Spring 1995 (3.2)
Michael Schmunk, Chargés d'Affaires
Interview by Svetlana Turyalay
Photo: German Ambaassador in Baku, Michael Schmunk.
What were your first impressions of Azerbaijan when you came here a few months ago?
I arrived in Baku in November 1994. For the previous four years, I had been working in South Africa. Baku makes a strong first impression on foreigners with its variety of architecture and great number of music and cultural institutions. There's an oriental section in the town with the old architectural monuments such as the Maiden Tower and the Palace of the Shirvanshah, and there's a more European section that grew rapidly during the Oil Boom at the turn of the century. Private commercial business is beginning to develop. It doesn't take long to realize there is great economic potential here.
Is this what you expected?
Last summer when I was sitting in my office in Pretoria, a representative of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs from Bonn called to ask if I would consider heading up the German Embassy in Baku. The call came so unexpectedly. Azerbaijan? I had to think where it was on the map. All I could imagine was some country far away on the shores of the Caspian, rich in oil. I had no other knowledge except that it was a former Republic of the Soviet Union and that it had enjoyed its own independence for a very short period (1918-1920) prior to Soviet rule.
Right: The German church in Baku - famous for its pipe organ concerts.
To be frank, I had mixed feelings about coming. But upon arrival, I saw that this city is a great synthesis of diverse cultures.
Located on the shores of the Caspian, it's not like you imagine so many other former Soviet cities to be-so gray and listless. Baku is full of life. You always see lots of people walking on the streets. I'd have to admit I've already grown attached to this city and its people in these short months.
Are you aware that in the 19th century, after Germany's war with Napoleon, hundreds of Germans migrated here to Azerbaijan in an attempt to escape hunger and starvation?
I never expected to find any traces of Germany in Azerbaijan. There's the town of Khanlar which even went by the German name, Helenendorf, in the 19th century. Even today you can find people of German descent. I've visited wine factories built by German colonists and discovered that between the towns of Helenendorf and Kedabek, Germans used to be involved in copper mining.
Few people realize that Baku at one time even had a German mayor, Nikolaus von der Nonne. Back at the turn of the century in the section of Baku known as "Black City" (because of its proximity to the oil fields), there used to be a German Consulate headed by Otto Tiedemann. And over on the "28th of May Street", the German "Kirche" (church) still stands with its easily recognizable German-style architecture. Of course, prisoners of war have left their mark on this city as they were forced to build what has turned out to be many of the finest buildings of that period. For example, the Government Building which houses most of the Ministries was built between 1945-49 by German prisoners. Today, we are interested in reviving the memory of everything that is connected with our German ancestry here.
What spheres do you see Germany and Azerbaijan collaborating in?
Left: State Ministry Building constructed by German Prisoners of War in Baku.
We'd like to cooperate in the fields of gas and oil prospecting, building pipelines, and in the construction and reconstruction of oil-processing factories. Chemistry also interests us. The industrial city of Sumgayit, north of Baku, has many petro-chemical factories, some of which produce polymers which are in great demand in Germany. We see opportunities in machine-building, instrument-making, building construction, water supply, electric energy, telecommunications and food production.
Already there are nearly 30 German companies working in Baku and others want to get established soon. Lufthansa Airlines will be opening a route to Baku from Frankfurt beginning May 1st which will entail both passenger and cargo service.
Some companies, such as Grunewald and Grimma, are already involved in oil and oil refining. The chemical company, Hoechst, has representatives here. Wirtgen is involved with building the runway at the Baku airport. Siemens plans to get involved with providing up-to-date equipment for electric power plants. This summer, Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen plan to open commercial enterprises here. They'll be selling cars as well as providing a very high level of car service. Even German produced goods are beginning to appear in shops.
Are you satisfied with the state of economic relations between Germany and Azerbaijan?
We're still at an early stage. I'm often asked why Germany, which is such a highly developed industrialized country, is so sparsely represented here. But Azerbaijan still needs to create the economic and legislative prerequisites to attract foreign investment. For example, foreign companies need to be able to acquire land to build new enterprises. Taxes must be more amenable. Privatization must be carried throughout the country. The flow of currency must be facilitated. So the number of foreign investments directly relates to the willingness of Azerbaijan's government to carry out reforms.
Is Germany involved with any of the European Community (EC) projects here?
In 1993-94 we allocated 2.3 million Deutsche Marks for various training programs and we'll be increasing that figure to DM 3 million this year. Much of the money goes for providing Azerbaijan with legal advisers and counselors to carry out reforms. And then we've designated 5 million marks as assistance with refugees. Since Germany is economically one of the strongest members of the European community, we pay for 20% of all EC programs in Azerbaijan.
How is it that you've been so active with the Azerbaijan refugees?
Germany is quite sensitive to the plight of refugees. Since the end of World War II up until 1989, we knew what it meant to be separated as a nation and we have suffered from our own share of refugee problems. That's why we understand how much the refugees want to go back to their own land in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas. It is necessary to try to find a resolution for both sides of this conflict.
What is Germany's position on Nagorno-Karabakh?
We support the activities of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and are actively involved with the Minsk Group, the committee within the OSCE which has been given the responsibility of dealing with the Karabakh problem. Unfortunately, continuation of this conflict blocks the harmonious development of both Azerbaijan and Armenia. We support Azerbaijan's right to maintain its sovereign borders. We are convinced that the Armenians should withdraw their army from Nagorno-Karabakh and other land they are currently occupying (20% of Azerbaijan's territory). We believe Azerbaijan should give Armenians greater autonomy in the region. But that doesn't mean Karabakh should become an autonomous country of its own.
We see parallels to our situation in Germany where there are 16 federal lands which are similar to states within states. Their autonomy means that these areas are allowed a high degree of self-regulation in certain areas related to local government issues and their own cultural policy as it relates to language and religion. But the larger issues of foreign commerce, defense, monetary policy come under the authority of Germany as a whole. Maybe the day will come when such an arrangement is possible in Azerbaijan. Perhaps, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, could live as Bavarians in Bavaria live inside Germany.
What kinds of relations does Germany have with Azerbaijan in the sphere of education and culture?
We provide a number of scholarships for Azerbaijani students and scholars. Baku and Mainz as well as Sumgayit and Ludwigshafen are "Sister Cities". At the end of last year, we held a "German Culture Week" in Azerbaijan. In the future, we want to arrange for the exchange of artists and musicians.
We intend to arrange an exhibition of German films here. On the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the composer, Paul Hindemith, we plan to hold a series of concerts by German musicians.
Do you think your assignment in Azerbaijan will prove beneficial to your career as a diplomat?
Definitely. There's no doubt about it. Actually, living here enables me not only to experience the transition process of Azerbaijan in its early stages of independence, but it gives me a chance to take part as a diplomat. We've been going through a similar process in Germany for some time now.
The process of reunification of Germany isn't completed yet. I see many parallels between our transition and those of post-Soviet countries though frankly speaking, their task is much more difficult as East Germany had only to be integrated with the much more developed West Germany.
The former Soviet Republics are entirely on their own. The determination to initiate economic reforms is imperative; it's a process that requires a lot of patience. We hope we'll be able to share some of the valuable lessons we've learned and experienced with the Azerbaijanis.
From Azerbaijan International (3.2) Summer Issue.
© Azerbaijan International 1995. All rights reserved.