US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Lee Litzenberger in an interview with the Voice of America and the Turan news agency spoke about the US-Azerbaijan relations, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, regional security and human rights.
Question: I”m very appreciative for that short but sincere conversation with you. If you don”t mind, I”m going to go straight to the questions.
First of all I would like to keep up this conversation with that question. The current relationship between Azerbaijan and the United States of America, do you believe that the level of the partnership and the relationship between the two countries are satisfactory? And what kind of next step should be taken to improve and deepen those relationships?
Ambassador Litzenberger: Thank you for that question.
I would say that I am, if your question is am I satisfied with the level of the bilateral relations, my answer is yes and no. Yes, because I think the strength of the relationship is very good in many areas, including the security area, energy and the economy, and in the area of democracy and social development But no, because I think that we have the potential to do much more in each of these areas.
So my goal as Ambassador here is to work with the government and the people of Azerbaijan, to ensure that Azerbaijan is more secure, more prosperous, and more free and fair.
Question: Well Ambassador, I would like to ask you a question about during your tenure, kind of plans do you have to improve and deepen relationship with Azerbaijan? What kind of priorities do you think you would have in terms of advancement of human rights and the regulatory reforms in Azerbaijan?
Ambassador Litzenberger: In terms of the advancement of human rights, I would say that we were very pleased to see the very generous pardon that was announced in Novruz where a number of detainees were released. I think there”s more work to be done there, and I would like to see a day where none of the citizens of Azerbaijan are detained or arrested simply because they”re trying to express their basic freedoms, their constitutional rights.
In the area of regulatory reform, I”m very interested in the Judicial Reform Initiative that has been announced and very much hope to see that that initiative will enhance the rule of law here in Azerbaijan. Question: Ambassador, I can recall the last time the Azerbaijani President has actually paid an official visit to the United States was back in 2006. However, none of the U.S. Presidents have ever visited Azerbaijan. And the last high top visit by U.S. officials was that of the Secretary of State in 2012.
What are the major reasons for this absence of high level bilateral contacts in terms of visiting?
Ambassador Litzenberger: I don”t think I agree with you that there”s been an absence of high level contacts. Certainly under the current U.S. administration I think we”ve seen consistent high level engagement. President Trump has written four letters to President Aliyev and last fall sent his National Security Advisor, John Bolton, here to visit which was a very strong signal of the importance that we place on the strategic partnership with Azerbaijan.
So from my perspective, the trend is very positive.
Question: We just go back and we can see that there”s plenty of numbers, some 80 documents outlining the bilateral agreements between the United States of America and Azerbaijan. So these agreements have been signed to shape the legal basis for the two countries to cooperate and continue their strategic partnership. So in this regard my question would be in terms of the high level partnership, what are the major milestones, something that you would like to emphasize, the most successful moments in the partnership between the countries.
Ambassador Litzenberger: First I”d just like to say that I don”t think I really measure the depth of a relationship by the number of documents that are signed. Yes, it”s important to have agreements in writing that lay the groundwork for the relationship to develop. But I think the measure of the relationship is how meaningful is our dialogue? Are we exchanging views at very senior levels of our government? And I think the answer is yes.
I mentioned that President Trump has sent four letters to President Aliyev. I think the fact that he sent his National Security Advisor, John Bolton, also sends a very important signal. Next week we will be holding the Economic Partnership Commission meeting, the first time we”ve had a high level economic dialogue since 2012.
So again, I think we”re moving in a very positive direction. We”ve accomplished a lot. I think U.S. help was instrumental in helping to secure the completion of the Southern Gas Corridor which we hope to see bringing Azerbaijani gas to Western Europe. The Southern Gas Corridor will directly support Azerbaijan”s economic development and its energy independence and economic independence.
Question: This question is actually going to be a little long.
I remember back in 2018 in October when the Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent visited Azerbaijan, back then when asked a question he said that for the next time he would visit Azerbaijan, he expressed his hope very much that the Radio Free Europe, RFE/RL, in Azerbaijan would be reopened. However, he came to Azerbaijan quite recently but he couldn”t listen to RFE/RL this time as well.
However, the media environment in Azerbaijan is that you can see the media spaces literally predominated by the Russian media representatives working in Azerbaijan. However, the U.S. Congress sponsored Radio Free Europe, its office in Azerbaijan has been blocked for a long time. Now with regards to the reopening of the RFE/RL”s office in Azerbaijan, are there any talks in the process? And if yes, what kind of talks are ongoing?
Ambassador Litzenberger: Let me just begin by saying that a free and independent media is absolutely essential to the economic development and democratic development of Azerbaijan. And that”s true of any country. So we place a great deal of importance on that issue.
We believe that as part of an individual”s freedom of expression, it is also the right to obtain information, and obtain information from all kinds of sources.
That being the case, I would of course like to see Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty resume its broadcasts in Azerbaijan and the removal of all restrictions on its website.
I think in a democracy it”s important for people to be able to hear all sides of an issue and then to form their own independent opinion.
Question: Mr. Ambassador, back in the past, I can”t recall, but there”s been quite a number of American NGOs operating in Azerbaijan including the Peace Corps. And back then we had a joint military training, organized jointly between Azerbaijani side and the American side. However, nowadays what we”re left with only the USAID representation office here.
In this regard, I was going to ask you that question. Are you planning to take any steps that would eventually lead to reopening or reemergence of the American NGOs in Azerbaijan? And I recall in this very room we are sitting right now, the USAID representatives once during the conversation with him, he just told the media community that there are barely any comfortable conditions whereby the USAID can freely operate, can operate in Azerbaijan. We can see there are certain restrictions and limitations to the programs that are geared to the promotion of human rights and democracy in Azerbaijan. And we can see, apparently, it seems that USAID has been focusing for quite a long time on the projects related to agriculture only.
Ambassador Litzenberger: Let me begin by saying that the United States is proud of the assistance it has provided Azerbaijan. I think it”s $1.3 billion since independence.
That assistance has taken different forms throughout the period since independence, but what all of it has in common is the goal of helping Azerbaijani citizens have better lives. Part of that is improving livelihoods through economic and agricultural development, and another part has been supporting civil society and respect for human rights, and we will continue to work with the government to make progress in all of these areas.
Two areas that I hope to see us develop further cooperation with Azerbaijan are increasing exchanges. I”d like to see more Azerbaijani students go to the U.S., and more U.S. students come here, and more professionals have an opportunity to visit each other”s countries. And I”d also like to increase the access to English language instruction for Azerbaijanis, especially Azerbaijanis who live outside of Baku in the regions.
I”m confident that as we see exchanges grow, and as we see access to English language instruction increase, that will create opportunities for us to expand our cooperation in other areas.
Question: Mr. Ambassador, the recent trip by the U.S. National Security Advisor, John Bolton, was viewed by many local domestic experts as an event that signifies certain change or shift in the U.S. policy in the region. So some people were thinking about the visit was closely linked to the issues related to some attempts to weaken Russia”s influence in the region. Some people thought it was also affecting the weapon sales, protection of regional countries from the influence of the U.S. The question would be what can the United States do to help manage the impact of sanctions against Russia and Iran, and how does the U.S. plan to realize its goal here with regional security, integration with the West, or human rights and democracy?
Ambassador Litzenberger: I think the visit of National Security Advisor Bolton reflected simply the strengthening bilateral relationship with Azerbaijan. We have very strong cooperation in the area of security focused primarily on counterterrorism cooperation. In that regard we highly value Azerbaijan”s contribution to the international coalition effort in Afghanistan and its contribution to the logistics supply routes to support not only U.S. forces but coalition forces and Azerbaijani forces that are in Afghanistan.
You asked about sanctions. I think it”s very important to realize that the support the United States has provided to the Southern Gas Corridor by opening up East/West opportunities for energy trade directly contribute to Azerbaijan”s economic development and help mitigate any consequences of the sanctions.
I also think that, you talked about our USAID programs in agriculture. I just visited two of those projects last week in Khachmaz and Guba.
I”m pleased to say that we”re helping local Azerbaijani farmers and producers to export hazelnuts and fruits and vegetables to markets in Western Europe. The advantage of this is that it makes Azerbaijan less dependent on traditional trading partners and provides much higher prices for the products.
So the prospects for Azerbaijan”s continued economic development and growth are good and the United States wants to support that.
Question: Mr. Ambassador, you may actually recall that attempts by Georgia and Ukraine to integrate into Western institution including the European Union and the NATO eventually resulted in the loss of their territories. And just in a scenario where Azerbaijan would like to speed up a little bit in terms of their process of integration with the Western world, what could the U.S. do to protect Azerbaijan”s interests, especially from Russia?
Ambassador Litzenberger: I guess I would answer your question this way. I think that what happened in Georgia and Ukraine was not the result of their actions, but it was the result of aggression by Russia that resorted to force to violate internationally recognized borders and occupy territory.
I would dispute that the territory is lost. It is under illegal occupation.
We do not believe that any country has the right to veto another country”s foreign policy decisions. We completely reject the notion that any country exercises or should be able to exercise control over a sphere of influence, a group of neighboring countries. That is not the way the international system works, and we will not accept that.
The United States has been one of the strongest supporters of Azerbaijan”s independence since it became independent from the Soviet Union. We”ve done that by supporting the development of its energy resources and the infrastructure to get those products to Western markets. And that energy independence gives Azerbaijan the political room and independence to make its own decisions.
As a sovereign state, you”re right. Azerbaijan has made the decision that it wants to move closer to Western markets and Western institutions, and we support that. I would note that Russia has paid and it continues to pay a very high price for its aggression.
Question: The former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, Mr. Richard Mills, once said that he was really very much surprised when he found out that majority of the Armenian population would feel very much opposed to the very notion of the return of primordial Azerbaijani territory to Azerbaijan. And in such circumstances what do you think the United States will do? Does the U.S. have any new initiatives so you can eventually reach a peaceful resolution of the NK conflict and could the U.S. use the same arrangements as Dayton Peace Agreement which the United States used to regulate the Bosnia conflict? Somehow pressure to push Armenia to a peaceful resolution of the NK conflict?
Ambassador Litzenberger: The United States position is clear. As a co-chair of the Minsk Group we support the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. That means we support the efforts by the two parties to work out a negotiated settlement. In the last year we have seen both increased engagement and reduced violence along the line of conflict. Both of those are positive developments.
And the United States along with the other two co-chairs will continue to support the engagement and the confidence building measures, the kind of steps that can help create conditions to support a negotiated settlement.
And in addition to the direct engagement by the leaders and the foreign ministers, I think one of the things that both sides could do is begin to take steps to help prepare the populations in Armenia and in Azerbaijan to begin to accept a negotiated settlement. I think that is the issue that former Ambassador Mills was referring to.
Question: There are certain reports in the media predicting the foreign minister”s meeting in Washington, D.C. When do you think this meeting would take place?
Ambassador Litzenberger: Look, we very much support continued engagement of the foreign ministers and as co-chair we will do everything we can to support that. Usually meetings of the foreign ministers are announced by all parties at the same time when the necessary arrangements have been made. And I”m hopeful that such an announcement could be made sometime in the near future, because we very much would like to see the two ministers meet again.
Question: But are you specifying that this would take place in Washington, or you”re talking about general meetings?
Ambassador Litzenberger: I think until all the parties have made a public announcement, all the issues remain under negotiation.
These are not decisions made by any one country or any one party. They have to be made together.
Question: Speak about the future of Azerbaijan within the context of Azerbaijan being a transit country, especially in terms of advancing the U.S. interests between Central Asia or to the Central Asia and Afghanistan. So how would you evaluate, how would you assess Azerbaijan”s role as a transit country?
Ambassador Litzenberger: Azerbaijan is already an important transit country. As I mentioned earlier regarding the logistical support for the international coalition effort in Afghanistan. We”ve also seen that Azerbaijan has for many decades now been an energy corridor with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and now the Southern Gas Corridor which will be delivering Azerbaijani gas to Western Europe, hopefully next year.
We”re hopeful that those energy corridors can also extend across the Caspian and develop further to help secure Europe”s energy independence.
So I”m very hopeful of the role of Azerbaijan in facilitating East/West trade.
Question: My next question is related to the political prisoners in Azerbaijan. I know that the high level visiting authorities from the U.S., they constantly express their hope that one day Azerbaijan would hold no political prisoners. But however, the reality tells us the otherwise situation, because quite recently there”s been some media reports claiming some 11 new political prisoners on top of the list of political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
So that would be my question, again, how would you comment on this situation, as well as there”s some ill treatments towards political prisoners after their release or after the amnesty. So we can name Bayram Mammadov, some other people, and the recent case of the former Health Minister, Ali Insanov.
Ambassador Litzenberger: As I mentioned, we very much welcomed the Novruz pardon list which was quite extensive, and I think sent a very positive signal and received widespread international support. I would argue that Azerbaijan actually became more secure as a result of that decision because it had increased international support. We would like to see further moves in the same direction.
But you”re right, we have seen some indications of moving backwards since that pardon. But we”ve also seen some other positive steps. I understand this week that a number of journalists who had not been allowed to leave the country have now been told that they can travel.
I think every time Azerbaijan takes a step towards increasing tolerance, increasing respect for the rights of its citizens, that it advances Azerbaijan”s own interests.
Question: Ambassador, today actually marks the first day of the Muslim Holy Day of Ramadan. So maybe I just would like to avail myself of the opportunity and ask you to wish something to Azerbaijanis on the occasion of Ramadan.
Ambassador Litzenberger: Yes. I wish all Azerbaijanis peace, prosperity, and freedom.
Thank you so very much, Ambassador, for that interview.