Azerbaijan and Hungary

An interview with Dr. Matyas Eorsi
Chairman, European Affairs Committee
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

May 19, 2009
Baku, Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan and the World: Azerbaijan’s relations with many Eastern European countries, including Hungary, have been expanding rapidly in the recent years.  What do you see as basis of the relationship between Hungary and Azerbaijan?

Dr. Eorsi: During my current visit to Baku, I have been emphasizing that we are not coming for gas and oil but rather for friendship.  But it is also obviously true that for my country as for many in Eastern Europe highly dependent on Russian oil and gas, securing reliable supplies of energy via multiple routes is important.  And Azerbaijan is viewed as the principal partner in this respect.  But at the same time, I am certain we can go beyond these energy issues, and as I told you this visit is not just about energy.  From my perspective, it is unfortunate that over the course of the last 20 years, we have not exploited fully the opportunities we have for cooperation.  Now, especially with the adoption of the Eastern Partnership program in which Azerbaijan is playing a crucial role, I think we have the chance to expand our cooperation in a variety of ways.

AIW: At what point do you think relations between Azerbaijan and Hungary began to expand particularly rapidly?

Dr. Eorsi: While it is difficult to single out a particular date, it is clear to me that Hungary’s decision to back the Nabucco project 100 percent was a crucial moment.  But also important was the visit President Aliyev made to Budapest for the Nabucco conference and the speech he gave there.  Our parliamentary speaker’s visit here played a role, and I hope our current mission will further expand out cooperation and convince people both in Azerbaijan and Hungary that the two countries have many more opportunities to do something together compared with what they did in the past.  But in diplomacy, each step builds on those made before it and so it is usually a mistake to say that this or that action was the turning point.

As an active member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I arrived here with a special feeling for President Aliyev who used to be my PACE colleague.  That provides an especial basis for trust and for expanded opportunities for the discussion of new areas of cooperation.

AIW: Are Hungary’s ties with Armenia and Georgia, the two other countries in the South Caucasus, developing at the same pace as they are with Azerbaijan?

Dr. Eorsi: With Armenia, certainly not.  But with Georgia, we do have a very special relationship.  I have been a rapporteur on Georgia for the Council of Europe for many years now, and I suspect I am better known there than in my home country.  After the war between Russia and Georgia, we opened an embassy in Tbilisi.  From my perspective, the future of Georgia and Azerbaijan are closely connected.  Not only do both countries face similar challenges to their territorial integrity, but they each have passed through a very serious democratisation process.  Moreover, both have made significant progress toward becoming full-fledged market economies.

AIW: The Lithuanian ambassador in Baku recently told Azerbaijan in the World that his country views itself as an intermediary between Azerbaijan and the European Union.  Does Hungary view itself in the same way?

Dr. Eorsi: While I do not think it makes sense for any particular country to serve as a unique bridge or mediator, I do believe that we, the EU countries which have emerged from a communist past, have a special responsibility to help those countries which were part of the Soviet Union and to help them make the transition to European standards and come closer to the European Union.

AIW: Does Hungary see itself as playing a special role of any kind within the European Union?

Dr. Eorsi: Like every country, Hungary seeks to defend its own national interests, but we pay attention to broader European interests as well.  And in that regard, Hungary’s somewhat better relationship with Russia – as compared with other post-Communist countries currently in the EU – gives us an opportunity to be exploited further while maintaining our commitment to the basic values propagated by the European Union and by NATO.

AIW: How do you assess the prospects for the Nabucco project?

Dr. Eorsi: Although no one can predict the future with full confidence, I very much hope that the Nabucco project will be realized.  Of course, Russia is doing everything it can to block the Nabucco project, and Moscow is powerful.  But for those of us who up to now have been totally dependent on Russian supplies, it is in our vital interests to diversity our energy supplies.  If we fail to do so, our dependence on Russian energy supplies will continue.  Consequently, we are doing everything we can to ensure that Nabucco will be built.

AIW: How do you see the Eastern Partnership program developing?

Dr. Eorsi: I believe the Eastern Partnership program represents a major step forward from the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy, because it has a structure and is based on dialogue.  Hungary has always been extremely supportive of this idea, and it accelerated after the Russian-Georgian war which showed that Moscow wants to maintain or increase its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet region, except of course for the Baltic countries.  And Hungary, which was never a part of the Soviet Union but was certainly a part of the Soviet regime, when no important decision could be made without the agreement of Moscow, is very sensitive about this issue.  This is why we strongly believe that everyone who wishes to maintain its independence should be provided with every possible assistance to be able to do so.  And I believe that the Eastern Partnership program can help countries like Azerbaijan conduct independent economic and foreign policies.  And consequently we reject the argument of those Russians who say the Eastern Partnership represents an EU effort to create its own sphere of influence in the region, since it is up to the countries in the region to decide on their future.

AIW: Is there a clear European vision on how the Eastern Partnership will develop and whether it will lead to the expansion of the EU or not?

Dr. Eorsi: The European Union is not monolithic.  It consists of a variety of countries with different views and interests.  Some of its members believe that the countries to the East should be satisfied with what the EU has done up to now, while others believe that these countries should eventually become members.  Personally, I never speak about the enlargement of the European Union but rather about the reunification of Europe because Azerbaijan, like Georgia and Armenia, is a European country.  You don’t have to become European; you simply have to meet the criteria for EU membership.  Some in the EU would welcome you sooner; others, not so soon.  But Europe is a work in progress, and things and perceptions change faster than we assume they should.  So, I think there is every reason to believe that Azerbaijan, once it meets all the criteria, can and will become the member of the European Union.

AIW: Given your experience, what advice would you give young Azerbaijanis beginning their careers in diplomacy?

Dr. Eorsi: Every diplomat must protect the interests of their nation.  But he or she must do so while recognizing that other diplomats representing other countries are doing the same.  That requires an understanding of the interests of other countries.  Without that, no one can be successful.  Very often, those of us from the former Soviet bloc countries view relations as a zero-sum game: the more we win, the more others must lose.  But that is not true.  This zero-sum game culture must be dropped and replaced by a win-win culture: that a country may only be successful in its foreign policy, if everyone benefits.  And if we understand the interests of others as well as our own, we can succeed in ways so that we will win and they will as well.  That is the secret of success, in my opinion.