Trend has had an exclusive interview with Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s minister for foreign affairs, who will chair the OSCE starting from 2017 when his country takes over the OSCE presidency from Germany.
How do you assess the current state of bilateral political relations between Austria and Azerbaijan? What will be the main priorities of Austria in its relations with Azerbaijan in the future?
The bilateral relations between Austria and Azerbaijan are very good and intense. One proof of this are the numerous high level visits over the last years: the then Austrian Federal President Heinz Fischer paid an official visit to Azerbaijan in 2011 and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev returned the visit in May 2013. The presidents met again in November 2013 when in Vienna OSCE sponsored talks on Nagorno-Karabakh were held. Personally, I visited Azerbaijan in September 2014; furthermore I met Minister Elmar Mammadyarov at several occasions, the last bilateral meeting we had in the margins of the UN-GA in New York last September. Only a few days later Secretary General Michael Linhart visited Baku for political consultations.
Azerbaijan is Austria’s most important trading partner in the southern Caucasus and there is a huge potential for cooperation in the “Silk Road” and “New Spice Road” projects. We have identified many areas for intensified cooperation like culture, science and education. The Diplomatic Academy in Vienna offers annual Executive Training Programs for junior diplomats and civil service officials from the Black Sea/South Caucasus Region and participants from Azerbaijan are most welcome.
We appreciate Azerbaijan’s role as one key provider of energy security for the EU; the deepening of this energy partnership as well as closer cooperation in Azerbaijan’s effort to diversify its economy should be priorities also in our future relationship.
Austria also takes note of Azerbaijan’s fight against radicalization and violent extremism. The fight against terrorism – of course in full compliance with our human rights obligations – should be a common priority; the painful experience shows that terrorism is a global problem which can be stopped only by close international cooperation and by addressing the root causes.
Another priority is an open dialogue over the shared values, especially those of democracy and human rights. And finally, we will also in the future offer our experience in confidence building measures, which are indispensable for the peaceful settlement of regional conflicts.
Austria will be chairing the OSCE next year. Considering the protracted conflicts in the OSCE area, what Austria can do to bring Azerbaijan and Armenia closer to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and start working on the peace agreement?
This is a decisive period and together with our international partners in the OSCE and the EU we are very clear that there can only be a peaceful solution to this conflict. We therefore call on all sides to focus on dialogue and diplomacy. There are ideas and offers on the table to strengthen trust and foster cooperation. The basic elements for further negotiations towards a peace agreement have been agreed upon by both Presidents - the “Madrid Principles”, with small adaptations, have been on the table now for nearly 10 years - so there is a basis and concrete issues to speak about.
As a neutral country, and a country to chair the organization that has provided the major framework for negotiations of this conflict, we are fully aware of our high responsibility in this respect. While Austria is not a member in the Minsk Group, we are ready to help in its mediation efforts during our OSCE Chairmanship, and will also support the other elements of the “Minsk Process”. Azerbaijanis and Armenians can be assured that Austria is prepared to help in their search for a peaceful solution of this conflict – through offering our neutral territory for negotiations, expert dialogue, youth meetings or any other activities that support to focus on peace and exclude the perspectives of war.
Azerbaijan and the EU should soon be holding the negotiations related to the strategic agreement between the sides. What the EU and Azerbaijan should focus on, to make the mutual cooperation as effective as possible?
Over the past two decades, the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PAC) signed between the EU and Azerbaijan in 1996 and being in force since 1999, has served as a solid framework for relations between the EU and Azerbaijan. Today Azerbaijan forms also part of the EU Eastern Partnership Program which envisages a differentiated approach towards Eastern Partnership countries addressing their particular needs and priorities. In this framework Azerbaijan only recently tabled an initiative for a new EU-Azerbaijani agreement. Currently, the Council and the European Commission are finalizing the mandate to negotiate a Comprehensive Agreement, and we expect negotiations to start in the foreseeable future. Austria is convinced that such an agreement will be beneficial for both sides, strengthen the cooperation and offer new opportunities. Until the new Comprehensive Agreement will enter into force, the working document between the EU and Azerbaijan remains the PAC.
Azerbaijan initiated the Southern Gas Corridor project, which will play a significant role in strengthening Europe’s energy security and ensuring the diversification of energy sources. How do you assess the current progress in the implementation of the project?
Austria is in favour of diversification efforts of energy suppliers and routes for the European Union. The Southern Gas Corridor has therefore strong support by Austria; it is also considered a strategic project by the EU connecting the Caspian and Middle East regions. At the same time, the Southern Gas Corridor is a challenging project. However, all countries along the route, including the important transit partner Turkey, are expected to continue close cooperation with the EU to finalise this project. Currently, there are no reasons to doubt the targeted completion of the first phase of the Southern Gas Corridor by 2020.