to the peaceful negotiations as the way to reach a deal which would boost regional economic development. I would like to single out this conflict as the biggest challenge to Azerbaijan’s national interests and we would like to see the international community to step up efforts in working out a functioning mechanism to find a mutually acceptable solution to the conflict.
6. Can you envisage the development of a “New Silk Road” between East and West? If so how will this impact the region?
The initial plans to revive the old Silk Road and establish a so-called “New Silk Road” were initiated in the mid 90’s and are still ongoing today. The idea that a long stretch of regions could be linked with new infrastructures and communications will undoubtedly give a huge boost to inter-regional trade and business contacts. Azerbaijan’s location allows it to play the role of a key country between the Far East and Central Asia on one side and Europe and the Middle East on the other. As mentioned previously, new regional energy routes laid down in the Caucasus are undoubtedly a crucial link to ensure that energy-rich Caucasus and Central Asian countries get an outlet to benefit from their resources. Alongside energy, there are new projects underway to establish shared communications lines in the “New Silk Road”. We must not forget the great potential that the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars regional railway line possesses to ensure an efficient and short way of transporting of products along the Silk Road. Once completed that would considerably shorten the duration of transport of goods between Europe and Asia. I am confident that the region will increase its influence and role in global economy after these projected initiatives are implemented. With this we will be able to witness an increase in trade volumes within the region bringing huge benefits to the people of these countries and will also give an impetus to broaden relations into new areas.