Dr Bharti Chhibber
Recently, the fifth round of foreign office consultations was held between India and Azerbaijan, who are also commemorating the 30th anniversary of establishing their diplomatic relations. These foreign office consultations were all inclusive of political, trade, economic and cultural affairs. The two countries also contemplated regional matters and cooperation in the United Nations and other multilateral entities.
Civilizational connections and cultural links are the foundation of India-Azerbaijan’s expanding bilateral cooperation. The Fire temple known as Ateshgah in Baku has inscriptions in Sanskrit. In 2018, erstwhile External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj visited the medieval holy place which was also designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1998. It also signifies historical trade relations and the importance of Azerbaijan towns connecting Indian traders to the West through Central Asia.
In 1991 when Azerbaijan declared its independence from the USSR, India recognized Azerbaijan as an independent country and formal diplomatic relations were established in 1992. India opened a resident Indian Mission in Baku in 1999 and Azerbaijan resident Mission opened in New Delhi in 2004. In the political domain, there are many high-level visits between the two countries including in 2019 when the Vice President of India, M. Venkaiah Naidu, and External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar visited Azerbaijan for the NAM Summit. During the Covid 19 pandemic, interaction continued virtually with Prime Minister Narendra Modi joining the online NAM Summit on COVID-19 which was an initiative of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in 2020.
India and Azerbaijan are collaborating in comprehensive fields. In 2007, an agreement to establish India-Azerbaijan Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technological Cooperation was signed. In 2013, Agreements on Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) in Civil & Commercial Matters and Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty in Criminal Matters and Extradition Treaty were signed which were followed by the signing of a Protocol on Exchange of Instruments of Ratification of MLAT on Civil & Commercial Matters in 2016. Other significant areas of collaboration and discussion are double taxation avoidance and Bilateral Investment Treaty.
Bilateral trade between the two countries before the Covid 19 pandemic increased to around US$ 1093 million in 2019 from around US$ 50 million in 2005. This year, the bilateral trade turnover between the two states touched US$ 1.184 billion in January-July 2022. India is now Azerbaijan’s fourth largest trade partner after Italy, Turkey and Russia. Primarily, India imports crude oil from Azerbaijan and export products vary from rice, cellphones, medicines, granite, stones and tiles. Recently the Federation of Indian Export Organisations and the Embassy of India in Baku, along with other partners organized an Indian products Trade Show in Baku, Azerbaijan. The participating Indian companies showcased quality products, services, and investment opportunities.
Further, ONGC Videsh Ltd has invested in Azerbaijan in the development project of the Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli oil field and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipe line. In November 2014, the Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) and the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to jointly work on LNG projects globally including capacity booking, LNG procurement, and optimization of LNG marketing.
Azerbaijan also plays an important role in International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) route. INSTC is a 7,200 km-long multi-modal network providing the shortest connectivity passage to its members. It was instituted by India, Russia and Iran in 2000 at the Euro-Asian Conference on Transport in St. Petersburg. Other member countries are Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Oman, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Ukraine. The route has immense potential for better trade and commercial exchange at the regional level and statically reduces transport time between India and Azerbaijan.
Likewise, the cooperation continues in wide-ranging areas of inter-parliamentary relations, agriculture, connectivity, ICT, health and tourism. India’s pharmaceutical sector is widely appreciated in Azerbaijan. Moreover, cooperation in the agrarian field like agriculture machinery, plant breeding, and the exchange of agricultural scientists has already gained ground.
India also provides training to Azerbaijani officials as part of the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme. E-ITEC was organised by the Government of India in 2020-21. Cultural collaboration renew shared association and traditions between the two countries. The Embassy of India in Azerbaijan has arranged many cultural events on Indic culture, films and Indian traditional dances. International Day of Yoga is also widely celebrated in Azerbaijan. In 2021, an Indian Gallery showcasing the heritage sites of India was inaugurated in collaboration with the Gobustan National Historical Artistic Preserve at Gobustan, Azerbaijan. Of late, the Embassy of India in Baku also collaborated in an Exclusive Fashion Show emphasising that the textile and apparel sector can be another significant area of partnership between India and Azerbaijan.
Tourism is another area which has great potential of further bringing the two countries together. India’s vibrant cultural diversity and national heritage make it a widely popular tourist destination. Annually about 7% of India’s GDP comes from the tourism sector. India provides an e-visa facilities for Azerbaijani citizens. It would be appropriate to create more awareness about tourist attractions in India and Azerbaijan for promoting mutual tourist flow. Direct flights between Delhi and Baku will not only reduce travel time but also contribute to enhanced and ease of two-way movement of people. Likewise, Azerbaijan Tourism Board has initiated ‘Azerbaijan 101’ online platform for informing tour operators and travel agents about Azerbaijan. New tourism infrastructure is coming up, for example, many Indian restaurants are opening up in Baku to cater to Indian tourists. Baku, Azerbaijan is also emerging as a popular destination for film shooting. Nine Indian films were shot in Azerbaijan in 2018-19.
Hence, the bilateral relations between the two states has evolved substantially over a period of time. Taking it forward, present cooperation can be truly enhanced. The two countries are also part of many regional initiatives like the INSTC route and the BTC pipeline. Additionally, to mitigate the consequences of global climate change, the two states can work together in the realms of renewable energy and energy efficiency. It is time that India and Azerbaijan take their partnership to newer heights and fully achieve cooperation potential in the domain of agriculture, capacity building, education, information technology, pharmaceuticals, tourism and science & technology.
(The author is a foreign policy & environment expert and teaches international relations in the University of Delhi.)
Dr Bharti Chhibber