Azerbaijan and Poland
An interview with H.E. Mr. Michal Labenda
Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to the Republic of Azerbaijan
January 25, 2011
Azerbaijan and the World: What do you see as the central core of relations between Azerbaijan and Poland?
Ambassador Michal Labenda: Like the relations between any two close, prospering and independent countries, the relationship between Poland and Azerbaijan involves many things. There is no one center of gravity. Of course, some areas attract more public attention, but that doesn’t mean we neglect others. But what is especially important is that the foundation of our very good and friendly relations is a similar history and understanding of the transformation process, even though not everyone in either country fully appreciates this.
In Poland, people have only a limited knowledge about Prometheanism, Warsaw’s ideology and program of support for newly independent nations in the east in the early 1920s. But that approach is bearing fruit today. Like others, we Poles know what it means to be left to our fate in the hands of a cruel regime, and we are proud that the very first movement, Solidarność, directed at dismantling the Evil Empire was set up in Poland. Now, after a very successful two decades of transformation, Poland is in a position to be the very best advocate for Azerbaijan in the European Union. That is why our friendship and cooperation is so strong and why we work hard to strengthen both.
Our two countries have had a similar geopolitical and historical set of experiences. Owing to its complicated and tragic history, Poland understand the value of peace, something that is always better than war, and the importance of negotiations which are always more profitable than angry silence. At various points in our history, Poland has disappeared from the map of Europe. The last time—in 1939 (!)—was not so long ago. And at the Yalta Conference at the end of World War II, we lost a large segment of our territory, including some places of utmost important for Polish nationhood. So we understand the pain of nations at war and we also are certain that there is no other way to solve conflicts except within the framework of the international law.
AIW: How have the Azerbaijani-Polish relations evolved since 1991, and how would you describe their current status?
Amb. Labenda: Our bilateral ties were established in 1992 after both our countries regained their independence for the second time in the 20th century. We began our cooperation from scratch, but for Poland, the eastern dimension of our foreign policy has always been a matter of the highest priority. At the same time, Azerbaijan has always viewed Europe as near the top of its foreign policy priorities. In 1998, Poland opened an embassy in Baku, and since that time, we have been working hard to promote trade and cooperation in various sectors. This effort was especially visible during the presidency of the late Lech Kaczyński, who viewed Azerbaijan as a trusted and friendly partner in the region.
I would like to highlight one relatively new aspect of our relationship. Poland is one of the six largest members of the European Union and our voice counts, and—this being the case—its membership means that the Polish-Azerbaijani relationship can develop into something larger and interwoven with a larger set of global politics. Being part of the Eastern Partnership then opens a broad range of possibilities for Azerbaijan.
AIW: What do you think is the essential feature of the Eastern Partnership initiative your country and Sweden have advanced and what future do you see for it?
Amb. Labenda: The most important achievement of the Eastern Partnership in the short run should become a new perception of the six countries not only as our geographical and political neighbors but also as our close and friendly partners. Along with other European countries, Poland believes that only through such partnerships can we create a better international environment, one based on political dialogue, a shared economic space, and truly friendly relations. We very much hope that the Polish Presidency in the European Council in the second half of 2011 will give us the opportunity for deeper cooperation and even faster development of the Eastern Partnership initiative as one of our priorities. The successful implementation of the Eastern Partnership project should—and no doubt will—lead us toward our ultimate goal, which is in prompting the formation of prosperous democratic countries in Europe’s eastern neighborhood, ones with their economic and political systems fully compatible with the standards and values that Europe espouses.
AIW: What is the state of energy cooperation between Azerbaijan and Poland?
Amb. Labenda: I am always asked this question when I give interviews. It is important to note that energy cooperation often has less to do with bilateral relations than with multi-lateral arrangements because many states are involved in the extraction, transport, and consumption of energy. Obviously, some countries are more interested than others in promoting a diversified network of suppliers or export routes. Our bilateral cooperation involves both institutional and commercial dimensions.
The EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative and specifically its third platform on energy security provides additional opportunities to realize such projects and boost energy cooperation between the European Union and the Eastern Partnership countries. At the same time, Polish companies have their own relations with their Azerbaijani counterparts via separately concluded agreements like one between Lotos and Socar, and bilateral trade in this sector reflects not only Azerbaijani exports of oil to Poland but Polish exports of oil products to Azerbaijan.
AIW: What are the other main components of trade and cooperation between Azerbaijan and Poland?
Amb. Labenda: Azerbaijan’s rapidly growing economy has provided many opportunities for Polish companies, and over the past four years, we have organized two national exhibits in Baku, taken part in four sessions of the intergovernmental commission on economic issues, and assisted in visits by officials and business people in both directions. The results of this effort can be seen in statistics. In 2009, for example, nearly 60% of all Polish trade with Caucasus region was with Azerbaijan, and in the first half of 2010, Polish exports to Azerbaijan grew by 26 percent and imports from Azerbaijan grew by 112 percent compared to the year earlier. In addition, we have significantly extended our cooperation into investment and technical assistance projects.
AIW: What is the state of bilateral cultural and social cooperation?
Amb. Labenda: Promoting cooperation in this area is one of the priorities of the Polish Embassy in Baku. On the one hand, we support cooperation between the relevant ministries and cultural institutions. And on the other, we encourage artists and other individuals to establish and develop personal contacts and to carry out joint projects. We bear primary responsibility for ensuring cultural contacts between our two countries, and our experience in 2010 with the Chopin Year in Azerbaijan shows that there are many more opportunities in this area.
The Embassy also pays close attention to educational issues. Since its opening in 2006, the Polish Culture and Language Centre at the Baku Slavic University has been conducting language courses for Azerbaijani students. Many of these students have taken advantage of exchange programs offered by Polish universities and some continue their career in Poland. Even more important, many of them use these experiences in Poland back in Azerbaijan. We are in process of creating an organization of these people to help them maintain ties with Poland. If anyone who has studied in Poland would like to join this effort, please contact our embassy. For more information on this and other activities, please go to our website at http://www.baku.polemb.net.
AIW: What in your view should be the next steps in relations between Azerbaijan and Poland?
Amb. Labenda: We need to build on what we have already achieved. Our bilateral contacts are quite frequent, and we are planning many new visits, including follow-up visits after the visit to Baku by our Deputy Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak in November last year. The Polish Presidency in the European Council in the second half of 2011, on the other hand, will add further momentum to bilateral relations between Poland and Azerbaijan.
AIW: Given your experience, what advice would you give young Azerbaijanis beginning their careers in diplomacy?
Amb. Labenda: They should learn as much as possible about different countries—their culture, traditions and language—because in order to have good relations, you need to understand others. That is the most important thing, and you can do it only by learning their culture, meeting people, and talking with them. Many people have a romantic view of diplomacy, but the truth is that it is an ordinary job like many others, with many documents to be read and boring meetings attended. What I like best about it is the knowledge it gives, about politics, about other countries and peoples, and about some behind-the-scenes mechanisms in the decision-making process.