Nargiz Gurbanova: Azerbaijan Considering Bulgaria's Proposals on Balkan Gas Hub
Novinite has interviewed Azerbaijan's Ambassador to Bulgaria, H.E. Nargiz Gurbanova, on the occasion of two key events in bilateral relations. The first was the inauguration of the Trapezitsa Achitectural Museum Reserve, restored with the support of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, while the second, a week later, was the meeting of an intergovernmental commission in Baku where cooperation in energy and other sectors was on the agenda.
Ms Gurbanova presented her credentials to Bulgaria's President Rosen Plevneliev on February 24, 2016. Her previous experience includes various positions at the Department for Economic Cooperation and Development at the Foreign Ministry intermittently from 2001 and 2010. Within that period, she was also posted to the Embassy of Azerbaijan to Austria (2004-2007), and afterwards the country's diplomatic service in the US, where she served as Counselor, Charg? d'Affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission (2010-2013).
Before being appointed as the Ambassador to Bulgaria, she served as Director of the Department for Economic Cooperation and Development at the ministry.
She holds a Ph.D degree in Political Science from the University of Vienna, Austria (2009) and speaks Azerbaijani, English, French (intermediate) and Russian.
Your Excellency, Bulgaria and Azerbaijan have agreed on early supplies of gas starting in 2020. Is there any agreement on the route that will be used?
Over the last years our countries have been closely cooperating in the context of the development of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC). SGC is one of the most complex gas value chains ever developed in the world aimed at strengthening the EU’s energy security by bringing alternative volumes of natural gas from the Caspian region to Europe. As your readers may already be aware, within this key project one billion cubic meters of natural gas from the Shah Deniz gas field of Azerbaijan will be annually supplied to Bulgaria effective 2020. These gas volumes are expected to be transported through the projected Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) and an affiliate of the Azerbaijan’s state-owned company SOCAR – Azerbaijan Gas International company is among companies which submitted their offers for IGB capacity in the framework of the first, non-binding phase of the IGB market test earlier this year.
In addition, it is worth mentioning that though the Trans-Anatolian and Trans-Adriatic pipelines which are the backbone of the SGC don’t physically pass through the Bulgarian territory, your country is considered as an important link of the SGC not only in terms of its decision to buy natural gas volumes but more significantly due to the potential role it could play in promoting the expansion of the SGC to further markets in Europe. I would like to note that the Joint Declaration of the Second Ministerial Meeting of the SGC Advisory Council adopted on 29 February 2016 in Baku endorsed the particular interest presented by the projects of Interconnectors Greece-Bulgaria and Turkey-Bulgaria in this regard.
The Balkan Gas Hub was also discussed during the visit of a Bulgarian delegation to Baku at the end of September. A Bulgarian official even said your country was considered a major potential gas supplier. Is Azerbaijan interested in investing into the project?
Unquestionably, energy is an important component of our bilateral relations and over the past years our countries have made serious progress in cooperation in this field. Obviously, there is still untapped potential for enhancing our interaction on energy matters and we do appreciate the fact that the Bulgarian Government views Azerbaijan as a desirable and reliable partner for ensuring its energy security. We also share this interest to further our bilateral engagement and are ready to continue closely working with Bulgarian partners in exploring ways to advance mutually beneficial energy partnership.
SOCAR regards the Balkan region as a key one for strengthening energy cooperation with our foreign partners. SOCAR was invited to the Investors' Round Table in Varna on 4-6 September 2016 where the concept of the construction of the Balkan gas distribution center in the territory of Bulgaria was presented to participants. This issue was one of the topics of discussion during the visit of the Bulgarian government delegation to Azerbaijan on 28-30 September 2016. In Baku Bulgarian colleagues had constructive talks with the representatives of the Ministry of Energy and SOCAR. Proposals of the Bulgarian side are currently under consideration by Azerbaijani partners.
A SOCAR official said in September that the company is eyeing the Bulgarian oil market and that such talks were underway. Has there been any development on that matter since then?
SOCAR is studying technical and commercial opportunities to enter retail market in the South-Eastern European countries. Accordingly, SOCAR is viewing potential opportunities in the Bulgarian oil market. No commercial decisions have been made so far. We may talk about our possible commercial presence in the Bulgarian oil market in the long term perspective while our priorities at the current stage are gas supplies and interconnector projects in the Balkan region and the provision of technical services and consultancy. As an illustration, I can say that SOCAR Balkans is a technical consultant for the Ionian Adriatic Pipeline project, contributes to the gasification plans for Albania and Montenegro and intends to participate in the tender for the 3D seismic services for the expansion of Chiren undeground gas storage project.
You told Trend News Agency Bulgaria considers your country as a transit route to Central Asia, while Azerbaijan is interested in entering the Bulgarian market and further to other European markets. In terms of transport, what opportunities have emerged during the intergovernmental meeting that could help to achieve this?
Azerbaijan is increasingly viewed as an important enabler of the East-West and North-South transportation corridors. Among the factors that make Azerbaijan indispensable in transit considerations are long-term commitment to build the modern infrastructure domestically and within the region, geographic location and proximity to the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf deep-sea ports, financial sustainability with commitment to invest billions of US dollars in the coming years and experience in multilateral cooperation to implement trans-regional projects.
In fact, transport is one of top priority areas of our cooperation with Bulgaria both bilaterally and in the framework of international transit corridors and we are keen to further strengthening this partnership in the coming years. Azerbaijan is a gateway for Bulgaria to reach the booming Central Asian markets and beyond while Bulgaria can provide us with an access to the rest of Europe.
The fourth session of the Joint Azerbaijan-Bulgaria Commission on trade-economic and scientific-technical cooperation was a good platform for discussing opportunities on broadening our bilateral transport agenda. It is symbolic that the Azerbaijani co-chair of the Joint Commission is Minister of Transport of Azerbaijan Mr Ziya Mammadov.
More specifically, at the meeting the sides agreed to promote cooperation between our sea ports and in the framework of the joint commission session the memorandum of understanding was signed between the Baku International Sea Trade Port and the Bulgarian Ports Infrastructure Company. This document envisages development of cooperation between the port of Baku and Bulgarian ports of Varna and Burgas. It was also agreed to hold the experts’ meeting on road transport next year.
Bulgaria takes pride in a booming ICT sector. Have any prospects for cooperation in this field emerged during the Azerbaijani-Bulgarian business forum?
Indeed, ICT is crucial for successful socio-economic development and generating sustainable economic growth. As reflected in the Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Bulgaria signed on March 04, 2015 during the visit of President of Azerbaijan H.E. Mr Ilham Aliyev to Bulgaria, ICT represents another area for expanding our cooperation in the non-oil sector and both governments are willing to work together in this regard. During this high-level visit, the intergovernmental agreement for cooperation in the field of electronic communications, information technologies and e-governance was also signed in Sofia.
As for discussions at the Azerbaijani-Bulgarian business forum held on 29 September 2016 in Baku, the Bulgarian delegation also included businessmen representing companies active in the field of ICT and I hope that talks they had with their counterparts in Azerbaijan will be productive. Additionally, cooperation in ICT and satellite services was discussed within the session of intergovernmental commission as well and both sides identified steps to be undertaken in order to promote our bilateral engagement, e.g. possibilities of using telecommunication networks of Bulgarian operators as part of the projected Trans-Eurasian Information Super Highway (TASIM) project initiated by Azerbaijan in partnership with China, Turkey, Russia, Kazakhstan and supported by relevant United Nations Resolutions.
In September, the project on Trapezitsa turned into Azerbaijan's first one of this kind in Eastern Europe. Out of so many historical venues in need of refurbishment across Bulgaria and the region, why was it Trapezitsa that the First Lady, Ms Mehriban Aliyeva, chose to contribute to?
The opening “Trapezitsa” Architectural Museum Reserve restored with the support of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation took place on 22 September 2016 in Veliko Turnovo. Azerbaijan’s First Lady, President of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation Ms Mehriban Aliyeva and Vice-president of the Foundation Ms Leyla Aliyeva attended the ceremony where they were welcomed by Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, mayor of the city of Veliko Turnovo Daniel Panov and other Bulgarian dignitaries. This significant event extensively covered by the Azerbaijani and Bulgarian mass media, demonstrated close relations between our nations. Prime Minister Borisov named it as a solid bridge of friendship between our countries.
Speaking at the opening ceremony, the First Lady explained the reasons supporting the decision of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation to contribute to the restoration of Trapezitsa. As it is known, over the past two decades Azerbaijan and Bulgaria have enjoyed friendly relations and both countries are interested in further developing bilateral cooperation not only in political and economic dimension, but also in the humanitarian sphere. From our perspective, being a predominantly Muslim country we approach the cultural diversity of the world with the same degree of respect that we demonstrate towards our own traditions, values, religion and culture and within this philosophy of strengthening cultural ties, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation implemented numerous projects to support cultural heritage not only in Azerbaijan but also across the globe.
In Azerbaijan we are aware of the value of the Trapezitsa Reserve as a national treasure of the Bulgarian people and, in fact, as a part of all-European cultural heritage. As the spiritual center of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, Trapezitsa played a historic role in building the Bulgarian statehood. Therefore, participation in the restoration of Trapezitsa was considered by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation as an important initiative which will foster tolerance, mutual respect and understanding in general and contribute to strengthening our traditional friendship in particular. Definitely, this project will benefit not only our two friendly nations but also tourists from all over the world who will visit Bulgaria in the years to come.
Is there any other aspect of bilateral cooperation which can be highlighted but about which the public knows little?
Bulgaria is Azerbaijan’s strategic partner and our bilateral agenda is broad. Both countries are interested in expanding this partnership in many areas of common interest, including agriculture, tourism, education, and health care. In the framework of the fourth session of the joint intergovernmental commission our experts discussed future steps to promote cooperation in the afore-mentioned fields.
On 29-30 September 2016, Baku hosted the Fifth Global Humanitarian Forum that gathered more than 400 high-ranking officials, Nobel Prize winners, prominent representatives of the global academic, scientific and research community. Vice-president of Bulgaria Ms Margarita Popova led the Bulgarian delegation at this event and was among keynote speakers to focus on combating global challenges such as migration, violent extremism, terrorism. In the course of her visit Ms Popova visited the Bulgarian Language and Culture Center at the Baku Slavic University (BSU), the biggest higher level education institution in the Caucasus of its kind, and met some 50 bachelor and master degree students of the Bulgarian studies faculty. The photo exhibition on contribution of Bulgaria to developing the Slavic civilization was also held in the BSU premises with support of our Embassy and the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad.
On a multilateral front, our partnership agenda covers interaction within international organizations, both global and regional and we are willing to strengthen this important engagement. We also view your country as an important partner in the framework of our cooperation with the European Union and NATO.
In conclusion, I would like to thank Novinite for this opportunity to share our vision on prospects of the Azerbaijani-Bulgarian relations with your readers.
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