Author: Elchin HUSEYNOV
Zacharie Gross is the tenth Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of France to Azerbaijan. His recent appointment—in the autumn of 2019—did not stop him from adapting to local circumstances quickly and successfully though. He is an experienced diplomat and an expert in all things security. Prior to his appointment to Azerbaijan, Mr. Gross had been responsible for disarmament and non-proliferation of ballistic and nuclear missiles, as well as space security at the French Foreign Ministry. Over the past four years, he has been closely engaged in Iranian nuclear issues. His employment record includes various tenures with the embassies of France to Israel and Russia, as well as at the permanent missions of France to the UN and International Atomic Energy Agency. Thanks to his descent knowledge of the region, Mr. Gross has further intensified the operation of the French diplomatic mission to Azerbaijan since his first days in Baku.
"Your Excellency, Azerbaijan is France's main economic partner in the South Caucasus. How do you rate the current level of cooperation between our countries? To what extent is it consistent with the existing potential?"
"Trade between France and Azerbaijan remains at a low level, approximately 615 M Euros in 2018. This is disappointing because global French companies have a lot to offer Azerbaijan in terms of economic diversification, know-how and technology. They can help raise Azerbaijani standards to meet European standards. More than fifty French companies are present in Azerbaijan: Total, Suez, Alstom, Schneider, Airbus, Thales, Bouygues, Lafarge-Holcim just to quote a few. They are keen to help improve the everyday quality of life of Azerbaijanis in the fields of urban and intercity transport, renewable energy, clean water, clean air, and agriculture. French companies in the security field, notably computer security, are also ready to do work, in line with international obligations. French banks and insurance companies Société Générale and Axa are also present.
The French Development Agency (AFD) is investing in multi-million projects in Azerbaijan to improve rail transport from Baku to Tbilisi and to accompany the transformation of Azerbaijan's national rail company ADY. The potential for growth in our bilateral trade is important."
"In which areas do our countries enjoy mutually beneficial cooperation? Which areas are yet to be explored and developed?"
"One major French energy company present in the country is ready to make multi-billion investments in Azerbaijan. Whether this goes ahead or not depends on Azerbaijan.
Other leading French companies are keen to invest in developing Azerbaijan's wind and solar electricity production. They have a great global record in the field and since the government is considering several important projects, I hope to see them work in Azerbaijan soon.
Space cooperation is active between our two countries – CNES and Azercosmos work well together. But, of course, Azerbaijan's needs are growing. So, I would like to see companies such as Ariane, Airbus and Thales Alenia-Space accompany Azerbaijan in this quest, whether for telecommunications or earth observation.
One of the sectors that I believe has the highest potential is urban services. Improved water distribution can reduce quantity of water consumption and improve quality. The problem of floodwaters in the winter can be overcome. And while the Baku metro is important to so many inhabitants and guests of the capital, connections could be made swifter. The air quality can be improved."
"Prior to your appointment, you have held one of the important posts in the French Ministry of Defense. Despite the efforts of Azerbaijan and the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, including France, it has been 25 years now that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unsolved peacefully. What are the opportunities for resolving the conflict and establishing security in the region?"
"The Nagorny-Karabagh conflict has been undermining the stability and the prosperity of the Region for now more than 25 years, and comes at a high cost to the peoples of these countries. Too many casualties have struck families and, unfortunately, still do nowadays. I have the firm conviction that a fair and lasting diplomatic settlement is the only way forward. At the same time, the current situation of status quo is by no way acceptable, and France made it very clear that negotiations in good faith have to resume to the full extent in order to give a fresh impulse to the process. So, it is essential that diplomatic efforts be pursued.
I am optimistic, because dialogue between the two countries continues. In January of the last year, Minister Mammadyarov and his Armenian colleague agreed in Paris, under the auspices of the co-chairs, to launch a new initiative aiming at "preparing the populations for peace". This decision is not an easy one, but is already starting to be concretely implemented. The recent crossed visits of journalists is an interesting illustration. People-to-people contacts, exchanges of prisoners, deconstruction of stereotypes should move forward too.
Today more than ever, France, Russia and the U.S., as co-chair countries of the OSCE Group of Minsk, are determined to facilitate intense negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia with the aim of reaching a honest, fair and long lasting settlement, based on international laws, key norms and principles. I want to underline that the co-chairs are acting in the framework of their mandate, and that if they act as active mediators, the decisions and solutions are ultimately made by both parties to the conflict, which in my view will suppose compromises from everyone. I am convinced there will be opportunities in 2020 to progress towards a resolution of the conflict. In this regard, President Macron's active European security agenda and his permanent dialogue with world leaders are positive assets."
"France plays an instrumental role in the development of cooperation between Azerbaijan and the European Union. What prospects are available for strengthening partnership between Azerbaijan and the EU?"
"My hope is that a new partnership agreement between the EU and Azerbaijan will be signed in 2020. The EU is a close, strong and reliable partner of Azerbaijan. The EU has no hidden agenda in the country or the region. In fact, I believe Azerbaijanis want more interaction with the EU, not less: more cooperation in education and training, more people-to-people contact, more European standards in the economy, more tourism both ways, more European business investment…
I also hope an open-skies agreement will be signed between the EU and Azerbaijan. All in all, the EU can make a big contribution to the well-being of Azerbaijan."
"How successful are Azerbaijani-French relations in education. What is the role of the Azerbaijani-French University in the development of this area?"
"The French-Azerbaijani University (UFAZ) in Baku opened in 2016 and now has nearly 600 students, in the fields of physics, chemistry, computer science and oil engineering. It has state of the art labs for students to work in. The University of Strasburg provides the academic staff, teaching methods and curricula. The classes are taught in English, while students also learn or improve their French language skills. Several Masters courses are expected to be opened next Autumn, which will be an important new step. Its exciting to see this project move forward so successfully. I am very grateful to the Azerbaijani authorities for their constant support for UFAZ.
There are other Azerbaijani universities that deliver double-diplomas with French Universities, including the Azerbaijani Language University which plays a key role in training a new generation of French language students and teachers.
For those that want to study abroad, I should add we are keen to significantly increase the number of Azerbaijani students in France. If you are bright, ambitious and dynamic – choose France. There is a huge number of courses taught in English in French universities – and the cost of studying in France is much lower than in many other European countries."
"France has rich experience in tourism. What should be done to attract European, in particular, French tourists to Azerbaijan? What can be attractive for tourists in Azerbaijan?"
"I think Azerbaijan can experience the same kind of tourism boom as Georgia. It has the right assets, mountain ranges, the sea, a warm climate, lots of culture, great food. What I recommend is learning from the European experience: what proved to be sustainable and what did not. It is important to preserve your landscapes, villages, heritage, local culture and seek forms of tourism with a light footprint in terms of infrastructure. A lot of thought is being put into this in Europe as Europeans change lifestyles and expectations, so I think Azerbaijan and the EU should be partners in this area. And also, as I said, signing a bilateral open-skies agreement would be a good starting point."
"Azerbaijan is the initiator of large regional transport, transit and energy projects. Which of these projects are most relevant for France today and in the future?"
This energy infrastructure linking up Europe and Azerbaijan, i.e. the BTC oil pipeline, the Southern Gas Corridor, is very important to both sides. It opens up the European consumer market to Azerbaijan and it provides a new supplier to the EU. Both gain from it.
French companies are also involved in the ongoing processes. But France itself is less impacted by these projects because our energy consumption and electricity production relies very much on nuclear energy and—to a lesser extent—on renewables (mostly hydropower but increasingly wind and solar). Nevertheless, we are happy to see these projects make such good progress."
"Which areas in Azerbaijan do remain attractive for French investment? What is the volume of French investments, and how can they be increased?"
"Total has invested over a billion Euros in the Absheron project which be operational next year. Global French companies are keen to invest in energy projects in Azerbaijan if there is an interest on the Azerbaijani side. I know of several companies that are ready to invest in training centres and in production lines if they have the appropriate market openings.
The French Development Bank AFD is ready to invest in green projects in Azerbaijan, such as solid waste treatment. This would make it possible to use clean new technologies to reduce solid waste, which is good for the environment and for local populations.
We would also like to see more Azerbaijani investments in France, especially in the productive sectors."
"France is one of the largest producers of agricultural products and one of the world leaders in wine production. What could be perspective joint projects in these areas?"
"Today, Azerbaijani farms are usually quite small. This makes it more difficult to introduce new technologies applied to agriculture. It increases the cost of training and access to services. Of course, there is understandably a strong opposition to Soviet type agriculture – the kolkhoz or sovkhoz models. But France has alternative, private-based co-operative models that could be interesting for Azerbaijan to explore. This is true in various agricultural sectors, including for wine production.
France also has a number of species of cattle and grain that are well adapted to different parts of Azerbaijan.
As for wine, it has such a long history in the Caucasus and is such an important element of French lifestyle that I hope there will be more joint projects in this area—be it wine production machines and technologies, research, training, wine tasting courses for consumers or wine bars!"