The Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Belarus to the Republic of Azerbaijan, H.E. Mr. Nikolai Patskevich, tells us about the strong ties connecting our two states
Independent Belarus has had to approach Azerbaijan afresh, despite our common Soviet past. Do you agree with the Azerbaijani Ambassador to Belarus, H.E. Mr. Isfandiyar Vahabzade, that our two states share ‘a single friendly sky’? What form do our bilateral relations take? Which aspects are traditional and which are new?
You’re spot on in saying that we’ve had to reassess our relationship with Azerbaijan, such as when old school friends meet after a long time apart. We recall merry laughter and naughty pulling of hair while time has changed us into a solid father or a successful manager. It takes time to adjust to the transformation.
We need to admit that the inertia which dominated the post-Soviet space in the ‘boisterous 1990s’ separated Belarus and Azerbaijan to some degree. We became focused on serious internal problems while, of course, geographical distance and geopolitical aspects came between us. The ‘iron curtain’ of Soviet days played its part, since its fall aroused a natural desire for people to learn more about the rest of the world. It’s no secret that newly independent states have had to fall into the orbit of various leading world and regional players.
Fortunately, the mutual attraction between Belarus and Azerbaijan proved strong and, having matured, we now appreciate the benefits of partnership. We can confidently say that our dialogue is carefully considered on both sides, dictated by political and economic practicalities. The dynamic development of Belarus and Azerbaijan and the mutual complementarity of our economies, as well as common approaches to contemporary problems and similar social policies, have helped inspire us to ‘meet half-way’.
We’ve acquired a serious foothold in the South Caucasus via Azerbaijan, which is a regional leader and a member of the UN Security Council. It has confidently made a name for itself within the international arena and, in a short period of time, has become a noticeable voice in inter-cultural and inter-confessional dialogue. Having attracted over $100bn of foreign investments into its economy, Azerbaijan is gradually becoming an investor itself. Being pragmatic, the empathy between our nations, rooted in our shared historical past, does also have a role to play.
Trustworthy relations established between the presidents of our states, Alexander Lukashenko and Ilham Aliyev, also guide the whole range of Belarusian-Azerbaijani relations. This finds reflection in intensive, fruitful dialogue at the highest level, as the official visit of the Azerbaijani leader to Belarus testifies.
Studying press releases from the Belarusian Embassy to Baku, it seems that Azerbaijan can serve as a show-window for the best Belarusian exports — from crystalware to tractors. All seem to enjoy popularity in Azerbaijan, against a background of sharp competition from leading world manufacturers. How are Belarusian exporters managing to conquer the hearts of Azerbaijani customers, who have the pick of the world’s goods, and which Belarusian goods are most popular in Azerbaijan?
Belarusian-Azerbaijani trade-economic co-operation is developing intensively, with over 200 Belarusian enterprises involved in mutual trade of 250 commodity items. In 2011, trade turnover in the non-oil sector exceeded the landmark figure of $200m; mutual trade remained steady despite the crisis years of 2009-2010.
Belarusian meat and dairy products have gained a good reputation on the Azerbaijani market, including those produced by Savushkin Produkt JSC, confectioneries by Spartak and Kommunarka, and canned fish produced by Santa Bremor JSC. Refrigerators and washing machines made at Atlant are well known in Azerbaijan, as are Gefest kitchen ovens and Bielita Vitex cosmetics. Goods from light industry enterprises Serge, Milavitsa and Conte are doing well, as are crystalware and medicines. Supplies of industrial goods are also developing pleasingly, including tractors, buses and automobiles. Communal and road and construction machinery, in addition to ceramic tiles, construction materials and timber processing goods also sell well.
The recipe for success remains constant everywhere, including in Azerbaijan: high quality goods combined with trust and reliable relations. Many of our exporters already understand this ‘formula for success’ and apply it actively. It’s reflected in regular participation in exhibitions, visits and negotiations and, of course, in open communication and consistent fulfilment of agreements.
In fact, a reliable reputation, a good name and stable quality of goods are appreciated in the East far more than signed contracts. Faxes and emails, as used by dynamic Western businesses, play second fiddle to personal contacts, dignity and mutual interest; these remain important in Azerbaijan.
In this respect, it’s pleasant to note the kind and friendly relations of Azerbaijanis towards Belarusian people, as well as the ever growing number of contacts across most spheres of interaction. Sadly, not all Belarusian exporters understand the nature of Eastern markets, where traditional methods are prevalent: sending a short fax suggesting co-operation, with reference to your website, won’t work without a personal stage of negotiations.
Another misunderstanding is that some Belarusian firms think the Azerbaijanis so wealthy — being rich in oil — that they can sell goods at any price. Obviously, this is nonsense.
The State Oil Fund was established in Azerbaijan just as the ‘contract of the century’ was signed, raising extraction of hydrocarbons. Its major task is to preserve and augment oil revenue for future generations. At present, the country’s gold and currency reserves are estimated at around $44bn, while revenue from oil extraction is being carefully injected into socio-economic development: roads, schools, hospitals and sporting facilities, as well as the creation of new jobs at modern enterprises.
Today, Azerbaijan has a market for everything. However, taking into account its leading position, it can select the best, most advanced innovations. As a result, a highly competitive environment has been formed for top quality goods priced reasonably. This may come as a surprise but competition on the Azerbaijani market is no less than that in EU states in many ways.
In this respect, even taking into account the establishment of partnership ties, Belarusian exporters have to be ready to compete with leading manufacturers on the Azerbaijani market, ensuring the competitiveness of their produce in quality and price. They also need to offer reliable service maintenance, attractive and sturdy packaging and other consumer features.
It’s pleasant for us to note an ever growing number of exporters who do appreciate these aspects and are taking note in their practical activity. Our producers have everything they need to sell successfully to distant markets; they just need a bit more initiative. I’m convinced that everything will be fine if they can show this.
Of course, there’s more to economic ties than simple trade; production co-operation is essential. As I recall, a year ago, the Belarusian Prime Minister, Mikhail Myasnikovich, visited Azerbaijan to discuss joint production and sustainable long-term economic co-operation between our nations. What results have been seen so far and which opportunities and prospects are most to the fore?
Our countries’ leadership aims to gradually shift from simple trade towards longer-term interaction, including production co-operation. This is one of the brightest avenues of strategic partnership, allowing us to look confidently into a future of mutually beneficial collaboration.
Belarusian tractors are already produced in Azerbaijan, in addition to trucks, communal and agricultural machinery, optical devices and lift equipment. We are particularly proud of a successful project assembling Belarusian MTZ tractors and MAZ vehicles at Gyandzha Automobile Works. I’d also like to mention the independent, highly professional staff at a factory producing innovative machine building goods.
We are ever updating and expanding co-operative interaction, recently joining our Azerbaijani colleagues in signing preliminary agreements to implement a whole range of promising new projects. The most significant include production of Belarusian buses, using technology from Minsk Wheeled Tractor Plant. Another is producing medicines in Azerbaijan. The agro-industrial is also well represented, with projects to process meat and bread products in Azerbaijan; milk processing facilities are also planned.
Such interaction is being seen in both directions, with several projects here involving Azerbaijani investments in logistics, public catering and trade. The total volume of injections is reaching up to $15m per year. Imminent plans include new projects in the agro-industrial sphere, as well as construction and tourism. We also hope that, in future, Azerbaijani investment projects in Belarus will include joint production facilities.
As far as the future is concerned, I must mention joint projects by our two nations’ academies of sciences. The sphere of information and communication technologies is also active, with the private sector taking part in collaboration. We are shifting towards innovation and sci-tech partnerships with Azerbaijan.
The range of promising projects is rather wide but one aspect remains unchanged — Belarus is open to co-operation with its Azerbaijani friends in all areas of mutual interest and is ready to implement new ideas and proposals.
Azerbaijan is playing a noticeable leading role in the region, aiming to dynamically develop its non-oil sector while launching innovations across all spheres. We must have many points of coincidence. As far as I know, some important developments by Belarusian scientists are already being launched in Azerbaijan, while its state education programme in foreign states envisages its students studying in Minsk. Which projects may be implemented in future by uniting the intellectual resources of Belarus and Azerbaijan?
Today, Azerbaijan can be deservedly proud of its socio-economic achievements. President Ilham Aliyev has declared the promotion of innovative science-intensive projects as a priority for the non-oil sector of the country’s economy. He has set the task of launching contemporary industrial enterprises applying the latest technologies. It’s no surprise that innovation was at the heart of the agenda of President Ilham Aliyev’s visit to Belarus.
We can say confidently that interaction between Belarusian and Azerbaijani scientists is gaining momentum. This year, our two academies of sciences successfully implemented 22 joint sci-tech works in the spheres of economics, physics, chemistry, genetics and zoology. Many results are already being applied within the private sector — in oil processing, the development of medical equipment and compositional materials.
Joint manufacture of LED technologies is being successfully realised at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus and at the National Academy of Aviation of Azerbaijan, serving as an example of efficient innovation.
With a view to expanding co-operation between the National Academy of Science of Belarus and that of Azerbaijan, a working parry began work this year, implementing joint innovation projects. Led by the heads of both states’ academies of sciences, it comprises the heads of all major branches, covering a diverse repertoire: LED and energy saving technologies (including water purification), medicine and pharmaceuticals, agro-industrial, laser-optic and optic-electronic technologies, as well as bio- and nano-technologies, and those relating to space and IT.
Co-operation in education is developing no less successfully, with two major projects being implemented in Azerbaijan: the creation of a professional and technical college of construction and machine building, involving Belarusian teachers and specialists; and the attraction of Azerbaijani youngsters to study at Belarusian universities.
You are right that the Azerbaijani state education abroad programme (running from 2007-2015) envisages students from Azerbaijan attending four Belarusian universities: the BSU, the Belarusian National Technical University, the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radio-electronics and the Belarusian State Agricultural Academy. The decision was adopted by the Presidential Administration of the Republic of Azerbaijan in April 2012. Previously, in November 2011, an inter-governmental agreement on mutual acknowledgment of education documents also entered into force. Conditions of study for Azerbaijani students at Belarusian universities have become much more attractive.
We should also note that young Azerbaijanis are attracted by the good quality of education in Belarus, including the opportunity to study some specialities through the medium of English. The atmosphere of tolerance and affordable fees are also factors.
According to our data, around 120 Azerbaijani citizens are currently studying at 21 Belarusian universities and over 200 Azerbaijani cadets are being trained at educational establishments affiliated to the Emergency Ministry and the Interior Ministry (following a separate programme). We hope that the number of Azerbaijani students studying at Belarusian universities will soon rise considerably.
We’re keen to work with Azerbaijan in training personnel in such areas as medicine, information and communication technologies, construction and agriculture and the agro-industrial complex, as well as other areas of interest to Azerbaijan.
Cultural contacts between our two states are evidence of spiritual dialogue, contradicting Western experts’ forecasts of a clash between Western and Eastern civilisations. Moreover, Azerbaijan and Belarus have much in common in their aspiration to public stability and overall welfare. Do you agree that lack of political disagreements and mutual understanding, as well as shared economic interests, make us natural partners.
Objective and subjective factors are in favour of our partnership. I’ve already spoken about mutual interest, which is a powerful driving force for the development of co-operation. However, the spiritual basis is of no less importance to our interaction.
We were part of a single state for a long time: first the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. Belarusians and Azerbaijanis have experienced common joys and sorrows which, undoubtedly, bring people closer. Foreign interventions, political repression, industrialisation and collectivisation are part of the history of Belarus and Azerbaijan. However, the most important historical event uniting our nations is our common victory over Fascism and the heroic deeds of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War. Azerbaijanis made a great contribution to Belarus’ liberation. Monuments have been unveiled and cities have been named in Belarus to honour those Heroes of the Soviet Union who took part in battles on Belarusian territory: Nadzhaf-Kuli Rafiev, Azi Aslanov and Aslan Vezirov.
At Mr. Lukashenko’s request, medals marking ‘65 Years since the Liberation of the Republic of Belarus from Nazi Invaders’ have been awarded to over 300 veterans of the Great Patriotic War residing in Azerbaijan, bestowed by the Embassy in Baku.
We are connected not only by our common historical memory but by values of hospitality, benevolence and tolerance; these are national features which distinguish both Belarusians and Azerbaijanis. Of course, simple awareness of shared history, similar characters and mutual respect are a good foundation for friendship between nations but human contacts are essential, as are joint projects which mutually enrich our nations while developing public diplomacy. In this respect, I’d like to note the invaluable contribution made by the Azerbaijan-Belarus Friendship and Co-operation Society towards developing dialogue. This informal organisation was set up in 2009 in Baku and now unites prominent representatives of science, culture, art, education and business circles from Azerbaijan. It is headed by Azerbaijani scientist Arif Mehdiyev, who chairs the Higher Attestation Commission under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
The Centre of Belarusian Language and Culture at Baku’s Slavonic University is another key project. It was officially opened in 2010 by President Lukashenko, during his visit to Azerbaijan. Since February 2011, Belarusian language has been taught at the Centre and, over two academic years, students have mastered grammar and colloquial speech. I feel a shivering through my soul on hearing lines dear to every Belarusian: young Azerbaijanis reciting ‘My native land, you’re so dear to me!’
The Society has organised two major photo exhibitions dedicated to contemporary Belarus and the heroic deeds of the Belarusian people in the Great Patriotic War years. Meanwhile, Zarifa Salahova, the creator of the Baku Museum of Miniature Books and a member of the Friendship Society, helped organise an exhibition of miniature items at the National Library of Belarus in 2009 and 2010. Her Baku museum also hosted a presentation of books on the ‘Belarusian’ theme. I’m very pleased to mention that, this year, Ms. Salahova was given the state award of the Republic of Belarus — the Frantsisk Skorina Medal — for her many years of promoting Belarusian literature abroad and for her great personal contribution towards strengthening ties between Belarus and Azerbaijan. The medal has previously been awarded to another very active member of the Azerbaijan-Belarus Friendship and Co-operation Society, famous Azerbaijani parliamentarian and economist Ziyad Samedzadeh.
The self-sacrificing activity of the Friendship Society, intensive trade and economic contacts, and top level visits widely covered by media in Belarus and Azerbaijan have helped inspire the development of cultural ties.
It remains vital for us to maintain a wide range of liaisons, even without Embassy involvement. A bright example is the collaboration of the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre of Belarus and the Azerbaijani State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. Its memorandum on co-operation, signed this year, has seen the Baku stage host five performances by Belarusian artistes, with local audiences delighted by our dancers, directors and conductors.
In October 2012, an important event is to take place, aiming to develop humanitarian ties between our countries: the Days of Azerbaijani Culture in Belarus. The Days of Belarusian Culture in Azerbaijan are scheduled for 2013 and will be dedicated to a landmark date in the history of Belarusian-Azerbaijani partnership — the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations being established between Belarus and Azerbaijan.
Finally, we know that nations are ruled by the political elite. Azerbaijan is headed by Heydar Aliyev’s son, Ilham Aliyev, who worthily continues his father’s legacy. Its great oil achievements are well known, but we know little of ordinary people. Tell us, please, how do citizens live, including Belarusians in Azerbaijan? The Azerbaijani community in Minsk feels at home but do Belarusians feel the same in Azerbaijan?
Visiting Azerbaijani regions on business trips, I always like to chat with ordinary people, who are so very kind and open. In Azerbaijan, we have a feeling of dignity, which harmoniously combines with spiritual sensitivity, tolerance and sincere respect for other nations and religions. Implementation of joint projects has enabled us to demonstrate our hard-working character, as well as our ability and desire to work creatively and very efficiently.
I must also mention the traditional hospitality of Azerbaijanis, who are ready to give the shirt from their back to welcome an honoured guest. Belarusians visiting their relatives or friends, or simply arriving as travellers, are met by a wonderful atmosphere of kindness and friendship.
The Azerbaijani diaspora in Belarus is ranked among the top ten largest national minorities in Belarus. It’s very important that Azerbaijanis residing in Belarus are successfully integrated into the Belarusian community. They work in various branches while worthily representing the Azerbaijani nation. Among ‘Belarusian’ Azerbaijanis are famous scientists, athletes and those in creative professions: Professor Rauf Sadykhov, Doctor of Medical Sciences Reiman Izmail-zade, singer Gunesh Abasova, TV host Leila Ismailova and Olympic champion and Honoured Coach of Belarus Kamandar Madzhidov — also twice world champion and three times European champion.
I’d like to especially remark on Natik Bagirov, who is not only one of the most titled athletes in Belarus, being four times world champion, five times European champion and an Honoured Master of Sports, but who has done much for the development of judo and sambo in Belarus. Mr. Bagirov heads the Congress of Azerbaijani Communities of Belarus. His authority, energy and organising talent has helped the Azerbaijani diaspora in Belarus enjoy respect. This has been an important factor in strengthening Belarusian-Azerbaijani friendship.
The number of Belarusians permanently residing in Azerbaijan is modest; most are women who have married Azerbaijanis and many have children who were born in Azerbaijan. As far as the general condition of the Belarusian diaspora in Azerbaijan is concerned, over my years of work, I’ve felt a wonderful attitude towards our citizens from all social groups — from top ranking state officials to ordinary Azerbaijanis. They all treat Belarusians warmly and in a friendly manner. Famous playwright Chingiz Abdullaev, who is the Secretary of the Union of Writers of Azerbaijan, noted at one event that he never creates a ‘bad’ Belarusian character — since he has never met such a person in real life. Of course, he is being generous, but his words are essentially true regarding the established perception of Belarusians and Belarus in Azerbaijani society.
This kind and mutually respectful attitude is precious, being an important factor in the further development of Belarusian-Azerbaijani partnerships, to the considerable benefit of both nations.
By Nina Romanova