On the EU-Azerbaijan Relations (published in Parliament Magazine)

Azerbaijan’s economic potential, strategic position and role as an energy provider make it an ideal partner for the European Union, writes Anneli Jäätteenmäki.

I recently visited an exhibition of young Azerbaijani artists in Brussels. The exhibition was wonderful. Azerbaijan may seem like a distant country to many Europeans, nevertheless, it is a country at our door step and an important neighbour. I wish that more EU citizens would go to see Azerbaijani art. Art can bring people closer.

Azerbaijan is a country that links Europe, Asia, Russia and the larger Middle East. The country’s strategic position on the shores of the Caspian sea ensures that the expectations for the future cooperation of the European Union and Azerbaijan remain high. Azerbaijan is already a much respected partner of the EU and the union began association agreement negotiations with the country in 2010, in the context of the eastern partnership. The European parliament fully supports these negotiations and Azerbaijan’s convergence with the EU.

The human rights situation in Azerbaijan has been one of the parliament’s focus areas. The situation is worrisome. Journalists, opposition politicians and human rights defenders are harassed, threatened and even put in jail. The lack of two fundamental freedoms, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, are noticeable to a worrying degree. Azerbaijan still has a long way to go to real democracy. Presidential elections will be held in October and it goes without saying that the elections will be, once again, a test of democracy for Azerbaijan.

I have visited Azerbaijan a few times and have had the privilege to meet many Azerbaijanis. The young people in particular are smart, outgoing and speak English fluently. Some of them have been educated in the best universities of Europe and the US. For the younger generations of Azerbaijan, Russian is no longer the lingua franca. And the young Azerbaijanis look at what the west has to offer, but the EU has to fulfil what it has promised; more openness and opportunities.

I’m glad that the government of Azerbaijan generously supports young people’s studies abroad and I’m hoping to see more European students in Azerbaijan. Student exchanges between Europe and south Caucasian countries should be intensified and programmes should be developed further. Visa facilitation is an important step and I’m glad that negotiations are close to conclusion. A visa facilitation agreement will make it easier to travel, study and conduct business abroad. This will strengthen grassroots level ties between Europe and Azerbaijan. More cooperation, not less, is needed to make both Azerbaijan and the EU more open for their citizens.

I’m glad that president Ilham Aliyev visited Brussels in June at the invitation of commission president José Manuel Barroso and I wait for concrete results.

Azerbaijan’s role as an energy provider, its growing economic opportunities and the country’s strategic position will not go without coverage in the western media. However, this increasing visibility will not always be all rosy. Nevertheless, I am confident that the EU and Azerbaijan’s good cooperation based on shared interests and values will continue and will bring prosperity and security to both sides.

The article was published in the Parliament Magazine on 21 June 2013.