Azerbaijan International

Spring 1999 (7.1)
Pages 80-81

Diplomatic Series
Norwegian Ambassador, Olav Berstad

Norwegian Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Olav Berstad
The Norwegian Embassy just opened in Baku this past summer (1998). Why did Norway decide to set up an Embassy here in Azerbaijan, rather than just keeping the Consulate as it had before?

I think it's only natural that we would expand our contacts and deepen our diplomatic presence in Azerbaijan. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, our Moscow office has handled Russia, the two other Caucasus states - Georgia and Armenia - as well as the five Central Asian countries - Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Azerbaijan was covered from Ankara. We decided to set up the embassy in Azerbaijan because Norwegian industries, specifically the oil industry and the oil investment sector, are substantially involved there. We want to develop a very broad, solid relationship with the country.

Photo: Olav Berstad, Norway's Ambassador to Azerbaijan

Also, we consider Azerbaijan to be what we call a good "listening post" for the region. This year Norway has taken on the responsibility of chairing the OSCE [the 54-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe]. Therefore, it's useful for us to have a direct diplomatic presence to understand the complexities of the region.

For Norway, foreign relations play an important role for us today just as they have in the past. Since the late 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union [1991], there has been substantial development in Norway's foreign service as we gradually expand our links with Eastern Europe and other parts of the world.

What career path brought you to Azerbaijan?
I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1980 and since then have served in Ankara, New Orleans, Louisiana, Washington, D.C. and Moscow. Most recently, I was in charge of nuclear safety and environmental issues in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Oslo, particularly working with Russia on these topics.

I have always been interested in the region but never dreamed that I would come here as Ambassador. One of the first things that attracted me was the rock carvings at Gobustan. I have a background in archaeology, though I joined the Foreign Ministry before finishing my thesis. One of the first things I did when I came here last summer (1998) was to visit Gobustan.

Rock carvings are not unique to this region, nor to Norway or Scandinavia. Thor Heyerdahl has been a proponent of some very striking hypotheses and theories of migration related to Azerbaijan and other parts of the world. [Heyerdahl theorizes that the ancestors of Scandinavians originated from the region presently known as Azerbaijan.] I remember reading his books in childhood, especially what he wrote about Easter Island and the Ra Expeditions. Here in Azerbaijan, his hypothesis about early contact between Scandinavians and this region serves as a positive conversation piece. It's something that links us together. Perhaps it's true-perhaps not. But at least it's something for people to think about.

In my career, I've benefited considerably from my studies in archaeology because of the focus not only on objects left by former civilizations, but also on relationships between human beings and nature - that is, how man adapts to nature in specific climatic conditions, how he transforms nature, for instance, through agriculture and the domestication of animals. We can see this in the physical evidence of objects, but we can also study microclimatic change. These days we often see the catastrophic effects of man on nature and this can lead to conflict. But damage to the environment is nothing new; it's just that the damage is carried out on a massive scale now. Solutions can be found-organizationally and technologically - but it requires a lot of effort.

What similarities and differences have you discovered between Norway and Azerbaijan?

There are obvious similarities as well as differences. To begin with, few countries in the world are as dependent on natural resources as Norway and Azerbaijan. Oil is very important to both of our economies. In Norway, however, the economy is more diversified. We have successfully developed industries based on our natural resources, such as hydropower, forestry and fisheries. In fact, Norway is more of a "water" country than an "oil" country.

From many points of view, Azerbaijan is a young state. We also regard ourselves as young, as we only gained total independence at the beginning of this past century. But, just like Azerbaijan, we have deep historic and cultural roots.

Of course, our geographic location on the Atlantic gives us the advantage of having easy access to international markets-something that Azerbaijan suffers from. This direct access to markets helps us integrate into European as well as international structures-whether they be political or economic. Azerbaijan has only recently started this process of real integration with the outside world, something that we support wholeheartedly.

How has Norway used its country's wealth to benefit the population at large, especially in the areas of health, education and culture?

Norway's oil industry did not develop in a vacuum-in terms of its policy, administration or economy. We have a long tradition of dealing with foreign capital in relation to hydropower and developing effective political structures to support development. Of course, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the discovery of oil in the North Sea, more foreign investment came. This has been very beneficial to our country, in terms of revenues and the creation of interesting, new jobs in specialized fields. At the same time, we have been careful to guard against domination by the oil sector.

Unfortunately, oil replaced many of the traditional Norwegian industries, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. We lost industries such as consumer electronics, televisions, refrigerators, textiles, etc. We don't manufacture these products any more. But I don't think the Norwegian economy has suffered because of it. New industries have been created, especially in the service sector. Essentially, oil has become an integral part of the economy.

Of course, we know that oil reserves will not last forever, and we are developing other aspects of our economy for the future. We have made considerable investments in our infrastructure and in education, although these areas would have been targeted regardless of whether we had oil or not. But clearly there has been a deliberate policy of strengthening the internal development of the country, especially education and health. There is nothing sensational in our development. I wouldn't say that Norway has a superior system, for instance, to that of Sweden, Germany and other neighbors. It's not like we are an enormously rich lighthouse in northern Europe. I wouldn't say that.

What can Azerbaijan learn from Norway in terms of economic growth and development?

To a certain extent, I think Azerbaijan can benefit from some of our experience, especially in terms of dealing with heavy foreign investment, the administration of natural resources and in organizing benefits for the state and society. These are always difficult tasks. I think the Azerbaijani government understands these challenges. So far, of course, the financial benefit from oil has not been felt very much, and the drop in oil prices has affected Azerbaijan, as it has other oil-producing countries.

Azerbaijan understands the need to reinvest in education, the health system, telecommunications, transportation and infrastructure-basic needs that any country must develop in order to prosper and progress. These things do not come automatically. The corresponding mechanisms-laws, administrative systems and an independent judiciary-need to be established to facilitate the process. Even if there is a strong political will in Parliament and in the government, an army of dedicated people in the administrative and legal systems is necessary.

This is where Azerbaijan has had to practically start all over again [since the collapse of the Soviet Union]. In Norway and other Western countries, we have gradually developed administrative, legal and bureaucratic structures to make our societies run smoothly and stimulate economic growth.

What ties-business, cultural or humanitarian-does Norway have with Azerbaijan, other than Statoil?

We regard ourselves, I mean Norway, as a good partner in the difficult process of the transformation of Europe, which began after World War II. We are now all engaged in expanding the benefits of "integration" into Eastern Europe. The collapse of the Soviet Union has presented many new challenges.

We want to present ourselves as a good partner, not only to Azerbaijan, but also to other countries that are facing these challenges. This means that we are interested in long-term cooperation covering a broad spectrum of issues, not just oil and financial development. We place a lot of emphasis on humanitarian affairs, on personal relationships and on getting to know each other and each other's cultures.

We are, of course, deeply concerned about the effects of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the enormous displacement of refugees. We have programs to help mitigate some of the effects of these problems. We are trying to find ways to help the refugees with income-generating projects; we have a project that helps refugee children deal with their trauma.

Then there are other projects, such as when the Norwegian choir Skruk came to Azerbaijan two years ago and created a CD and performed on TV. We also support efforts to strengthen democratic institutions and human rights. We see this as an integral harmonizing process on the European continent.

Environmental cooperation is becoming more prominent. We just initiated a program called "Cleaner Production," which has been quite successful in many Western and East European countries. Industry pollutes the environment tremendously but, in many cases, just by analyzing the production process, you can install filters, minimize the use of water and electricity and thereby minimize the need to clean up afterward. At the same time, this can minimize the input costs and increase productivity. With fewer expenses, you increase economic output.

Sometimes, with minimal investment in the older industries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, you can do a great deal to foster economic benefits and positive environmental effects. This is a case where engineers can assist other engineers-helping them to think economically, not only technically. We also support the development of laws and regulations for health, safety and the environment in the offshore sector.

What is Norway doing to help resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

This year [1999], Norway is chairman of the OSCE. So our Minister of Foreign Affairs carries the title of Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE. He'll be coming on an official visit to the Caucasus region in April. We believe that Norway has a lot to offer in terms of how to deal with the effects of conflict. The memory of our own refugee experience is still quite vivid. We had masses of internally displaced people during the war [World War II] and we had to deal with so much reconstruction after the war. So the issue of refugees and internally displaced is something we understand very well.

A conflict like Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be solved unless both sides are interested in resolving it. Of course, there is always a tendency to blame the other side. In the search for a just solution, it is very crucial to explore creative ways to move beyond the conflict. In that respect, the OSCE and, specifically, the Minsk Group [the 12-member committee inside the OSCE that has been commissioned to help resolve the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict] can facilitate the process by proposing solutions. Eventually, however, the difficult political and practical decisions must be made by those who are parties to the conflict. What we and others can offer are our good offices, not ready-made solutions.

Besides Statoil, what other Norwegian companies are working in Azerbaijan?

We recently formed "The Norwegian Business Forum" in Baku, which formalizes cooperation with Norwegian industries. Actually, it has existed informally as a function at the Embassy for quite some time. We have a number of Norwegian companies here, as well as some subsidiaries owned by Norwegian companies or subsidiaries from third countries, though we still regard them as members of the Norwegian business community. Companies such as Kvaerner, Aker, Det Norske Veritas, Kongsberg, Dyno, Petroleum Geo-Services, Telenor and others are active here.

Of course, there is the Norway House, which was established to help small companies pool their administrative resources and avoid duplication. Norway House enables companies to learn from each other and create a rather formal framework. It has helped several Norwegian companies get established here. It's especially helpful for small enterprises that have only one or two people representing a business here.

Tell us about your first impressions of Azerbaijan.

In many ways, I feel very lucky to have achieved this position. I'm happy to be here in Azerbaijan. The cultural life is so rich here, especially when it comes to folklore, folk music, opera, the theater, concerts, etc. I can say that I'm truly enjoying my post here as well as traveling throughout the country meeting people.

The Norwegian Embassy is located at 6-10 Vagif Mustafazade Street in Baku's Old City since April 15, 1999 onward. Fax: (99-412) 97-37-98.

From Azerbaijan International (7.1) Spring 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.

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