Ambassador Robert Cekuta gives interview to VOA Azerbaijan

VOA: First, I’d like to thank you for this interview.

Ambassador Cekuta: No, I appreciate it. I appreciate the chance to talk to you because President Aliyev had a very good trip to the United States a couple of weeks ago and I think it’s important to be able to talk a little bit about that.

As you know, it was a trip that both sides worked hard to make happen, and from our point of view, it was a very positive visit. It was a successful visit.

Just to review a little bit, obviously our two Presidents met in the course of the Nuclear Security Summit, but it was also important because President Aliyev had other meetings with the top levels of the United States government; in particular with the Vice President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Commerce. And as you saw, in those meetings all aspects of our relationship were discussed.

Obviously, we discussed questions of nuclear security – and we very much appreciated Azerbaijan’s ratification of the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, which was an important step as well. We also discussed counter-terrorism, the overall security situation in this region and how it’s developing. We talked about the economics, and in their remarks the Secretary and the Vice President mentioned the Southern Gas Corridor, but we also talked about steps Azerbaijan is taking to diversify and strengthen its economy.

There was discussion about bringing investment to Azerbaijan, and the “soft infrastructure” that’s needed to attract investments and grow the economy. But I think one thing gets lost for many Azerbaijanis, is that for parts of the United States the rise and fall of oil prices also has a very direct impact. We can share some of that experience, and we can also learn from Azerbaijan, because with economics it’s a two-way street. What each country goes through, other countries learn from. That was an important part of the discussions that we had in Washington.

We discussed human rights, democracy, and rule of law in the context of economic development. And the point was also made by the Secretary and by the Vice President of welcoming and recognizing the steps that Azerbaijan has been taking and that we hope for further steps in this direction, this positive direction.

In summation, this is not an end point. This is a mile post. This is a sign of both countries working together, having made progress, looking for further progress, and looking to work together to move ahead, to deal with a number of issues that affect both our countries and have important regional implications.

In terms of that sense of further progress, it’s worth noting yesterday’s meeting that President Aliyev had with the American Chamber of Commerce to talk through issues that affect U.S. businesses here, and more generally the Azerbaijani economy. Our joint effort to diversify and strengthen and grow Azerbaijan’s economy is a sign that we are continuing down this road together. It’s a very positive sign of the relations between our two countries.

VOA: First of all, I would like to get your impressions on yesterday’s meeting at AmCham, the President with AmCham. From your point of view, what were the key points of the meeting?

Ambassador Cekuta: I was probably the least important person in the room yesterday. It was President Aliyev, the President’s Assistant on Economic Reforms Natig Amirov, and the business people in AmCham who the real actors in the meeting.

But I would just say as an observer, I think President Aliyev shared his view of how the economic situation is affecting Azerbaijan, and the recognition that while oil and gas are important, the country can’t stay dependent on them. The Azerbaijani economy needs to move away from a dependence on oil and gas production.

He spoke about particular areas of focus in the economy where he sees the need for growth, those which the government has identified as areas for growth — agriculture and high-tech, Azerbaijan as a tourist destination, the growth of the tourist industry here; but also Azerbaijan as a transit hub, as part of the Silk Road. It’s this idea of this part of the world being a nexus for the transport of goods, services, and people — north, south, east, and west — and the added value that can come from being a transportation hub. And he talked too, about the “soft infrastructure”, the rule of law, reforms to the customs and tax system, addressing the problem of corruption, and addressing the need for greater transparency. The members of the Board of Directors of the American Chamber of Commerce also made points along these same lines, sharing what companies are doing here, which issues are important to increasing the opportunities for entrepreneurship and for increasing the growth of jobs in this environment. One of the key points was that small, medium-sized companies are really huge employers in the economy.

One point I made was to highlight what the United States has been able to do directly, through USAID, in terms of encouraging entrepreneurial growth and in helping women and youth in particular understand how they can create companies, how they can help the economy grow. There is also the work we’re doing to help Azerbaijan become the transportation hub it seeks to be and needs to be. I saw a desire on both sides to continue this kind of exchange, and I think both sides found it extremely useful. That’s something very much to be welcomed.

VOA: At the meeting with the President you stated that the United States of America wants to help Azerbaijan to become a strong, prosperous and stable country. So my question is, in order, first of all, we know that without macroeconomics, without macro finance, without democracy and human rights, we cannot talk about stability. So in order to ensure stability, what kind of reforms, what kind of steps are necessary?

Ambassador Cekuta: This is something which we’ve spoken with the government about throughout my time here. It’s been a constant theme in the exchanges between the U.S. government and the Azerbaijan government. Our goal has been to have a strong, positive relationship with Azerbaijan, and to see Azerbaijan be a strong, prosperous, democratic country. We want Azerbaijanis to realize their own vision for their country. In that regard, the United States has provided over $1.3 billion of assistance to Azerbaijan since 1992, and that assistance has evolved over the years as Azerbaijan has evolved. Moving forward, we will continue to engage in various areas – supporting the country’s security situation, helping it in terms of economic growth, helping in terms of strengthening rule of law, and others.

VOA: A question arose in my mind. At one of the previous Davos forum’s the idea was to join classical industry and new technology to bring about new industrial revolution. So in that light, Azerbaijan is planning to establish industry parks. Is United States interested in making investments or helping with the equipment and machinery?

Ambassador Cekuta: This is something which I’ve been looking at closely as I’ve been out around the country – in Sumgayit, for example. But the question really is not whether the U.S. is interested, but whether U.S. industries, U.S. companies are interested. This is one of the things I’ve discussed with the government in recent months. How does Azerbaijan position itself? How does it compete in a very tough international market? Governments around the world are looking to get foreign investment. The United States are looking to get foreign investment. And an important point in talking about foreign investment is keeping up domestic investment.

Companies will evaluate Azerbaijan in terms of other markets. How big is the domestic market? They will look at the talent, the training, and the education of the labor pool, the availability of labor. They will look at taxes. They will look at the court system and ask, “If I enter into a contract will that contract be observed?”, “If there are problems can I expect that those problems can be addressed within the court system?” And all countries are competing with each other.

But in answer to your first question, yes – there are American companies who could be interested in investing here and doing business here. On the second part of your question, there are also American companies with equipment, with services, with know-how that I think could be attractive partners for Azerbaijan and could help Azerbaijanis to realize their vision for their country’s economic future. That’s one of the things this embassy is working on, bringing Azerbaijan and U.S. companies together.

VOA: As a continuation of the previous question, the latest reforms carried out, conducted in the country, are they enough to attract U.S. investments? And what kind of reforms need to be taken to attract that investment particularly in the court system, democracy, human rights, customs and others? What kind of reforms must be carried out in order to ensure U.S. investment?

Ambassador Cekuta: I think it’s a process. It’s going to move forward just as our relationship will move forward. We’re looking at mile posts along the road. That is something that was discussed with Secretary Pritzker, between her and President Aliyev. But it’s also something that’s going to be the subject of a “white paper” which the American Chamber of Commerce in Azerbaijan is in the final stages of pulling together. So I would probably wait until that comes out as it will give you a much more authoritative answer to your question.

VOA: The next question is about commerce and trade. I know that these issues were discussed during Azerbaijan President’s visit to United States. So what kind of development and improvements must be made in order to see development in that area of the bilateral relationship? You mentioned the white paper, so what kind of elements, will that include? And what kind of package of proposals is the white paper going to put forward?

When I’ve been in the United States and visit stores, I never see a single Azerbaijani product, but a former U.S. Ambassador, Mr. Morningstar, mentioned that he had never tasted better fruits, that Azerbaijani fruits are delicious.

Ambassador Cekuta: First of all, I think the key part of your answer really is going to be in the white paper from the Chamber. But going back to the specific question about agriculture products, geography is a factor, transportation cost is a factor, and marketing and packaging are factors. When I met Ambassador Suleymanov, before I came out here, we talked about the idea of getting Azerbaijani agricultural products sold in sold in the U.S. The truth is, there may be may be better markets for Azerbaijani products closer by. The U.S. is a huge producer of agricultural goods. On the other hand, I’ve noted that there are certain products available here that I don’t see in the United States, so it may be up to Azerbaijan to find that market, find a niche in the United States.

VOA: So what kind of assistance, aid, can the United States provide to Azerbaijan with regarding the processing industry, processing facilities and small businesses?

Ambassador Cekuta: There are a couple of things we are already doing. For example, we have programs that work with Azerbaijanis on hazelnut production. I would like to get out and see what we could do with apples, because I have a personal interest in that from our farm in Maine. We can also look at other things on the agribusiness side.

Another important thing we’re doing is bringing expertise from our Commerce Department through the Commercial Law Development Program which deals with these questions of the legal and regulatory frameworks that are needed for businesses to thrive. As I’ve mentioned, we also have programs for encouraging entrepreneurship, and especially to encourage women entrepreneurs and young people to get involved.

It’s hard to predict where the next big area of growth will come from. If you had asked me 20 years ago, we were talking about miniaturization of personal audio equipment, like tape recorders, but today it’s software. I never would have thought of that, but somebody did. I’m convinced there’s some Azerbaijani out there who’s got a bright idea. Given the chance to develop that idea, it could be transformative and develop entire industries, or it could be smaller changes – but those changes would still represent steps forward, and will still produce economic growth and new jobs.

VOA: Getting into questions with regard to the security…

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev visited the United States at the invitation of President Obama to attend the Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington. Is the current level of U.S.-Azerbaijan relations in the area of nuclear security satisfactory? And are there new projects at a bilateral level in this area?

Ambassador Cekuta: I don’t think it’s widely known, but Azerbaijan took an important step with the ratification of an amendment to the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material in the IAEA. President Aliyev called a special session of Parliament for the ratification and the documents were personally delivered by the Foreign Minister. Azerbaijan’s individual step was crucial to helping get enough countries on board to allow this amendment to come into force.

And one of the themes of the Summit was preventing terrorists from getting access to nuclear materials. That’s something that we need every country in the world to cooperate on, and Azerbaijan’s cooperation and support for the effort against terrorism are an important aspect of that.

VOA: On March 31st Vice President Biden highlighted the importance of comprehensive settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through negotiations in terms of sustainability, security, and the development of the region.

Shortly after, on April 2nd, a bloody escalation, erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh and that fighting, ended up with signing of ceasefire following a telephone call from Russian President to both the Presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia.

I would like to get your view of this situation. Why did we see this chain of events, and how do you see the future of resolution of the conflict?

Ambassador Cekuta: I know Ambassador Warlick discussed this when he was here last week, and I would say a couple of things.

First of all, the United States has long talked about a broad vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace. If that’s our goal then we have to be looking at the full range of issues. We can’t have that Europe whole, free and at peace when there are tears in the fabric.

I’ve known Ambassador Warlick for a long time and I’ve worked with him closely and have seen that he has worked very hard to try to move this issue forward as one of the Minsk Group co-chairs, to help find that comprehensive settlement. And you saw the statements out of the meetings during the Summit in Washington and you’ve seen the subsequent statements about the situation that highlight the importance the United States places on finding a resolution of the conflict.

Right now the important thing is that both sides scrupulously, strictly adhere to the ceasefire and work with the Minsk Group, with the co-chairs, to find a way forward to a comprehensive settlement.

One thing that has hit home for me in my discussions over the past year, in meetings with IDPs and others, is the tremendous human cost of this conflict. So I very much think it’s important for all the sides to recognize that as well. We express our condolences to those who died, and their families, in the recent fighting. That cost makes it all the more important for the sides to come together and find a way forward. What the Minsk Group is about, what the co-chairs are doing, is to try to facilitate that. Ambassador Warlick when he was here last week noted the commitment by President Aliyev and President Sargsyan to the ceasefire. We need to see that, and we need to be seeing further steps along those lines.

VOA: I cannot go without touching on an issue came up during the discussions, in Washington, the statements welcoming the recent release of the human right defenders and others, and calling for further steps and improvement in this area.

So what is the current status in this area and what can we expect moving forward?

Ambassador Cekuta: Again, this is an area we have discussed with the Azerbaijani government since I got here. I know my predecessors did as well. It was a subject of discussion in Washington at the top levels. We do welcome the steps that have been taken and know other steps remain to be taken.

Democracy is a process. The same is true in the United States. It’s a matter of always looking at what you’re doing and thinking about whether you can do something better, do something different. We continue to work with Azerbaijan on this. It is important for Azerbaijan’s stability. Azerbaijan is a country that’s in a difficult neighborhood, something which we constantly note. So what we want to do is work with Azerbaijan and with Azerbaijanis to take all the steps they can to enable them to be strong and prosperous and have the country they want to have, even in this very tough neighborhood.