Situated at the crossroads of different cultures, religions and civilizations, Azerbaijan is traditionally a multinational, multicultural and multilingual country. The territory of modern Azerbaijan has always been inhabited by people of different religions and origins. Cultural diversity of Azerbaijan is a natural environment which was formed over centuries and millennia. Since antiquity this land was known as a bridge between Europe and Asia.
Azerbaijan became the center of cultural diversity after it became a part of the Silk Roads. The Silk Roads from China to Europe across Azerbaijan played an important role in the intercultural exchange in the region. As for the history of secularism in the modern sense, starting yet from early 19th century Azerbaijan saw the rise of a secular intelligentsia – enlighteners who called for a new Latin alphabet, issued first newspaper, founded first theatre plays, introduced first opera, opened first secular school for girls in the Eastern world. Their followers in the early 20th century introduced the most modern progressive values by creating the first Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan.
Immediately after the 1st World War, in a very complicated political situation in Europe, Azerbaijan declared its independence on 28 May 1918. it was a first parliamentary democracy in all Muslim world. The first Republic guaranteed the equal political rights to all its citizens independently on their ethnic, religious, gender and any other identity. The voting right has been granted to all men and women, reached 18 years old. State power was represented by three branches – an independent parliament, the government and independent judiciary.
Despite the pressure and threats from big powers around, state building, security problems, culture and education issues were the priorities of the national government. The challenges of the time couldn’t stop Azerbaijan to establish direct relations with the civilized world and during a short period the independence of Azerbaijan has been recognized by most of the world states. But in 1920 Azerbaijan was occupied by the Red Army and a following communist regime lasted for 70 years. Although Russian invasion put the end to the existence of the 1st Republic, the spirit of freedom and modernity couldn’t be erased from the memory of Azerbaijanis during 70 years of soviet degradation. In 1991 Azerbaijan re-gained its independence and it gave a new chance to Azerbaijan to re-establish its relations with the modern world. One of first steps of the new independent Azerbaijan was the attempt to integrate to the European family, for which it has been imposed a war with the neighboring Armenia. During the first few years of independence 20 % of Azerbaijani territories has been occupied by Armenia, backed by Russian military bases, located in Armenia. Later by the same scenario Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine also have lost per 20% of their lands for the same aspirations (intentions).
Nevertheless, Azerbaijan kept its choice going on by deepening gradually its relations with all European institutions. Today Azerbaijan is a reliable partner of the European Union in South Caucasus and European Union is a biggest trade partner of Azerbaijan, representing about 50% of Azerbaijan’s total trade. Bilateral trade amounts to approximately €10 billion.
Bilateral relations are based on the EU-Azerbaijan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which is in force since 1999. The Agreement provides for a wide-ranging cooperation in the areas of political dialogue, trade, investment, economic matters, legislation and culture. It enables gradual approximation of Azerbaijan’s legislation and procedures with EU and international laws and standards. Since then, the scope of cooperation between the European Union and Azerbaijan has been gradually expanded.
Cooperation in parliamentary dimensions also gives an impetus to deepening bilateral relations. The EU-Azerbaijan Parliamentary Cooperation Committee established in 1999, is a joint parliamentary body, where different aspects of EU-Azerbaijan cooperation are discussed in regular meetings.
In 2004, Azerbaijan has been included in the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), and later in the Eastern Partnership initiative since its inception in 2009.
Azerbaijan is an important energy partner for the EU, playing a pivotal role in bringing Caspian gas resources to the EU market through the Southern Gas Corridor, to be launched in 2020.
A giant offshore gas field in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian Sea – Shah Deniz -2 will provide initial 16 billion cubic meters of natural gas to the European markets and the volume of supply will be significantly increased in the years to come.
The Southern Gas Corridor is a strategic initiative, launched by Azerbaijan to bring not only Caspian, but eventually also Central Asian and Middle Eastern gas resources to the European markets. Southern Gas Corridor is the main diversification tool of the EU for its energy security. The project is pretending to change the energy supply map of the whole Eurasia.
However, EU-Azerbaijan cooperation goes far beyond the Southern Gas Corridor. During the last 10 years Azerbaijan is being transformed to a huge transport hub. Azerbaijan benefits from its favorable geostrategic location at the crossroads of transport connections linking North and South, as well as East and West. It has invested in important infrastructure projects such as the Port of Baku, the biggest Trade Port of Caspian Sea and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, connecting railway infrastructures of Europe and Asia. The EU provides capacity-building support, for instance to the Port of Baku and its free-trade zone.
The EU also supports Azerbaijan’s economic diversification agenda notably through support to education and skill development, as well as regional development. Azerbaijan actively cooperates with the EU via Twinning Programs. The EU and Azerbaijan signed a Mobility Partnership Agreement, Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements in order to ensure that the movement of persons is managed in a secure and safe environment, as effectively as possible.
Azerbaijan is located in a region of great geopolitical importance and has great potential for development. But unresolved territorial issues in the region set the risk of destabilization of the situation. The protracted Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains as a main obstacle to stability and prosperity in the region. The EU supports the international efforts to facilitate the resolution of the conflict. The EU also promotes confidence-building activities between the conflict sides. There is no doubt that further strengthened bilateral relations between the EU and Azerbaijan will contribute also to resolution of the conflict in the interests of displaced people of the affected areas in the region.
Despite the challenging geopolitical situation, on-going successive reforms in economic, social and political life over the years of independence are turning Azerbaijan into a strong, prosperous and stable developing country.
Today Azerbaijan can rightly claim to be the most progressive and secular Islamic society in the world. Azerbaijan, meaning land of fire, situated on the cross-road of civilizations is one of few rare examples of tolerance and multiculturalism in the world. Historical ethnic multiplicity has been well preserved in the country to the present day. Multiculturalism is an ordinary lifestyle in Azerbaijan and it has much to offer to a universal value system.
A sustainable economic development during the last decades made Azerbaijan one of the fast-moving economies of the world and one of the most attractive investment locations of the region. The regional and global projects, initiated by Azerbaijan during the last decade brings closer Europe and Asia, it pretends to play an important role in the energy security of the European Union.
Given that the existing Partnership and Cooperation Agreement is a non-preferential agreement, neither the European Union nor Azerbaijan is granted tariff preferences, a new more enhanced Agreement between EU and Azerbaijan is vitally necessary for further integration.
Negotiations on the new agreement were launched in February 2017 and progressing well. It should replace the existing Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and better take account of the shared objectives and challenges the EU and Azerbaijan face today. The new agreement will offer a renewed basis for political dialogue and mutually beneficial cooperation between the EU and Azerbaijan.
Geographically, Azerbaijan may be a bit far from the EU, but the country is very close to European values and interests. The path towards European integration can enrich all of us, fostering economic opportunities, traditions, cultures, religions and historical heritage.