Author: Seymur Kazimov

I have never thought that I would start my conversation with the Ambassador of one of the most powerful countries of the world with a virus related question. However, COVID-19 is the most important factor affecting both international economy and politics today.

– Currently, the UK is in leading positions in Europe and the world for number of death from pandemic. The government has announced “COVID-19 recovery strategy” document. According to this document, “health of people and the negative impact of the virus on the economy” was put on the scales. What do you think is the political risk, will it affect and change foreign policy priorities?

– I think it shows that no country and no individual is immune from this virus, and while we can see the number of cases in UK and Europe now declining, they’re still rising in  different parts of the world, with high numbers in Brazil, Russia and India for example. So we need to maintain vigilance and be led by science, while at the same time – as you say – think about how to manage a reopening of the economy. Different countries have taken different approaches, so in Azerbaijan for example restrictions have been lifted even while the number of infections is rising. The UK approach – like most European countries – is a bit more cautious in some areas, in particular looking to ensure the rate of infection does not increase again.

In terms of foreign policy, I’d emphasise the global role we’re playing to lead the way on combatting coronavirus and its impact and accelerating the search for a vaccine. We have committed up to £744 million for the global response, including an additional £75m for the WHO (on top of our annual funding of £120m) and on 4 June we’re hosting – virtually – the Global Vaccine Summit focused on raising funds to help GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance. The UK is the largest donor to GAVI, having pledged funding equivalent to £330 million a year for the next five years, which will ensure the delivery of life-saving vaccines for many countries. Strengthening health systems across the world is undoubtedly going to be a big focus of “recovering better” from the current crisis, but we should also ensure we focus on inclusion, drawing in gender, inequality and a focus on the most vulnerable.

– Although the United Kingdom is not directly involved in the peace negotiations of Nagorno Karabakh conflict but it has financed peacebuilding projects in the region in different periods of time. Sometimes, that financial support has been implemented jointly with the European Union. What are the perspectives of “british investment” in this direction in the region after “Brexit”.

– Yes, it’s true that we’re not part of the Minsk Group, but our programming aims both to support the work of the Co-Chairs and also to support those affected by the conflict. So one key theme being pursued by the parties and the Co-Chairs is “Preparing the Populations for Peace”, and I’m pleased that soon after my arrival I was able to meet a group of young Azerbaijanis who – with our funding – were participating in a programme to understand better the issues around conflict transformation and to explore how to build peace on the basis of shared interests. It feels to me that it’s only by understanding the different perspectives that real progress towards a settlement will be possible.  

We’ve also funded a range of programmes supporting IDPs here in Azerbaijan, and again I’ve been really pleased that I’ve been able to inaugurate several Learning Hubs, or English-language clubs, established by the British Council to help young members of the IDP communities around Azerbaijan. This has also given me the opportunity to travel to different parts of Azerbaijan – Zagatala, Berde and Terter – to see how these communities live. But to answer your specific question, I don’t think much will change following our departure from the EU. We will still fund programmes bilaterally, and we will still cooperate with our partners in the EU. 

– One of the significant projects for the UK government is the Southern Gas Corridor. Moreover, partnership agreements between the SOCAR and BP identify oil and gas policy between the two countries. The United Kingdom is leading for the volume of investments in Azerbaijan and a large part of this investment is directly aimed at the oil and gas sector.  You would agree that the pandemic has seriously impacted this sector as well. Does the UK government have any new plans, proposals related to continuation of the cooperation in the oil and gas field and its forms?

– It’s true that cooperation in the oil and gas sector has been the bedrock of our bilateral relationship for many years. It’s not just a commercial issue involving BP and many other British companies as the largest foreign investors in Azerbaijan, but it’s also a question of European energy security and Azerbaijan’s orientation. So the Southern Gas Corridor and its expected completion later this year has been a strategic question for us, and one which helps gives Azerbaijan a strong European orientation. We greatly welcome that.

It’s true too that the impact of coronavirus on the oil price, as well as the OPEC+ agreement on production cuts, has impacted negatively on Azerbaijan’s revenues. But I know that the government has wisely built up financial reserves in the past few years, so I’m confident that Azerbaijan can cope with the current low oil price. As regards the future, it’s clear that BP continues to regard Azerbaijan and its oil and gas reserves as important, so investment here in new developments will continue. But I would also make the point that we all need to give thought to how to tackle climate change and how to adapt to a post-hydrocarbon world. The current situation – recovering from the economic damage caused by coronavirus – gives us all the opportunity to make this a “green” recovery, to Build Back Better. 

More broadly, we very much support the government’s desire to diversify the economy and build up the non-oil sector. We’re already collaborating in new areas such as health, agri-business, education, tourism and space, and look forward to discussing opportunities further at the next Ministerial Joint Investment Committee, which we hope will take place in the Autumn.

– Last year, the UK and Azerbaijan started cooperation in the field of renewable energy. Both parties agreed to invest in green energy and use opportunities in the field of renewable energy.  And, in 2020, in order to increase Azerbaijan’s solar, wind and water energy potential, the UK has announced its readiness to invest in this sector. What is the current implemented work in this term? 

– To give you some context first – the UK was the first leading nation to commit to being net carbon neutral by 2050, and we’re also hosting the next big UN climate change summit – called COP26 – next year, at which we expect all countries to strengthen their commitment to reduce carbon emissions and tackle climate change. BP recognise that – as an oil and gas producer – they have a special responsibility, and they too have committed to being net carbon neutral by 2050. So we hope too that Azerbaijan – as a hydrocarbons producer – will play a full role in the negotiations and in tackling climate change.  Making a net zero commitment would be perfect, and would send a strong signal about the government’s commitment to build a diversified non-oil economy. 

Renewable energy will clearly play a big part in the world’s approach to tackling climate change, and I’m pleased to see that Azerbaijan is committed to increasing the share of wind and solar power in its energy mix. The UK is the world’s leading producer of offshore wind energy, so we have a lot of experience in this area. Unfortunately, BP weren’t successful in their initial bid here for a renewable energy contract, but I know there will be further opportunities, and renewable energy is an important component of their commitment to be net carbon neutral. So my hope is that – just as Azerbaijan, BP and the UK have been partners for the past 25 years in the oil and gas sector – we can start to build a new partnership based on clean energy and a shared commitment to tackling climate change. 

– At the end of last year, during observation of the UK parliament elections you told this to the journalists: “We hope to see free and just elections in Azerbaijan”. How do you think, how far did early parliamentary elections of 9th February in Azerbaijan reflect your hopes? 

– To be honest, we were disappointed to see all the concerns raised by the OSCE election monitoring mission, and we issued a statement after the elections expressing our concerns, such as the fact that the restrictive legislation and political environment prevented genuine competition. I think that the important issue now is to ensure that the OSCE’s recommendations are implemented, and we’re certainly ready to support a process of electoral reforms here. As part of this, I would emphasise the importance – especially in these difficult times of the COVID-19 pandemic – of ensuring freedom of speech and expression. So while we welcomed the Supreme Court acquittals of Ilgar Mammadov and Rasul Jafarov, we also think it’s important to implement the other European Court of Human Rights judgments and to respect the right of freedom of assembly.

– The relations of the UK with Russia remain strained after the poisoning of a Russian spy and his daughter. In January, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told President Vladimir Putin that relations between the two countries will not be normalized unless Moscow stops “activities threatening the security”. How do you think, will the official Moscow respond to the call of the Prime Minister? 

– Well, we hope they will respond positively! Look, we’re both permanent members of the UN Security Council and will engage with Russia on matters of international security – such as the instability in Libya – when it is in our national interest to do so. So we need working channels of engagement to deal with international issues. But we also use these meetings to ensure Russia is in no doubt about where the UK stands on fundamental issues of national security, such as the use of chemical weapons, and to make clear there will be no normalisation of our bilateral relationship until Russia ends the destabilising activity that threatens the UK and our allies.