Irek Zinnurov: 'Azerbaijanis are a friendly and hospitable people'

How the deputy from Tatarstan and Olympic medalist left the State Duma and went to work in Baku

Irek Zinnurov: 'Azerbaijanis are a friendly and hospitable people'

This winter, Irek Zinnurov, an Olympic champion in water polo, resigned as State Duma deputy from Tatarstan and went to work in Rossotrudnichestvo. Now he heads the representative office of Rossotrudnichestvo in Baku — where he is responsible for strengthening relations between Russia and Azerbaijan. Realnoe Vremya interviewed the ex deputy about what his decision was related to, how life is in the “city of lights” and how things are going in Azerbaijan with Covid-19.

“Irek, why don't you try it?"

Mr Zinnurov, why did you left the State Duma?

It was my decision to go to the new place of service. Naturally, I couldn't just leave the Duma — after all, I was a deputy from the Republic of Tatarstan. Not to put the republic in an awkward position, before leaving, I agreed on this issue with the leadership of Tatarstan, and in the State Duma. So it was an agreed decision, but I made it myself.

Did you think that the new place would be more interesting?

Yes. The thing is that in the State Duma I worked in the Committee on CIS Affairs, Eurasian Integration and Relations with Compatriots. I was also responsible for the work in Azerbaijan. This was a large segment of my work, and a lot of my work was related to this country.

I saw this work from one side — after all, I was a deputy, and when I went to Azerbaijan, I met with my compatriots. I must say that as a deputy, they had a lot of questions for me. Over this time, we have already established relations with the leadership of Azerbaijan and with Milli Majlis. And when this vacancy came up, I suddenly became interested in trying to solve problems from the other side. So I wanted to change the vector of work a little bit.

Was it a spontaneous decision?

Not really. Some preparatory work had been done. The initiative was born within the State Duma committee when we were in Azerbaijan on a business trip — we went to observe the course of their elections. Then it had already been known that my predecessor was leaving for another job. Leonid Kalashnikov, the chairman of our committee, and Viktor Vodolatsky were there with me. At some point, they said to me: “Irek, why don't you try it?" I didn't really take it seriously at first and made a joke: “Why not?" But as time went on, this decision grew stronger. And then there was a change of leadership in Rossotrudnichestvo. Before that, we often crossed with Yevgeny Primakov on work issues. When my candidacy was announced in his office in Rossotrudnichestvo — from that moment everything began to develop with a new force. My transition was quickly agreed upon.

“On vacation — I will absolutely go to Kazan, home!”

You spent a lot of time in Kazan when you worked in Moscow.

Yes, there were regional weeks and other events. You can say that I lived in two cities — I spent about 50% of my time in Moscow and at home in Kazan. The work was set up in this way. Now everything has changed dramatically. Now, in accordance with the contract, my direct place of work is in Baku, I must stay there. So now I can only come to Kazan on business trips.

Or on vacation?

Yes. On vacation — I will absolutely go to Kazan, home! I don't plan to go anywhere else (smiles — editor's note).

Did they move the family, too?

Now I am taking my wife, and my son is already an adult, he remains here.

How will your work with the Orgsintez pool and with the Sintez water sports club in Kazan continue?

I haven't left this job. Before I left, we held a meeting with the management of Kazanorgsintez. The meeting was participated by Chairman of the Board of Directors of TAIF JSC Albert Kashafovich Shigabutdinov, Director General of TAIF JSC Ruslan Albertovich Shigabutdinov and Director General of Kazanorgsintez PJSC Farid Gertovich Minigulov. After a consultation, we decided that I would keep my social tasks — the unofficial position of president of the Sintez Club.

I control the work online and during periodic visits here — I still come to Russia on business trips. It is convenient that now all the work has switched to remote mode, so it is possible to calmly control everything, solve all the issues. So this work continues. You can say that this is my social work, which I love and am ready to continue to perform.

Olympiad on the Russian language, Maslenitsa and Sabantuy in Baku

What exactly are you going to do in Azerbaijan? After all, “strengthening international relations” is a rather vague formulation.

Our main task is to develop relations between the Russian Federation and Azerbaijan in various spheres. These are culture, education, youth, sports, humanitarian support for businesses, and science. There are a lot of areas in which we work. Yevgeny Primakov's trip to Tatarstan was also useful for me — we met with representatives of the university, talked about other areas in which we will develop.

Many of our compatriots also live in Azerbaijan, and there are strong diasporas there. We work directly with them and support them. In particular, they can use our sites for free to hold their events. For example, the Association of Russian Youth of Azerbaijan holds Maslenitsa, a grand event in the historical quarter of Old City, near the Maiden Tower. We agreed with them that we help them to carry out all this.

Naturally, we actively promote the Russian language in the republic. For example, in Azerbaijan, schools hold competitions in the Russian language. This is a great project that was developed here before me. We are going to support it. For example, this year we are holding the olympiada on the Nizami's works. The year 2021 has been declared the Year of Nizami in Azerbaijan, and we want to dedicate the Russian olympiada in schools to this topic. We also work on improving the skills of Russian language teachers. We offer paid Russian language courses for children as part of educational programmes. The Association of Russian-speaking Journalists is being registered.

We are also developing two programmes for Azerbaijani youth, according to which they can come to Russia for a few days and see the country. We work in the line of international sports cooperation. For example, the World Games of Young Compatriots are organised through us. I used to be the chief judge at them, and now I will work on them in a different status. We are recruiting teams now, and we will hold qualifying competitions in Azerbaijan. In general, there is a lot of work, and it is very versatile.

What about the Tatars there?

There are Tatar diasporas, they are actively working. There are both youth and adult communities. Every year they hold Sabantuys. Maybe now it will be possible to make this holiday wider. I really hope so!

“It was unusual to see Baku deserted”

How is life in Baku? What is the situation with the pandemic?

The weather is completely different, sharply different from both Moscow and Kazan. The climate is milder, warmer — because the sea is nearby. But right now, all the impressions are connected with the pandemic.

Baku is usually very crowded and bright. And now it was very unusual to go out on its wide squares, on the embankment, on the beautiful, lush streets — and see desolation there. After all, Azerbaijan only just last week lifted the strict regime of restrictions, when it was possible to leave the house only for three hours a day. It felt like we had it in Moscow in the spring: I once went out in April to the Vorobyovy Gory, and there was no one there... I was a little weird. Now, of course, people are returning to normal life, everything is going back to normal.

It was announced in the media that Azerbaijan is even ready to accept tourists from Russia, which means that flights should resume at the end of February.

How do they treat vaccines there?

Vaccination is already underway there. Azerbaijan, like Turkey, has so far purchased the Chinese vaccine. But there is also talk that the Russian vaccine will be purchased. Everyone there is well aware that there is no escape without vaccination. The mood among the people is like “we must do it”.

Did you?

I've already been ill, so it's too early for me to get vaccinated — there are still too many antibodies. I'll have to wait the next few months with vaccination.

Because of a light form?

Let's just say it didn't affect the lungs — so it means in a light one. But it was hard for five days.

What about sports? Have you found a way to practice? Are swimming pools and gyms closed in Baku?

So far, everything in Baku is closed. I work out at home — I bought a sports mat, I work out on it, do push-ups, pull-ups, keep in shape. I have to do it.

From the point of view of sports infrastructure, their facilities are at a very high level — Baku has greatly changed over the past decades in this direction, too. But in the meantime, we are waiting for the pandemic bans to be relaxed. Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus, many projects planned for 2020, including sports events, were disrupted. For example, there are also Formula 1 races, the matches of UEFA European Championship were supposed to take place there… Everything has stopped for now (as it has all over the world).

Pilaf, language barrier and the attitude to Russians

Are the Azerbaijanis very different in their mentality from us?

I would not say that the mentality is very different from ours. Azerbaijanis are a friendly and hospitable people. That's why it's nice to be there, to communicate with them. Moreover, I've come not to a vacuum — I have friends there in all spheres of life, from sports to politics. Everyone is ready to invite you to visit, help, support, treat you to pilaf (smiles — editor's note). So I'm very comfortable being there in this regard — everyone responded immediately, who I knew (and even those who I did not know). At any moment, everyone was ready to help. And it's nice.

Is there a language barrier?

Of course, the population does not know the Russian language as much as in those days when we were a single country. But in Azerbaijan, the language barrier is not as great as it was when visiting some other CIS countries.

There are many Russian-language schools here — there are more than three hundred of them in the country. So it's easier with the barrier here. The Tatar language can also help here as a related language — I know it a little. By the way, I think it will be even easier for my wife — she speaks Tatar perfectly. In general, I have no language problems — in the end, I can always switch to English and say. Many people there understand it — both young people and adults.

However, there may be a problem in a taxi if the driver does not understand either English or Russian, and you still can not speak Azerbaijani. In this case, you just need to write in advance where you need to go and show the driver.

How do they treat Russians in Azerbaijan?

In a friendly way. They now particularly highlight Russia's participation in the conclusion of a trilateral peace agreement on the Karabakh issue. And they also understand that we, the neighbours, should be friends and develop together further. In the press, the background is quite friendly, the emphasis is on that our leaders are in very good relations. Therefore, my task is to develop these relations in all directions.

What are your immediate work plans?

They are all connected with the pandemic. Everything to finish faster — and then it will be possible to plan something accurately. But in the near future, I need to get to know the ministries better, establish close contacts, establish a dialogue, and agree on joint actions.

By Lyudmila Gubaeva, Irek Zinnurov's photos