Baku. October. REPORT.AZ/ Interview of Report News Agency with the ambassador of the Netherlands in Azerbaijan Onno Kervers.
- Could you please first provide us more information about yourself and your diplomatic activity?
- By education I am a lawyer. I studied international law at the University of Leiden. And then I joined the foreign service. I've been a professional diplomat for 36 years now. Azerbaijan is my twelfth posting and second ambassadorial posting after coming here from Caracas, Venezuela. And I am the fourth Dutch ambassador since we opened embassy here in Azerbaijan in 2009.
- Which goals did you define as a newly appointed ambassador of the Netherlands?
- I think the relations are already very good and my task in general terms is deepening relation between Azerbaijan and the Netherlands and trying to identify opportunities for closer cooperation in economic terms, investments, cultural cooperation. The Netherlands is founding member of the European Union and it is well known that Azerbaijan has a vocation to develop closer ties with the EU. We think it is very important not only for the EU but also member states to cooperate. I hope that very soon, negotiations for strategic partnership agreement will start and I think one of important tasks here is, indeed, to contribute to that support to the negotiations.
Another aspect is to promote closer economic relations, promote more trade and investments. We are already very active with Dutch companies working here. We would like to work together with Azerbaijan in diversification of economic activities. What I know, is that in the Netherlands there is interest in more economic relations, more trade and commercial activities. So, I consider that to be very important task of my stay here in Baku.
I believe, there are also a lot of possibilities in cultural cooperation. Cultural cooperation is a very good tool to promote understanding between different people. Azerbaijan is very much in between East and West. And I think cultural cooperation can contribute to making that relations closer, to develop more understand about our culture in Azerbaijan and vice-versa in the Netherlands, to understand better your beautiful country. So, I also find that as a goal for the years to come.
- What can you say about economic cooperation between the Netherlands and Azerbaijan? What was the amount of trade turnover in 2015 and 2016? Did the oil price drop and economical situation in Azerbaijan affect bilateral economical cooperation?
- During last 6-7 years there have been developing economic ties. My country even was the biggest investor to non-oil sector in 2013. And in 2014 we had a considerable trade turnover. The Netherlands exported for 284 million euro to Azerbaijan and we imported 69 million euro. It is not a secret that with the drop of oil price the situation became less positive, if I may express it in that way. Also, the bilateral economic relations have been affected in the sense that there has been less trade. But, I can say that there is still a lot of Dutch businessmen that see a lot of optimism and potential in Azerbaijan. So, I would say that notwithstanding economic difficulties, the interest in my country is not diminished. Many Dutch entrepreneurs still see a lot of possibilities in Azerbaijan.
- How many Dutch companies are operating in Azerbaijan?
- I've been counting, I would say, that there are 15 Dutch companies who are permanently active in the market of Azerbaijan and about the same number which frequently do business with the country. These are companies that have long-standing project and establish presence in the company. But you also have companies that have occasional ad-hoc trade and exports.
- The Netherlands has good expertise in such areas as water management, shipbuilding, port management and so on. Does the Netherlands plan to carry out any mutual projects in these areas? Are Dutch companies interested in investing into non-oil sector of Azerbaijan?
- Very much and, indeed, I discussed this already with many people. I had the privilege, when I presented my credentials to the president Ilham Aliyev, to have interesting discussion with him also on economical situation. He is actively supporting the diversification of economy and sees possibilities for cooperation with the Netherlands in the fields you mentioned. Water management is very important. A project that we hope can be continued and finalized soon is the inventorisation of ground water in Azerbaijan. This is essential for your agriculture planning. You need to know where the water is and in what quantities.
You mentioned shipbuilding. The well known Dutch shipbuilder "Damen" is very active here in civil and also military spheres. Port management... several companies working in connection with Alat - the new trade port. There is a lot of interest, but more than anything else at the moment, there is growing interest in agriculture, which was defined by your authorities as a sector which has a large potential because, not so long ago, Azerbaijan was important agricultural republic in the USSR. We have contacts also with Dutch business people and they are very much interested in cooperation in agriculture. There is also interest in transfer of knowledge in agriculture. We have well-know and renovated university in Wageningen. We are looking for possibilities to cooperate there. And if you also speak about technologies, like greenhouses, we have very sophisticated technologies which are quite sustainable, which use less water and have very high outputs and quality. Dairy, of course, has general interest. There is also interest in poultry, meat, quality of the seeds, because the quality of food starts with the quality seeds.
I am very happy to say that in two weeks we have Azerbaijani minister of agriculture will visit the Netherlands. All these sectors will be discussed. There will be visit to two companies and university of Wagenigen. We hope this will lead to intensification of agricultural cooperation between our countries in the future.
- Does the Netherlands plan to carry out any projects in humanitarian area, like art exhibitions, opening Dutch school in Azerbaijan or study programs for Azerbaijan students?
- I would like to stimulate cultural cooperation very much. We have not identified specific projects yet. But I know, that Azerbaijan and specifically Baku has a reputation for jazz music and we will contribute to Jazz Festival in Baku with Dutch jazz quintet. I will beexploring other possibilities. We have of course classical music which has very big tradition. And, you may know, we have specific connection because the "Beltman" piano which is constructed in Gabala is originally a Dutch company.
The Netherlands is also strong in visual arts. We have world-known painters like Rembrandt, Van Gogh and others. We have to see if there would be possibility to work with Azerbaijan. I know that in your National Museum, you have very good Dutch painting from 17th century. So, I would like to be in touch with actors in the cultural field, director of museum to see what is possible.
In humanitarian sphere, we, as you know, engaged in various humanitarian areas, human rights, humanitarian aid. You know, that we have started last year and finalized this year a project on construction children playground in the line of contact. We want to contribute to the well-being of the population, particularly children. They need to be able to play safely. I've already spoken with my counterparts in Red Crescent and they are interested in more cooperation. So I see a lot of possibilities.
In terms of education, the cooperation between ADA University and Maastricht School of Management is very well known. I am not aware of any more plans in that respect but we can also explore follow-on activities. There must be many alumni in Azerbaijan of MSM, so I would like to explore possibilities to see if we can do something with the alumni which is also very important as they are economically active, so this is very good method to strengthen the links.
Opening Dutch school may be a bit complicated because, normally you need Dutch men and women, here we have about 60 Dutch nationals living in Azerbaijan. I don't think the Dutch school will be feasible.
- What's the position of the Netherlands regarding such issues like migrants’ flow to the Europe, lack of confidence between EU member, terrorist threat? How can two countries cooperate in such areas like migration management, antiterrorism operations?
- This is of course very important question. And if you look at the challenges European Union faces. I think, migration and terrorist threat is the biggest challenges we face next to the economic crisis of 2009. The Netherlands had the presidency in the EU in the first half of 2016. We worked hard to achieve progress on particularly migration and international security and counter terrorism. I think we have achieved some success. The declaration between European Union and Turkey on taking back refugees is very significant the illegal shipment of refugees. We have also achieved success on making the borders of the EU safer. I think, this helped to safeguard Schengen area.
We've also started the dialogue on the highest level with African countries from where migrants originate. If you want to stop and do something in regards with migration, this is not only the question of accepting migrants and asylum seekers, but also the question of reducing influx and that's why the dialogue with African countries is very important.
As far as terrorism is concerned, well, this year unfortunately saw many terrorist attacks, in France, Germany, Belgium, Turkey, Bangladesh. Counter-terrorism was a priority of our presidency. Exchange of information, migration management and border management are important issue and I think that we can say that in the first half of 2016 the EU has taken many counter-terrorism measures.
- Are there any changes in the official position of the Netherlands regarding Nagorno- Karabakh issue?
- The position of the Netherlands is well known. We, of course, concerned about hostilities last April. The current situation in Nagorno Karabakh is undesirable for all parties in the region and the for the wider world. We believe that a lasting solution to the conflict must be found. The Netherland is contributing to efforts to seek such a solution through the OSCE Minsk Group and the EU special representative Herbert Salber. In this regard, my country will serve as a constructive partner.