Autumn 1994 (2.3)
Interview by Svetlana Turyalay
Translated from Russian by Dr. Edison Hajiyev
This is a new beginning for France and Azerbaijan, isn't it?
Actually, until now, we've never had relations between our two countries except for a brief period in 1920 with the government of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. We had a French Honorary Embassy here in Baku at the time. Over the years, of course, there have been numerous Azerbaijanis who have studied in Paris. When the Soviets came to power, some Azerbaijanis fled to France for asylum.
People in France know so little about Azerbaijan. It was President Heydar Aliyev's visit to France in January (1994) that paved the way for relations to begin, and for people to realize that such a country as Azerbaijan exists on the world map. Since then, quite a few representatives of French companies have visited Azerbaijan.
Have French companies established any businesses here yet?
There's an attempt now to create a French-Azerbaijan Chamber of Industry and Commerce. It's a very important initial step as it will enable companies to get involved with Azerbaijan.
French companies will feel more comfortable doing business with Azerbaijan when the contracts on investment guarantees and double taxation are finalized. The Azerbaijan side has already introduced these documents and they're now being examined in Paris.
Unfortunately, none of our companies are represented in the Western Oil Consortium. But I believe in the future, French companies will be involved in the production of Azerbaijan oil in the Caspian. Of course, there are quite a few companies that are involved with oil and gas processing and equipment manufacturing. For example, at the recent International Caspian Oil and Gas Exhibition, a group of such companies called "GEP" participated. When large companies get involved, naturally smaller companies will follow.
What kind of intellectual and cultural exchanges are taking place between Azerbaijan and France?
We support the teaching of French here in schools and institutes. Specialists have come and given seminars on the methodology of language teaching. Actually the teaching of foreign languages is rather highly developed here, it's just that the methods that are used, unfortunately, are too classical and old. We're ready to help Azerbaijan teachers acquire more progressive methods. We're introducing a French course on Azerbaijan national TV.
The intellectual potential in Azerbaijan is very high. It's essential that Azerbaijan rely on its intellectuals. Unfortunately, right now, it's a difficult time as many scientific workers have lost their positions when Soviet scientific centers closed. There are many fine architects, artists, and composers here. For example, I know Mr. Elimkhanov, a prominent specialist on antique bronze who is well known in scientific circles abroad as his books have been translated into many languages. There are a lot of outstanding people like him in Azerbaijan and they need to be appreciated.
I understand you already knew Azerbaijan's President, Heydar Aliyev, before coming here as Ambassador.
A few years ago, when President Aliyev was Head of Parliament for the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan, I was involved in helping bring humanitarian aid to the region after the railroad links between mainland Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan were destroyed.
Mr. Aliyev made a very deep impression on me. He's a professional politician who has already made a significant mark in Azerbaijan's history. Azerbaijan is not a very large country in terms of size, but Aliyev is a leader of truly great stature.
I admire his wisdom and ability to negotiate with many different kinds of people. In my opinion, with Aliyev in power, the possibilities to solve this conflict with Armenia seem possible.
When the Popular Front was ruling the country, there was little dialog with neighboring countries, except Turkey. I'm not putting Turkey down but the consequence was that relations with other countries were damaged. It's a simple fact. Being geographically situated as Azerbaijan is in bordering such major countries as Russia, Iran, and Turkey, it's imperative to maintain friendly relations with all of them.
Is France involved with providing humanitarian aid to Azerbaijan's refugees?
We are planning to open a specialized drugstore through which the international organizations can distribute medicines to the hospitals. In mid-June of this year, a cargo plane brought in the first supply of medicines from Paris. There are more than a million refugees in Azerbaijan. Add to that the soldiers who have been injured in the winter and spring battles. Azerbaijan needs help and we're ready to do that.
It seems France has been supportive of the negotiation process carried out by the CSCE Minsk group in regard to the settlement of the conflict with Armenia. What is France's position?
I think it's necessary to combine the efforts of the CSCE with those of Russia. They must be made more harmonious, of course. France realizes that Russia has interests in the Caucasus which are connected with its own security. But at the same time, it's important to recognize the independence of the Transcaucasian Republics.
I'm glad that the new Chairman of the Minsk group, Jan Eliasson, has begun dialog with Russia. This wasn't done before. It's important to recognize the role and significance of Russia in this region and that's why the efforts of Jan Eliasson are commendable.
What about the relationship of France with other countries of the Transcaucasus?
We're rather active in Georgia. We have a club known as "Friends of Georgia" which was created by the United Nations.
As far as Armenia is concerned, I would like to say that we haven't imposed pressure on Armenia but we've been trying to convince them that it's high time to stop the war and restore peace. It seems that Armenians realize this but there are some radical tendencies in Armenia as well. We are trying to convince Armenians to stop "playing games" with the contents of the "agreements" between the CSCE and Russia and stop shifting their position.
You're whole family is interested and involved in the East. Right?
My daughter, Ellen, is s student at the Oriental Studies Faculty at the Institute of Turkic Studies in Paris. She has traveled all over Asia and now finally she has become intensely interested in the steppes of Central Asia. She is currently researching the funeral ceremonies of Turkish nations in Central Asia.
I, myself, have done some serious research, too. I've written two volumes about the history and present-day life of Japan. I've written about Burma since I spent considerable time there. I've written many articles about art and ethnic linguistics. My latest article work is about the Russian Chukchi (Chukotskoye) in Alaska.
Do you plan to write anything about Azerbaijan?
I'd like to write an Azerbaijan history in French. I'm in the process of collecting documents now. I've gathered a small library here. It's impossible to find anything in France about this.
You know, to understand the present day Azerbaijan, you need to know its history. I think it's necessary for us to be aware of how and when the Armenians settled in Nagorno Karabakh and the ground for their claims for a "Great Armenia." I'm also interested in Nakhchivan as a historical region. By the way, I've read a book by a traveler of the 13th century where the nations of Turkish origin living there mention Nakhchivan.
What similarities have you discovered between the French people and Azeris while you've been living here in Azerbaijan these past two years?
I would say that Azeris are very much like people living in the southern part of France. They're sincere and they're very fond of entertaining with delicious meals and good wine. I've always found that countries have more similarities than differences between them. I'd have to admit that this holds true for Azerbaijan and France as well.
Svetlana Turyalay is a staff writer living in Baku.
From Azerbaijan International (2.3) Autumn 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.