The first independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan lasted from May 1918 until April 1920. During those two years, the young Republic established a number of democratic and progressive institutions, which remain an important source of inspiration even today: A multi-party Parliament was elected based on universal, free, and proportionate representation, and a Council of Ministers was held responsible before it. Azerbaijan was the first Muslim nation to grant women equal political rights, and the country did so earlier than most other European countries. The national minorities had sizeable representation in the elected Parliament. Traditions of ethnic and religious tolerance were fostered and developed. Independent financial and economic systems were created, and much was done to promote education. This experience laid an important foundation for the re-establishment of independence in 1991.
The Kingdom of Norway recognized the Republic of Azerbaijan soon after the Republic was re-established. Full diplomatic relations were established in June 1992. Bilateral relations developed quickly, and in April 1996, the President of Azerbaijan, HE Mr. Heydar Aliyev, paid an official visit to Norway. In June 1998, Norway opened a full embassy in Baku. Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon visited Azerbaijan in 2011. In addition, a number of high-level political visits in both directions have taken place over the years.
Norway’s large oil and gas company Statoil was one of the key international actors when the Contract of the Century was signed in 1994. This contract paved the way for full participation of international companies in the further development of Azerbaijan’s oil and gas industry. For more than two decades, Statoil was one of the largest and most prominent foreign participants in this endeavour. Other Norwegian companies – such as Aker Solutions (now Mhwirth), Det Norske Veritas, Wenaas and Swire – have similarly operated in Azerbaijan and contributed to the strength of our bilateral relations.
As large oil and gas producing nations, Norway and Azerbaijan share a number of similar challenges: Of these, diversification of the economy is probably the most important one. Both countries are exploring new and innovative ways of securing income. The Norwegian Government Pension Fund was one of the examples Azerbaijani authorities studied when the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan (SOFAZ) was set up in 1999. In recent years, much work has been done to enhance cooperation and exchanges in the fields of renewable energy and energy efficiency. The Norwegian Society of Graduate Technical and Scientific Professionals (TEKNA) and Energy Saving International AS (ENSI) have carried out a number of projects related to Cleaner Production and Energy Efficiency in Azerbaijan.
After the re-establishment of Azerbaijan’s independence, Norwegian humanitarian organizations played an active role in aid and development. The Norwegian Refugee Council was engaged in efforts to assist internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees in Azerbaijan from 1995 to 2008: Important projects were implemented in the fields of shelter and rehabilitation of community infrastructure, public building rehabilitation, income generation, human rights education and advocacy. Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise has been operating in Azerbaijan since 1994 with a focus on income generation, agriculture, work with orphanages and schools, as well as culture. The Norwegian Red Cross for more than ten years cooperated with the Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society on various humanitarian projects related to internally displaced people and refugees. Norway supports the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group to facilitate a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. The significant presence of Norwegian companies and humanitarian organizations in Azerbaijan over the past two decades has led to a large number of personal ties between our two countries. Many Norwegians have lived in Azerbaijan for longer or shorter periods, and many friendships have formed.
The famous Norwegian explorer and scientist, Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002), was a close friend of Azerbaijan. Throughout his life and career, Thor Heyerdahl put forward a number of theories that challenged established scientific notions. On a number of occasions, he carried out practical experiments to prove that what seemed impossible was in fact possible. In 1947 – for example – Thor Heyerdahl together with a small crew crossed the Pacific Ocean from South America to Polynesia on a wooden raft named Kon-Tiki. Thor Heyerdahl visited Azerbaijan four times. The rock carvings at Qobustan fascinated him, and he found that their artistic style closely resembles similar carvings found in Norway. After having become acquainted with Azerbaijan, Thor Heyerdahl propagated the theory that the Norwegian people originated from territories that form today’s Azerbaijan. He based his theories on similarities in ancient beliefs, folk music and basic vocabulary. He argued that natives had migrated north through waterways to northern Europe using vessels made of skins that could be folded like cloth. Thor Heyerdahl’s keen interest in the possible historical links between Norway and Azerbaijan laid the foundation for archeological excavations and restorations of the church in Kish near the city of Sheki in the northwestern part of Azerbaijan. Norwegian Humanitarian Enterprise was pivotal in this work. In October 2011, a Thor Heyerdahl conference was organized in Baku. In March 2012, a three month-long exhibition entitled “Thor Heyerdahl - the Kon-Tiki Man” opened at the National Museum of History of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Like most of his other theories, Thor Heyerdahl’s theories related to historical ties between Norway and Azerbaijan have been questioned by a number of other scientists.
In 2006, the Azerbaijan University of Languages launched a new Bachelor Programme in Scandinavian Area Studies in cooperation with the University of Oslo and the University of Agder in Norway. Today almost 40 students study the Norwegian language and the history, economics, politics and literature of Scandinavia. The first group of students received their Bachelor degree in June 2010. These young people represent a valuable link between our two countries.
In recent years, Norway and Azerbaijan have implemented a number of projects that confirm and strengthen our cultural ties. Well-known Norwegian musicians like Alexander Rybak and Elin Kåven have given concerts in Baku, and Azerbaijan’s legendary mugham singer Alim Qasimov has taken part in the Oslo World Music Festival. Norway’s prominent choir conductor, Per Oddvar Hildre, cooperates closely with Azerbaijan’s National Conservatory. A large delegation of Norwegian athletes competed in the First European Games in Baku in June 2015, and Norway’s eminent chess player Magnus Carlsen has twice won the Shamkir Chess tournament. In February 2016, the talented Azerbaijani artist and painter Bütünay Haqverdiyev visited the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard (Spitzbergen) on a scholarship from the Norwegian Embassy in Baku.
Over the past two decades, Norwegian non-governmental organizations have worked closely with their Azerbaijani counterparts to promote democratic development and human rights. The Norwegian government attaches great importance to this work. A free and independent civil society is a pre-requisite to any democracy.
All Norwegians who visit Azerbaijan are struck by the hospitality and kindness of the Azerbaijani people. Azerbaijanis have every right to take pride in their country’s rich traditions in cuisine, music, handicraft and folklore. Over the past years, the city of Baku has undergone tremendous developments. The Azerbaijani capital is a beautiful, vibrant and dynamic city with much to offer its visitors. I wish Azerbaijan continued success in the future, and I once again congratulate you on the 25th anniversary of the re-establishment of your independence. May you live long and happily, Azerbaijan!
Bård Ivar Svendsen, Norway’s Ambassador