“Neurope.eu news portal has interviewed Ilham Aliyev
01 July 2014, 17:45
Azerbaijan. A powerful regional hub again
NE: You won the next presidential elections in October last year. How would you explain the main reason for this?
Ilham Aliyev: The presidential election of 2013 was an important event in the public and political life of Azerbaijan. It demonstrated the attitude of our society toward the political course we have pursued over the past 10 years. Over the course of the decade we followed the path of national leader Heydar Aliyev and succeeded in meeting the goals we had set for our state and society.
- So the tasks put forward 10 years ago have become a reality…
- It’s quite true. Well, in terms of its economic performance, Azerbaijan has become a world leader, which has made our country even stronger. As a result of the goal-oriented activities carried out on the basis of thought-out programs, our GDP has increased 3.4 times, the non-oil sector of the economy 2.6 times, and budget revenues 16 times, while the volume of strategic exchange reserves now exceeds $50 billion. Over $170 billion has been invested in the national economy.
- Did this have an impact on the population, on the day-to- day life?
- Of course, such rapid development led to an improved well-being of our citizens. Over the last 10 years the incomes of our population have increased 6.5 times and the average salary 5.5 times.
- That is huge.
- Also, the decline of poverty from 49% to 5.3% and the reduction of unemployment by half to 5% can be viewed as important achievements of the country. The last 10 years have seen extensive construction in the country, our cities, settlements, and villages have significantly improved, and modern standards and advanced technologies are being applied to all our cities.
- Are these achievements felt only within Azerbaijan, or are they influencing the country’s standing internationally?
- Azerbaijan’s achievements are well received by leading international organizations and prestigious rating agencies. According to the Global Competitiveness Report 2013-2014 of the World Economic Forum, Azerbaijan is ranked in 39th place in the world.
- And how about your status in the region and the world?
- Over the years, our standing in the region and in the world strengthened further. Azerbaijan has earned itself a good reputation in the international relations arena and is treated with respect. The numerous international events held in Azerbaijan are evidence of the fact that our country is already seen as a political, economic, and cultural center in the region. Baku has traditionally played host to numerous international events. In 2013, the international conference on support for Palestine within the OIC, the Third Humanitarian Forum, the Second Forum on Dialogue between Cultures, the Davos World Economic Forum and a number of other high-profile international events were held in Baku.
- So you were not caught in all the regional turmoils…
- No. Against the backdrop of growing trends of tension, unemployment, and poverty in the world, Azerbaijan is registering processes of a completely different nature—rapid development, progress, growing well-being of the population, public and political stability, national solidarity, and more. I think these have been the key contributors to the outcomes of the 2013 presidential elections as well.
- How were those elections viewed internationally?
- The PACE, the European Parliament, the OSCE PA, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the CIS, and other authoritative organizations have made unequivocally high assessments of the election and described it as free, fair, and transparent. And this confirms yet again that our people and the international community see the election and its results in the same way. By their votes the people of Azerbaijan expressed support for the policy pursued to this day and have given us the mandate for a continuation of this policy.
- What about the future?
- Our plans are quite ambitious. There are important issues on our agenda. Activities on further enhancing Azerbaijan’s potential, expanding the competitiveness of the economy, building a modern society, improving the well-being of our population, reinforcing our international standing in accordance with our foreign policy priorities, stepping up the systemic fight against corruption, bribery, and other negative phenomena, and strengthening civil society will be continued in a consistent manner.
- Azerbaijan made great strides in ICT over 2013, the Year of ICT.
- The advantage of the economic policy pursued in Azerbaijan is the fact that all activities are carried out on the basis of the country’s real potential, best international practices, and specific programs. Experience shows that the application of state-of-the-art technologies is one of the key preconditions of a competitive economy. For this reason, innovation is extensively used not only in the economy, but also in all other areas. The sector of information and communication technologies is developing very rapidly and has a great future. The adoption of the National ICT Strategy in 2003 and the subsequent adoption and implementation of the state program on electronic governance gave a major impetus to the development of this sector. In the years of independence more than $3 billion was invested in ICT development in Azerbaijan. As a result, the sector has expanded 8.2 times over the past decade. The launch of Azerbaijan’s first telecommunications satellite into orbit in 2013 and the establishment of a space industry has been a historic event. Work is currently underway to launch two further satellites into space in the years ahead.
- And the internet in all this?
- The internet has also developed very rapidly in recent years. According to a report of the International Telecommunication Union, up to 70% of Azerbaijan’s population uses the internet. We have started building broadband internet channels to all cities of Azerbaijan.
- And what about innovations, the author of which is Azerbaijan?
- We don’t just apply the innovations existing in the world but also try to initiate some innovations ourselves. I would like to emphasize what can be described as Azerbaijan’s own brand, the State Agency for Public Services and Social Innovations, and its “ASAN Xidmet,” or Easy Service centers. “ASAN Xidmet” provides a number of public services for citizens in coordinated and efficient way by applying citizen satisfaction principle, whereby citizens can get all public services from one center. The scope of “ASAN Xidmet” services include the coordination of services provided by public agencies, oversight and evaluation, mutual integration of government databases, the effective provision of electronic services, and the modernization of management systems in this sphere. This service is an example of a progressive government-citizen relationship. The centers currently provide a total of 25 public services. It is no coincidence that over a million people have applied to the service in a matter of one year. Therefore, we intend to further expand the scope of services provided by “ASAN Xidmet.”
- Looking ahead, what role will the innovative technology play in Azerbaijan’s development?
- As far as the role of advanced technologies in the future development of Azerbaijan is concerned, I can note that in order to facilitate the further dynamic development of the economy and increase its competitiveness, specific measures are taken to expand the ICT spheres based on advanced science and technology achievements, attract both domestic and foreign investment to this sector, create a database of qualified professionals, and more. To fulfill these goals, we have set up a High-Tech Park and the Information Technology Development Fund. The creation of a strong economy based on innovation is one of our primary objectives and we are consistently moving in this direction.
- You declared 2014 as the Year of Industry. What is the reason for this and what activities are to be carried out in this direction?
- Azerbaijan used to be considered an agricultural republic before. In the 1970-1980s, steps were taken to develop industry, and hundreds of new industrial enterprises were established to produce goods for partner republics. However, the collapse of the USSR led to a cessation of ties between the former Soviet republics. In general, the planned economy suffered a fiasco. At the same time, the Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan, the anarchy dominating the country at the time, and the physical and moral obsolescence of the old enterprises led to a gradual economic decline and disruption of the manufacturing process. Only thanks to the efforts of National Leader Heydar Aliyev was it possible to restore production in the early 2000s to the level of the 1990th year. Over the last 10 years, a portion of the revenues obtained from oil and gas production has been specifically, and under special programs, channeled into the development of the non-oil sector, the establishment of new high-tech industrial facilities, and the diversification of the national economy. As a result, the non-oil sector has been registering an annual growth rate of 10% each year. In addition, the comprehensive support for private enterprise, the implementation of major investment programs, the establishment and reconstruction of the socioeconomic infrastructure, and the construction of competitive enterprises based on cuttingedge technologies have increased the volume of industrial production 2.7 times. One of the goals on our agenda today is to take advantage of the available potential to transform Azerbaijan into a powerful industrialized state. Certain work has already been done in the area of industrial diversification and modernization. We are engaging the existing natural and economic resources, creating new industrial estates and technology parks, and speeding up the process of innovation. For this reason, 2014 has been declared the Year of Industry. A general plan of activities to be carried out this yeara has been prepared and approved. At the same time, there are plans to prepare and adopt the “State program on industrial development covering 2015-2020.” We believe that the experience we have accumulated and the overall economic potential of Azerbaijan will allow us the opportunity to meet these objectives.
- The third state program on the socioeconomic development of districts was adopted in 2013. It covers the 2014-2018 period. What have the first two programs achieved and what are the expectations from the third program?
- When we adopted the first state program in 2004, our goal was to ensure the comprehensive development of the regions and eliminate the gaps in the level of development between the capital and the rest of the country. I said even ahead of the 2003 elections that if I was shown the confidence of the people, I would first tackle the development of the regions, and that a special program would be adopted to this end. And so it happened. The adoption of two state programs covering the 2003-2008 and 2009-2013 periods, the signing and implementation of around 250 resolutions, in addition to the two programs, created a watershed in the regions and changed the socioeconomic landscape of our districts beyond recognition. As a result, the quality of public services and social infrastructure in the regions has substantially improved, the business environment has become more favorable, investment has increased, thousands of new enterprises have been commissioned, and more than 1.2 million jobs have been created, including 900,000 permanent ones. Over the last 10 years, the production of goods in the districts has increased 3.2 times and industrial production 3.1 times. All Azerbaijani districts and residential settlements have been landscaped and modernized. I can say with full confidence that this program has contributed a great deal to the development of the country’s regions and, in general, to Azerbaijan’s economic potential.
- What is the strategic goal of all this?
- The strategic goal on our agenda is to further strengthen Azerbaijan’s independence and make it one of the most developed and competitive countries of the world in all respects. Therefore, taking into consideration the challenges of the contemporary world, the work on the dynamic development of the regions will be continued. I believe that the implementation of the newly approved “State program on the socioeconomic development of districts of the Republic of Azerbaijan covering 2014-2018” and other huge projects will facilitate the sustainable development of the non-oil sector, further improve public services and social infrastructure as a whole, and elevate the country to the ranks of leading nations of the world.
- And what about the importance of new energy projects for the region and world?
- Azerbaijan has also initiated a number of transnational and regional projects. The energy policy pursued by our country represents significant importance not only to us, but also to the region and the world. As you may be aware, the final investment decision on the Shah Deniz II project to produce and deliver the ample gas reserves from the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian to world markets was signed in Baku on December 17, 2013. I believe that in parallel with TAP and TANAP projects, the Shah Deniz II project will contribute to the redrawing of the world’s energy map and go down in history as the Contract of the 21st Century.
- A country’s development, both economically and socially, usually also means an enhanced international status. What will be the main successes of foreign policy in the years ahead?
- The comprehensive development of Azerbaijan, the strengthening of its economic potential, and an active foreign policy have enabled the country to strengthen its international reputation, facilitate its close integration into the international world, and improve its relations with different countries in both bilateral and multilateral formats. Today, Azerbaijan is considered to be a country that is pursuing an independent policy, possessing its own view on global political developments and the system of international relations, and enjoying great international respect. Our election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2011 in competition with other countries was not only a historic achievement and a tremendous foreign political success, but also an indicator of the great respect we enjoy in the world. As is evident, the world supports the position of our state and approves the steps we are taking. Azerbaijan acts with dignity in all international organizations and puts its national interests above everything else. In the two years of membership in the UN Security Council, especially at the times of its presidency of the organization, Azerbaijan has made its contribution to global security, the establishment of peace in the world, and the development of a dialogue between cultures and civilizations.
- What is the state of the relationships with the international organizations, specially with the EU?
- Our bilateral and multilateral relations with the world’s leading international organizations and countries have also developed. Azerbaijan continued its effective operation within the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the OIC, and other reputable international organizations. Last year, we signed an important agreement with the EU on simplifying visa regulations. This is an indicator of our relations with the EU. I am confident that we will succeed in creating a format of strategic partnership with the EU to further expand our cooperation.
- And what about the achievements of Azerbaijan in the context of a new partnership?
- In addition to developing our relations with regional countries and leading states of the world on the basis of mutual trust, we are also reaching out to non-traditional partners. In parallel to expanding our relations of cooperation with the traditional countries of Europe and Asia, we also seek to establish political, economic, and humanitarian cooperation with countries of the Non-Aligned Movement, Latin America, and Africa. We have identified this as another foreign political priority. A number of Latin American countries have recently expressed their support for Azerbaijan’s fair cause in the settlement of the Armenian- Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. A total of 10 countries have already recognized the massacre perpetrated by the Armenian armed forces in the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly in 1992 as an act of genocide. The parliaments of these countries have passed relevant decisions to this effect. In the coming years we intend to further strengthen the political and economic potential of our country, enhance our international reputation, and expand our cooperation with international organizations and countries. Our foreign policy is underpinned by the protection of national interests, and all the necessary steps will continue to be taken in this direction.
- Is it possible to talk about any progress of the Armenian-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?
- I regret to say that there is no progress in the settlement of the Armenian- Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno- Karabakh, which is our top foreign political priority. The Armenian side continues to use different pretexts to delay the process of negotiations and tries to maintain the status quo. There was some revitalization in the talks at the end of last year, which gives us grounds to expect some progress in the settlement of the issue in 2014. The Armenian leadership must understand that Azerbaijan will never tolerate the establishment of a second Armenian state on its soil. The conflict should and will be resolved on the basis of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. As long as the conflict remains unresolved, the Armenian state will remain sidelined from all transnational and regional projects, the plight of the Armenian people will continue, and the already frugal potential of the country will be completely exhausted.
- Azerbaijan is hosting the 1st European Games, in 2015, the first of its kind. How are the preparations advancing?
- We have entered into a crucial year in the preparation for the inaugural European Games. As is known, preparations for a competition of such scale usually take seven to eight years. We have had only two and a half years to stage the European Games. I am sure that we will succeed in meeting all our objectives in this respect. The Organizing Committee is already in place and is working very hard on the project. The construction of most of the sport facilities that will host the Games is scheduled for completion this year. However, preparations for the Games are not limited to the construction of various facilities. Issues relating to security and transportation, the establishment of an Olympic village, accommodation for visitors and athletes, the organization of training camps, and other issues require a great deal of attention and efforts. If we take into consideration the potential already available in Azerbaijan, the presence of sophisticated sports infrastructure and our extensive experience in hosting prestigious international competitions, I have no doubt whatsoever that we will conduct the Games to high standards exceeding the expectations. In fact, I believe that the standards applied to the Games in Azerbaijan will lay the foundation.