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20th Feb 2017

Azerbaijan dangles EU gas bonanza

  • Barroso collects honorary degree while in Baku last year (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Azerbaijan says it might sell up to 50 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas a year to the EU in future. But it wants more than just money in return.

Rovnag Abdullayev, the head of the country's top energy firm, Socar, told diplomats, officials and press at a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday (13 November): "Our overall export potential will be 40-50 bcm by 2025 and most of this will be destined for European markets."

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The huge figure would account for 10 percent of EU gas consumption.

It would also break dependency on Russian gas on the EU's eastern flank. Another Azerbaijani energy expert at the event noted that EU countries which get their gas from Russia's Gazprom tend to pay 15 percent less for it if they have alternative suppliers.

Baku will next year decide how much gas it sets aside for its new EU-bound pipeline, which is to run through Turkey to either Austria or Italy.

The meeting in Brussels was held to mark the opening of Socar's new office in the EU capital.

The 100-square-metre-or-so property, on Rondpoint Schuman in the heart of the EU quarter, currently employs three people but is hiring more staff.

Azerbaijan's EU ambassador, Fuad Iskenderov, called it "a new and very important beginning in shaping more friendly relations between the EU and Baku."

But for his part, the country's deputy foreign minister, Araz Azimov, indicated that if the Union wants the gas, it should designate Azerbaijan as a "strategic partner" - a special status reserved for powers such as China, Russia or the US, which comes with regular summits.

Azerbaijan is currently part of the EU's "Eastern Partnership" policy.

The policy also covers Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and envisages lower-profile "association agreements" and visa-free travel "in the long-term."

"Do I need this approach? I think, I don't ... The time has come to elaborate a strategic relationship," Azimov said.

He also called for more EU pressure on Armenia to make concessions on Nagorno-Karabakh, a chunk of Azerbaijan's territory which it occupied during a brutal ethnic war 20 years ago.

He later told EUobserver it would help to let Azerbaijan-friendly countries, such as Switzerland and Turkey, have more say in the Minsk Group, a body of international mediators on the conflict, which is currently dominated by Armenia-friendly states, France, Russia and the US.

The EU has complicated relations with Azerbaijan.

On the one hand, its top officials, Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, go back and forth to Baku on charm trips.

But on the other hand, its lousy track record on democracy and human rights is a source of embarrassment.

In September, the EU complained when Azerbaijan pardoned and promoted a soldier who butchered an Armenian officer with an axe while he slept in his digs during a Nato event in Hungary.

Last week, the EU's digital affairs commissioner, Neelie Kroes, while visiting the Azerbaijani capital for a UN meeting, caused a stink when she criticised Baku for routinely jailing and beating journalists.

The head of the President's chancellery, Novruz Mammadov, in an interview with state media called her "deceitful, biased and detached from reality."

When EUobserver asked the deputy foreign minister if Kroes' remarks might hurt energy relations, Azimov said that democracy and gas are separate subjects.

He refrained from criticising her further, saying only that people should spend more time in the country to learn what it is really like.

But Kroes' own colleague, energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger, whose job it is to get the pipeline built, did not hold back.

In his speech at the Socar event, he called Azerbaijan a "wonderful country" and said he is "confident [EU-Azerbaijani ties] will develop into a strong strategic partnership."

Asked afterwards by this website what he thought of Kroes' remarks, he said: "I think it is arrogant to criticise them [Azerbaijan] from a Brussels perspective. They are by far the most advanced on this [on human rights] compared to other countries in the region - Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan."

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