Interview of Report News Agency with the French Ambassador to Azerbaijan Mr. Zacharie Gross.
- Mr. Ambassador, your diplomatic activity in Azerbaijan has recently begun. What are your first impressions of our country?
First impressions: warm people, lively capital, striking modern architecture, good food, great mountains, difficult language. Sea looks like a big lake. Where am I? Is this Europe or not?
- What will be the priorities of your diplomatic activity in Azerbaijan?
France and Azerbaijan are natural partners, for prosperity and security in Europe and in the region. So you can call it what you want, but I think we should develop a strategic partnership. So our priorities are: more political dialogue, more trade, more student exchanges and educational projects, more cooperation.
Also, I want to see every bit of the country.
- How do you assess the current level of France-Azerbaijani cooperation?
A lot of great groundwork has been done already. We have a political dialogue at the highest level, with strong personal relations between our heads of state. Business ties are growing. In education we have great successes that we want to develop further: the French-Azerbaijani University has nearly 600 bright students and the Lycée Français in Baku 200 great young kids. The number of visas delivered by the French Embassy is constantly growing (approximately 18 000 last year).
But clearly much more can and should be done.
- What can you say about the economic cooperation between the countries?
There is a lot of French interest to be in Azerbaijan. But frankly, we are not yet where we should be. Our bilateral trade is approximately 615 M Euros, with 500 M Euros of Azerbaijani exports to France and 115 M Euros of French exports to Azerbaijan. So on the one hand, the overall level is still quite low and on the other, France has a significant trade deficit with Azerbaijan. This is a bit of a mystery to me because French companies can make a difference and create a better future for all Azerbaijanis. We have singled out five sectors where we believe the benefits could be important for both our countries: the environment, transport, energy, security and investmens. French companies have the technologies and experience needed to improve water quality in the cities, help clean the country’s lakes, improve urban and inter-city transport, develop wind and solar power and protect critical infrastructure. Total is ready to invest massively to prepare the country’s future, preserve its independence and strengthen market competitiveness. And France is keen for Azerbaijan to become a privileged investor in the heart of the French economy.
- A number of reforms are underway in Azerbaijan aimed at developing the non-oil sector, including agriculture, the development of the business environment, and the agro-industrial complex. How do you assess them and what support can the France take in this regard?
I recall the President of Azerbaijan making a great speech at Davos in 2016 committing to structural reforms and the diversification of the economy. That was a seminal moment for Azerbaijan. In all fairness, a lot has already been done. The road map to reforms is going well and needs to be pushed ahead faster. A lot of good administrative reforms have been implemented that have improved everyday life for the Azerbaijani people. I am thinking of ASAN and DOST for instance. But more needs to be done to attract foreign investments outside the oil and gas sector. That is key element to the diversification of the economy. In this respect, we hope that a truly biting competition law will be adopted. Azerbaijan should look closely at the world’s best competition law which is unquestionably that of the European Union. Our companies also want to see a strong judicial system they can trust. You are right to mention agriculture. This is a key sector for both our countries and we are keen to share France’s experience in adapting to European and global markets. And of course, we love it that your country has such a keen interest in developing its wine industry.
- Cooperation in the field of tourism. What do you think can attract tourists to Azerbaijan? What should we focus on?
I think Azerbaijan should focus on sustainable tourism, eco-tourism, cultural tourism. The country is very attractive. But it is not huge and it has lots of different climates, cultural groups and ecosystems that need to be protected. So I think Ecology Minister Mr Babayev is right to want to develop the country’s natural parks. France has a lot of experience in this field. The French, like many Europeans, love to hike in the mountains and from village to village. It is healthy, low-carbon, good for local communities. There is a huge potential in Azerbaijan.
- France is one of the co-chair countries of the OSCE Minsk Group, engaged in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. A few high-level meetings were held in this regard in Paris. How do you see the perspectives of resolution of the problem?
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is one of Europe’s oldest ongoing conflicts. It presents a serious risk of escalation at any moment. The status quo is not sustainable, as it comes at such a cost for both countries, their economies, the families of all those who suffer. France is deeply committed to promoting a just and lasting peaceful settlement of the conflict. We are committed to effective multilateralism and international law, as is your country. On 16 January in Paris, the Foreign Ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia agreed upon the necessity of taking concrete measures to prepare the populations for peace. I find hope in the fact that the diplomatic process is still active, the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia continue to speak.
- Nagorno-Karabakh separatists undertake provocations periodically inviting politically engaged MPs in Karabakh and signing illegal cooperation agreements with different regions of France. What is the official position of France in this regard?
Your readers know the position of France. We do not recognize the so-called authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh. French government has no relations with them. The charters between local municipalities in France and cities in Nagorno-Karabakh have been challenged in court by the State and they are regularly cancelled. Regarding MPs or ordinary French citizens there is no way for the government to prevent people from going to one place to another. In fact, there are many regions in the world that we ask our citizens, including MPs, not to visit, because we do not recognize the authorities and that we do not have diplomatic ties with, such as North Korea, or because they are particularly dangerous, but unfortunately we are not always successful in convincing our nationals. But have a look at the website of the French Foreign Ministry and you will see Nagorno-Karabakh figures in red, meaning we formally advise our nationals not to go this region.