Italy-Azerbaijan relations: interview with Zaur Mammadov, Director of the Baku Political Science Club

Not only gas. Relations between Italy and Azerbaijan are characterized by a strong strategic nature that goes beyond the hydrocarbon sector, and which includes transport, logistics, investments, culture and politics. In anticipation of COP29 which will be held in the Azerbaijani capital next autumn, important discussions are open with our country on the subject of sustainability, green energy and renewable sources. We discussed these aspects with Zaur Mammadov, Director of the Baku Political Science Club.

What is the current status of Italy-Azerbaijan relations?
Azerbaijan has always had a warm regard for Italy over the centuries. Italy’s culture and history have always attracted Azerbaijanis. Today, Azerbaijan and Italy are connected by strategic partnership relations based on mutual trust and good traditions.
The level of trust between our countries is evidenced by the fact that Italians are entrusted with projects in the liberated regions.These projects have special moral significance for Azerbaijan, and the fact that they are entrusted to Italian companies speaks volumes.
Unlike some of its European counterparts, Italy immediately recognized Azerbaijan’s Victory, and Minister Adolfo Urso visited the liberated areas just a few days after the 44-day war. It should be noted that even before the 44-day war, Italy always defended Azerbaijan’s fair position in the then Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Italian companies became the second after Turkish companies to join projects for the reconstruction of the liberated territories. In his interview with the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore in December 2021, President Ilham Aliyev emphasized that Italy is one of our closest partners not only in the European continent but also in the world. It is no coincidence that Italy was one of the first countries invited by Azerbaijan to work in the liberated territories.

What is the role of energy in the relations between Baku and Rome? Since Azerbaijan will host COP29, is there any possibility to increase ties between the two countries also in the field of renewable energy?
Azerbaijan ranks first in supplying oil to Italy and third in supplying gas. The Southern Gas Corridor and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) are significant factors in strengthening bilateral energy cooperation. Currently, the pipeline’s capacity is 10 billion cubic meters, but it can be increased to 20 billion cubic meters. TAP currently satisfies about 10% of Italy’s gas needs. With the expected increase in gas volumes supplied by Azerbaijan to Europe due to the agreement with the European Union, Italy’s gas satisfaction level through TAP is expected to double. In 2023, Italy received around 10 billion cubic meters of gas from Azerbaijan via TAP. The expected strengthening of TAP, the main gas corridor between the two countries, can further enhance Azerbaijan’s position in the Italian oil and gas market, especially in light of Italy’s search for alternative suppliers to Russia. Azerbaijan, along with Algeria, has more opportunities to assist Italy in achieving its energy security program (low political risk, advantageous geographical location, availability a transnational gas infrastructure.
The two countries are already cooperating in the field of renewable energy. Companies from the two countries already have agreements to work on “green” projects using thermochemical processing technology. The Azerbaijani government has put forward an initiative to increase the number of Italian-Azerbaijani joint ventures. Italian energy companies are known for their expertise in environmental issues and renewable energy. Closer cooperation can help develop mutually beneficial projects in wind, offshore, solar and geothermal energy.
Are there any cooperation opportunities for Italian private entities in Azerbaijan?
By the beginning of 2024, more than 110 companies from various sectors are operating in the Azerbaijani market. Their presence helps dispel the common but mistaken belief that the Azerbaijani-Italian partnership is solely based on oil and gas, as they work across a wide range of sectors: from agriculture to construction, from telecommunications to trade, and from services to industry.

What about the status of bilateral investments?
Over the past ten years, Italian companies have invested more than one billion euros in the Azerbaijani economy, with investments in the petrol sector mainly focused on agriculture, construction, renewable energy projects and infrastructure. In addition, there is significant interest of Italian companies in projects implemented in the Alyat free economic zone.

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Education is playing a fundamental role between Italy and Azerbaijan. Can you provide us with an overview of the current status of university cooperation?
On September 1, 2022, an agreement on academic cooperation was signed between the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy and the Luiss Guido Carli University, Sapienza University of Rome, the Polytechnic University of Turin, University of Bologna and the Polytechnic University of Milan. This agreement created the Italian-Azerbaijani University. The university will be located on a separate campus of the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy.
The Institute of Agriculture and Nutrition Sciences and the Institute of Design and Architecture will also function at the Italian-Azerbaijani University.
The university’s curriculum covers strategic sectors of the economy, including agriculture, food industry, engineering, including in the field of electrical power and electronics, transport and infrastructure engineering, architecture, urban planning and landscape architecture, design, social sciences, business management, Italian studies

Can we say that the relations between Italy and Azerbaijan are strategic also from a political point of view?
In recent years, political relations between the two countries have acquired a strategic character. On April 2, 2022, during the visit of Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Luigi Di Maio to Baku, the first meeting of the Strategic Dialogue between Azerbaijan and Italy was held, and a protocol was signed following the meeting. With this document, relations between our countries reached a new, higher level. The parties not only accepted each other as strategic partners, but also expressed a desire to further strengthen this strategic partnership in all directions. Another important aspect of the joint declaration is that it was the first document under a similar name and in a similar spirit signed by Azerbaijan with other countries, including a G7 member country. The joint declaration also established a strategic dialogue between the two countries, chaired by the foreign ministers.
Our strong political ties form the basis of cooperation and multifaceted strategic partnerships in trade, economic, energy, educational, cultural and other areas, which are expanding every day. The documents signed over the past years, efforts to implement them, mutual economic and political interests have created a new environment of cooperation in Azerbaijani-Italian relations and turned the countries into reliable partners for each other both politically and economically. I believe that not only at the official level, but also at the level of academic circles, NGOs and experts, we must integrate even more, hold regular meetings and work on different projects.

Is cultural cooperation playing a role between our countries? Can you give us some examples in this regard?
Over the past few years, cooperation between the two countries in the cultural and humanitarian spheres has developed in an upward direction. The projects implemented by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation in Italy before the pandemic and the events organized made a great contribution to the development of ties and interethnic contacts in the field of culture. This also includes work on the restoration of cultural monuments in Rome. Implemented on the initiative of the First Vice-President of Azerbaijan, President of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation Mehriban Aliyeva, the projects of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation serving the preservation of historical, cultural and religious heritage are not limited to the borders of Azerbaijan. For more than ten years, with the support of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, religious monuments of important historical significance have been restored in the Vatican and Rome.
This successful cooperation established by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and the Vatican, along with serving to preserve cultural heritage, also contributes to the development of interreligious dialogue. These projects, which are of great importance in the cooperation between the Foundation and the Holy See, are carried out in three stages. At the first stage, on the initiative of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, the catacombs of St. Marcellino and St. Pietro were restored. Currently, the public can visit these catacombs with their grandiose frescoes already restored. In the second stage, a new museum was created in the Basilica of St. Sebastian and the restored sarcophagi are kept in this museum. The museum is currently open to visitors.In the third phase, the goal is to make the Catacombs of Saint Comodilus, previously closed to the public, available to visitors after the restoration is completed. The catacombs have a rich history and are of great importance for the entire Christian world. In the Vatican, in St. Peter’s Basilica, the bas-relief “Meeting of Pope Leo I and the Hun Emperor Attila” has been restored. The Heydar Aliyev Foundation completed the restoration work of the bas-relief “Meeting of Pope Leo I and the Hun Emperor Attila” in the Basilica of St. Peter’s Cathedral in 2020. The project was carried out in accordance with an agreement signed in February 2019 between the Foundation and St. Peter’s Basilica.

Photo: President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev with President of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella