Azerbaijan and Lithuania
A Conversation with H.E. Mr. Kestutis Kudzmanas
Ambassador of the Republic of Lithuania to Azerbaijan
February 25, 2009
Azerbaijan and the World: What do you see as the central core of the relationship between Lithuania and Azerbaijan?
Ambassador Kudzmanas: It is difficult to separate out just one element of what is an evolving and multi-faceted relationship. All of our cooperative ties – cultural, political and economic – are interrelated and reinforce one another. I can say that over the last two years, cultural ties between our two peoples have grown particularly well, with regular exchanges of arts and artists in both directions. Culture is a universal language, and these exchanges help us to understand one another better. This year, we have another occasion to learn from each other: Lithuania marks its millennium as a country, with Vilnius serving as the cultural capital of Europe. And at the same time, Baku has become the cultural capital of Islam. That is an interesting parallel and one we should think more about.
Until very recently, both of our countries were focused more on their internal relations than on their external developments at least when it came to foreign affairs. Lithuania long had as its goal membership in the European Union and NATO, and now that we have achieved those goals, we are working to expand other ties. Lithuanian businessmen have found a common language with the businessmen of Azerbaijan, and I am sure they will each learn to “speak” it better over time. Evidence of that is provided by new plans to build Lithuanian mini-factories in Azerbaijan for food processing and milk products, facilities for which Lithuania has gained fame in Europe.
Political relations between our countries have also grown over the last two years. Bilateral visits, including at the presidential level, have increased, and we have signed more than ten different inter-governmental agreements. Your officers are studying at out military academy, and your border guards are drawing on our experience. But this cooperation is going in both directions: our veterinary, customs, and standards officials are working together. And our experience of accelerated integration into the EU and NATO is something many in Azerbaijan are interested in even if you do not at the end of the day plan to join either of them.
In this way, these three component parts of our relationship – culture, economics and politics – are indivisible, and this combination thus forms the basis of our relations. Yet another part of our relationship that I should mention involves tourism. Ever more Azerbaijanis are visiting Lithuanian resort, and the lines for visas at our embassy show the sharp growth in the interest of Azerbaijanis in Lithuania.
AIW: How have relations between Azerbaijan and Lithuania evolved during the post-Soviet period? What directions in bilateral ties have been most important and successful and where is additional attention needed?
Amb. Kudzmanas: Although our relations have grown consistently throughout the post-Soviet period, they were marked by a leap forward when Lithuania opened its embassy in Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan opened its mission in Lithuania. Before that, Lithuania covered Azerbaijan from Turkey, a reflection of our limited resources at the time. But as soon as our situation permitted it, Lithuania opened its embassy in Azerbaijan, a step dictated by the fact that Azerbaijan is the absolute leader in the region, thanks to the wise policy of the leadership of the country, you have been able to preserve stability in the country and kept Azerbaijan the most stable country in the Caucasus.
With the opening of the embassy, dealing with visas, information and other exchanges has become easier, and Lithuania is sharing its experience with Azerbaijan in various areas including integration with the WTO and EU. Now, that sharing has increased because Lithuania is a participant in the EU’s “twinning” program in which a member state is to share its experience with a “twin” to the east. Among our efforts in this area are the building of the support structures for a parliament and the fight against corruption. And we are also active in promoting programs in public health.
AIW: In the course of your survey of the areas in which our two countries cooperate, you did not mention the energy sector, despite Lithuania’s involvement in promoting cooperation between the Caspian Basin states and Central and Eastern Europe. Could you say a few words about this process – not only where we are now but where we are headed?
Amb. Kudzmanas: I consciously avoided touching on this issue because it is so well known. And of course, in this area, Azerbaijan has the very greatest perspectives for the future. The first achievement which your president Heydar Aliyev made already at the beginning of the 1990s was that he turned the direction of pipelines from the Russian direction to a Western one by means of the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan route. The second major step in this direction which Ilham Aliyev wants to make is the linking of the petroleum resources of Central Asia to Europe via Azerbaijan with the Nabucco project. If he is able to do this, it will be an enormous achievement. And of course Azerbaijan now as never before is connected with Europe because the interests of the two coincide.
As far as Lithuania is concerned, it completely supports the cooperation of the European Union and Azerbaijan because the more oil and gas that flows to Europe from Azerbaijan, the easier it will be for us and others to negotiate with Russia. And therefore we greet the fact that Azerbaijan supports Nabucco and that Azerbaijan will serve as both a supplier and a transit country for it. There have been a whole series of energy support, but the one in Vilnius in 2007 played a key role because of the agreements reached there. As a result of one of them, the Sarmatia Project, it will be possible for Azerbaijani oil to flow in the direction of Baku-Georgia-Ukraine and further to Poland, and from there to Lithuania and other countries of Europe.
AIW: You mentioned Nabucco. How do you evaluate the latest conference on Nabucco held in Budapest in January? And what do you think the prospects are for Nabucco to be realized?
Amb. Kudzmanas: There are two aspects to this. From the side of Azerbaijan, there is a very definite interest in this project, in becoming a member of the consortium and a willingness to build a pipeline linking it with Turkmenistan. Thus from Baku’s perspective the picture is perfectly clear. Unfortunately, from Europe’s side, the picture is not entirely clear to the extent that political will, commercial risk and the interests of the companies involved are not always the same unlike in a command economy like Russia’s where the government can impose a common approach. Indeed, one can even speak about a certain combination of Gazprom with the Kremlin and because of that I fear that the South Stream may be built before Nabucco. The existence of these two parallel projects has generated a lot of speculation, but ultimately Europe will need the supplies both can bring. Earlier, many people were concerned that there wouldn’t be enough gas to fill Nabucco, but the discoveries at Southern Yoltan in Turkmenistan of an enormous gas field have largely alleviated those worried. But now a struggle has begun among Russia, Iran, Europe, China and even India and Pakistan over these reserves. In this situation, the European Union needs to display political will in order to push Nabucco forward, especially since at present, it stands last in line for Central Asian gas as a result of its inability to develop a common energy policy.
The time for talking is over, and now what is needed are some concrete steps toward the realization of Nabucco. As your president has said, if there is a pipeline, there will be gas. It is time to take the political decision to build it. I remember when the process of building Baku-Ceyhan began. At that time, critics said there was no point in building it because there wouldn’t be enough oil. Now Iran and Russia are crying the same thing about gas in the hopes of blocking the construction of Nabucco. But their complaints show precisely why Nabucco is needed.
AIW: Lithuania is one of the few countries which earlier were part of the Soviet Union but now are members of the European Union. Many people have suggested that there are numerous parallels in the two organizations. Do you agree with such assessments?
Amb. Kudzmanas: It is always possible to find parallels, but the very structure of the European Union is very different from the structure of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the common word in the two titles is very deceptive. In the European Union, there is a free market which didn’t exist in the Soviet Union. In the European Union, on many questions the countries have to reach a consensus; there is no diktat from one country as there was in the Soviet Union. In the European Union, there are no repressive systems. The countries of Europe are proportionally represented in the European Parliament, in the Commission and in all other organs of the EU. The parallel thus can be seen only in that both - the one and the other - unified countries. But in the case of the European Union, this unification took place voluntarily while in the case of the Soviet Union that took place on a so-called “voluntarily forced” basis.
AIW: What do you think is the essence of the Eastern Partnership initiative advanced by Poland and Sweden within the EU and what future do you see for it?
Amb. Kudzmanas: There will be an Eastern Partnership summit in Prague in May of this year at which this initiative will be officially adopted. As far as my country is concerned, Lithuania very clearly sees its place in this initiative. Lithuania represents a living example of a country that left the Soviet space and quickly took all the steps necessary to become a member of the European Union. As a result, Lithuania is prepared to share within the framework of the Eastern Partnership initiative its experience with others. In a certain sense, Lithuania can serve for these countries as a kind of “expert” on the European Union, all the more so because since it was both in the Soviet Union and is now in the European Union, we find it easier to understand both worlds. Lithuania thus sees itself as a natural bridge between Europe and the post-Soviet space because our expertise is needed both in Brussels and in the countries of the post-Soviet space.
AIW: Lithuania has been an active supporter of GUAM and worked with it in the GUAM Plus format. What can you say about the current state of cooperation between Lithuania and GUAM? And how does Lithuania view the future evolution of GUAM and its own cooperation with that group?
Amb. Kudzmanas: If you look at a map, you can see that GUAM is a bridge between the post-Soviet space and the countries of the European Union. And Lithuania, just like Poland, sees itself as a natural extension of this bridge. That is because we are already in the European Union but we also are next door to you. This factor helps to explain out common interests in the transportation sphere. Between Klaipeda and Odessa is now running a high-speed train which we consider as a natural extension of the transportation corridor from Odessa to Baku and from Baku to the markets of the trans-Caspian region along the TRACECA Silk Road. But our cooperation is not limited to this, and we are actively involved in helping the GUAM countries reach European standards.
AIW: Lithuania has always expressed its full support for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Why then did it not vote in favor of UN General Assembly Resolution 10693, which was passed in March 2008?
Amb. Kudzmanas: We voted as we did because this reflected the common position of the European Union, but at the same time at all bilateral meetings, Lithuania has reiterated its unchanging support for the principle of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. But it should be noted that even at the UN, Lithuania did not vote against the resolution. It abstained. And because it abstained, it was able to prevent several European countries where there is a strong Armenian lobby from voting against the resolution. This was a compromise decision reached within the European Union between those who intended to vote in favor of the resolution and those who were going to vote against.
AIW: But France voted against the resolution…
Amb. Kudzmanas: Yes, France somehow departed from this common position. I cannot speak for France. Perhaps the influence of the Armenian lobby played a role. And perhaps France viewed this resolution as a vote of no confidence in the Minsk Group, one of whose co-chairs France is. In that case, voting for it would have been a vote against France.
AIW: What in your view ought to be the next steps in relations between Azerbaijan and Lithuania?
Amb. Kudzmanas: At present, political relations and trust between the two countries are at a very high level. But on the other hand, I very much hope that there will be a big jump in investments both from Lithuania into Azerbaijan and from Azerbaijan into Lithuania. This will link us together even more closely. We in Lithuania are ready to provide special assistance of various kinds to Azerbaijanis who invest there. And Azerbaijanis have an interest in doing so because we are a gateway to the European Union.
AIW: Given your experience, what advice would you give young Azerbaijanis beginning their careers in diplomacy?
Amb. Kudzmanas: Above all, every diplomat represents his country and in this connection it is very important to be able to inform other countries about the best features of one’s own. Azerbaijan has a large number of such attractive features and should be working hard to attract more tourists. It is a unique country, one with a sea, mountains, sub-tropical zones and so on. And Azerbaijani embassies can be a kind of propagandist for the country’s tourist industry. That is very important because it can exert a positive influence on many other areas.
On the other hand, Azerbaijan has a unique chance through its embassies to present on a regular basis films and mugham music. In that way, you can show your great cultural heritage to the world and thus increase the level of mutual understanding.
And embassies are natural points for expanding economic ties between countries. Our embassy, for example, is always open for Lithuanian entrepreneurs traveling to Azerbaijan. Having arrived here, they seek advice and we try to help them in every way possible.