Winter 1997 (5.4)
by Betty Blair, Editor of Azerbaijan International
Ambassador Fallavollita opened the Italian Embassy in Baku in March of 1997. This interview took place with Azerbaijan International's Editor in the Ambassador's office on November 21, 1997.
You're the first Italian Ambassador to be assigned to Baku. Why did Italy decide to set up an embassy here in Azerbaijan?
When the decision was made to open an embassy in the Caucasus, we chose Baku because it is the most important place for us, not only in terms of economic interests, but politically as well. Currently, the responsibility for the other two countries of the Caucasus Armenia and Georgia lies with our embassy in Moscow. These days the Italian government is paying more and more attention to what is going on in this part of the world. Politically, it's very important to keep a close watch and to help guarantee its stability. The resources of the Caspian Sea are crucial for a country like ours which has to import much of our energy and needs access to numerous supplies.
When you came to Baku, what did you expect to find? What did you think it would be like?
Of course, I had been briefed about the oil and the general background of the country. But, to tell you the truth, I expected Azerbaijan to be more Oriental, more Eastern. In reality, I found it more European and closer to my own culture than I expected. It was a nice surprise. I expected it to be more remote and, shall we say, "exotic." In Europe we know so little about this country; therefore, we imagine it differently.
One of the first things that impressed me was the high level of education which, of course, facilitates good communication with the international community. The fact that most people know at least two languages makes for a very open-minded culture. The population, in general, is quite accustomed to approaching reality from various points of view.
What similarities have you found between Azerbaijanis and Italians?
Well, it became clear on the president's recent visit to Italy of the mutual warmth and hospitality that our people share. President Aliyev made his first official visit to Rome on September 25-28, 1997. Of course, there were high level meetings with President Scalfaro, Prime Minister Prodi, members of Parliament as well as the mayor and businessmen which resulted in important contracts being signed. But I think the greatest benefit of this trip was that both sides felt a genuine warm and relaxed atmosphere between them.
This friendly atmosphere was particularly evident when we visited Naples, Pompeii and the island of Capri, where there were a lot of people wandering about in the little streets and where we enjoyed a beautiful dinner and music. A great empathy developed between the two delegations. It just goes to show that these two nations have something in common. Maybe, it's their sensitivity to culture and music or a certain open-mindedness and spirit of tolerance.
What do you mean "spirit of tolerance"?
I mean the ability to take a genuine interest in something that is different from your own traditions and practices. For example, Azerbaijanis are not xenophobic. Foreigners feel very comfortable here. I don't sense any hostility against foreigners. Nor do I detect negative feelings towards other religions or races. I think this attitude originates from the fact that this land, like Italy, has served as a passageway for numerous civilizations through the ages.
Basically, the culture is very European here. You feel it. Of course, being located between two continents, Azerbaijan has its own distinctiveness. It seems to me that the European culture here has passed through an Asiatic filter which gives it more sophistication, sensitivity and subtlety-all characteristics of the Middle East and the Orient.
It has always amazed me how unsuspicious Azerbaijanis are towards outsiders and how easily they embrace other cultures. It's not what I expected from people who have lived the past 70 years cut off from the rest of the world.
Exactly. I've found that Azerbaijanis have a great curiosity and genuineness towards others. Their openness matches the policies of the country - both economically and culturally. That's what makes me optimistic about the future of this country.
In terms of business, what are the Italians primarily involved in?
In the oil sector, Agip is involved in CIPCO (Caspian International Petroleum Company) for the development of the Karabakh prospect in the Caspian Sea. Agip has a five percent share in that project, and they have a 50-50 relationship with LUKoil in a joint venture called LUKAgip which holds a 45 percent share.
When President Aliyev was in Rome, another important oil agreement was signed between SOCAR and Agip for the Araz-Kurdashi-Shirvan block. We're hopeful that the final papers will be signed soon. Agip will act as operator with a 25 percent share; SOCAR has 50 percent, and another partner has yet to be assigned the remaining 25 percent share.
Also Saipem, another Italian company which, like Agip, comes under the umbrella of ENI (Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi), has been quite active in Azerbaijan. Saipem was involved with laying pipe for the "early oil" from the Chirag-1 platform in the Caspian to the Sangachal Terminal. Saipem is hoping to expand its activities in Azerbaijan.
We're also interested in non-oil sectors such as petro-chemicals. Right now we're exploring the possibility of getting involved with restructuring and refurbishing some of the factories in Baku's satellite city, Sumgayit.
Another interest is food processing and agriculture. During the Soviet period, Azerbaijan was involved in growing many fruits and vegetables. We have expertise that can improve their production. Companies such as Fata are experienced in every phase from production to packaging and delivery.
Alenia wants to get involved with the air traffic control system here. Also we feel our expertise can help develop small and medium-sized industries. Italy has vast experience which can serve as the basis for the economic development in these spheres. Among the seven agreements signed during President Aliyev's visit to Rome, one concerned the allocation of 1.5 Italian billion liras ($900,000) for technical assistance, which will be used mostly for training.
You mentioned tourism. Is anything happening between Azerbaijan and Italy?
Already, the airline, Imair, is making weekly flights from Baku to Riminy, one of our famous summer resorts on the Adriatic sea. Italians are just starting to get to know Azerbaijan. As yet, there is no Azerbaijan embassy in Rome to promote knowledge of this country or its potential. President Aliyev promised to consider opening an embassy in Rome. I think it would be very beneficial for both countries.
Actually, President Aliyev's trip generated a lot of interest in the Italian press. Already a correspondent from Panorama, one of the most important magazines in Italy, has come here as have correspondents from the two daily newspapers-Corriere della Sera and the Republica.They gave large coverage to Azerbaijan and to the Caspian region. So, interest is growing. There are a lot of Italian companies beginning to inquire about doing business here.
What about the cultural scene? How do you expect Italy to get involved with Azerbaijan?
We are already beginning to organize some cultural initiatives. We'd like to sponsor an exchange of artists. Also, music is a very important link, especially since opera is loved in both countries. We've already had the opportunity to meet with some very talented vocalists here. Some have even studied in Italy. We'd like to organize some scholarships for young singers to train in Italy.
In the field of cinema, we'd like to explore the possibility of organizing a week of Italian films in Azerbaijan, maybe to coincide with the Film Festival that Azerbaijan wants to organize next year. Also, we hope to promote classes teaching Italian language.
Have you found anyone here who speaks Italian?
There are several who have taught themselves. It's rather impressive. Some are very fond of Italian and have studied old Soviet texts. There seems to be a great interest for Italian language courses to be offered in Azerbaijan. We'll do our best to try to organize something in the near future.
I might mention that the ties between Italy and Azerbaijan are very old. Out at the ancient caves of Gobustan west of Baku, there is an inscription indicating that Roman soldiers passed through the region probably during the first century A.D.
Of course, Marco Polo wrote about Baku and the region-as the land of fire with its special oil [naftalan] that was used for medicinal purposes in the 13th century [see AI 4.4, Winter 1995]. It seemed that travelers from Venice often passed through this region on their way to the Far East.
Most recently, I've discovered that there was a group of Azerbaijan soldiers during World War II that participated as resistance fighters in Italy between 1943-45 against Nazism and fascism. We've discovered a considerable number of Azerbaijani partisans. It seems they were part of the Soviet army at the time and were probably captured by the Germans and brought to Germany where they escaped to Italy. Some among their group have collected a lot of documents and objects related to their participation in this movement.
Let's talk a little about Karabakh. What is Italy's position regarding this troubled region?
Italy was the first chairman of the Minsk Group of the OSCE (Organization on the Security and Cooperation in Europe) when it was first created in 1992 and assigned the responsibility of finding a peaceful settlement to the problem. Our deputy foreign minister, Mr. Raffaelli, was the first chairman of the Minsk Group. He visited Azerbaijan several times. Since then, Italy has remained a member of the group and fully supports its activities. Progress seems to have been made in the recent months under their leadership.
Do you believe anything will come from these talks?
We are confident that further progress will be made in the near future, based on the principles of the Lisbon Summit 1 which Azerbaijan has also approved.
What if Armenians in Karabakh continue to reject these principles?
A lot of persuasion needs to be done, especially by the Minsk Group co-chairs-the United States, Russia and France-who are, perhaps, the best situated to bring about these negotiations. One has to be optimistic. I hope that an agreement can be reached in the near future. This region has great potential, both in terms of natural as well as human resources. It is in the interest of all parties to foster economic and social development throughout the region.
I'm quite optimistic about the future of Azerbaijan. It has huge economic resources, especially given how relatively small the country is. There are only 7.5 million people who, in general, are highly educated. They can build a brilliant future.
Someone remarked at the recent celebration of "Early Oil" (November 12) that Azerbaijan was at its peak of development at the beginning of the last century, and that the same will be true again at the turn of this century. I think all the elements exist to build a strong future here in Azerbaijan.
You must find it exciting to be here at this time.
Of course, it's a very exciting moment. And, trying to contribute something is quite exciting for me professionally.
What career path brought you to Baku?
I've been a diplomat for 25 years. Much of my experience has been related to the European Economic Community (EEC). Twice, I've served in Brussels as part of the Italian representation, first in 1976-80, and then again in 1988-90. I also served as the Italian Consul in Izmir (Turkey) in 1980. Then I was assigned to New Delhi (India) in 1986-88 and to Cairo (Egypt) from 1992-94. I've worked at the Italian Foreign Ministry in Rome during the interim periods.
Your wife has settled in very quickly here in Baku.
She feels very comfortable here, first of all, because the language is so close to her native Turkish. She is a painter by profession and has set up a studio here. Through her, I've met a lot of very talented young artists here. There's a lot going on in art in Baku as the country opens itself to the world.
The fact that my wife paints and can communicate directly with Azerbaijanis makes it a lot easier for me to get to know the Azerbaijani culture. She has made a lot of friends, and that's critically important to me as ambassador. We feel very much at home here.
The Italian Embassy is located at 3 Inshaatchilar Ave, Baku 37003. Tel: (99-412) 97-51-33 or 35; Fax: (99-412) 97-52-02.
UP1 The Lisbon Summit of December 6, 1996, refers to the agreement by 53 of the 54 member states of the OSCE for the principles of resolution of the Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
(1) support for the territorial integrity of Armenia and Azerbaijan (meaning that Karabakh will be remain a part of Azerbaijan);
(2) the legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh as one of the highest degrees of self-rule within Azerbaijan; and
(3) the guarantee for the security of Nagorno-Karabakh and its entire population (including Azerbaijanis who at present have all had to flee the region because it is being militarily controlled by Armenians). Armenia cast the only dissenting vote at the Summit. Azerbaijan approved these principles.
From Azerbaijan International (5.4) Winter 1997
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All Rights Reserved.
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