Ilham Aliyev responded to questions from Sputnik International News Agency

17 October 2016, 17:30
Ilham Aliyev responded to questions from Sputnik International News Agency

President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has been interviewed by the general director of the “Russia Today” International News Agency, Dmitry Kiselev, for Sputnik Azerbaijan. 

- Mr. President, let me sincerely congratulate you on the great anniversary of your state. 25 years are just like a human being – the first 25 years of life are crucial. This is when everything is founded. So what is Azerbaijan like now? Twenty-five years on, how is Azerbaijan, founded by your father Heydar Aliyev and with you as his successor, doing today?

- It is a landmark date indeed. Twenty-five years is a long time. It is a period that allows one to talk about successes, failures and missed opportunities. But in general, Azerbaijan has covered a very long journey of development and formation over these years. Today, it is an independent and self-sufficient state in the full sense of the word. It rests on a foundation of national roots. At the same time, it is a secular, multi-ethnic and multi-confessional state which successfully develops, relies only on its own strength, has friendly relations with its neighbors, and is a reliable and worthy member of the world community. In other words, the key goals related to the development, establishment and strengthening of the statehood have mainly been achieved, and there are very good prospects for future development because there are many programs that have already been implemented and will be implemented in the economic and social spheres.

In the economic sphere, we could talk a lot about our achievements, but we can also cite one fact: according to the latest report of the Davos World Economic Forum, the Azerbaijani economy is ranked in 37th place in the world in terms of competitiveness. This is the first place in the CIS and a fairly serious place in the international arena. Therefore, there are horizons ahead of us, we are confidently moving forward, and I am sure that the next quarter of a century will also be a period of rapid development.

- Actually, I wanted to ask this question in the end, but it seems to me that you have missed one very important point, whether deliberately or out of modesty. Azerbaijan is also a beautiful country. Over these years, Baku has simply become a luxurious and elegant city, which has been rebuilt and restored with very good taste. One feels that there is an absolutely conscious and consistent course here: to present the country and its capital both to the country’s own citizens and to the world in a special light. And it is not about money because there is a lot of money in the world, there is something else. What is it?

- You know, it may seem trivial, but I think the main thing is the love of one’s city. We, the people living in Baku and anywhere in Azerbaijan, love Baku very much. It is a historical city, an architectural monument, but unfortunately it was not looked after well for many years. It had dilapidated houses and shabby municipal infrastructure, which, as they say, is the city furniture. Therefore, we had to cope with a very difficult task of making the city comfortable for its people and more beautiful without undermining its historical appearance. I think we have managed to do that because history and modernity combine harmoniously in Baku. You can come out of the medieval old city, literally cross the street and find yourself in a modern metropolis with an embankment 16 kilometers in length, wide avenues and beautiful buildings.

It was not easy to find the harmony between history, the past and the present, but I think we have managed to do that. I would like to thank you for such an assessment of our city. Of course, it is good to hear such feedback from visitors to Baku. It is very inspiring for us. But on the other hand, we did it mainly for ourselves. After all, the environment forms the consciousness, as one of the classics said, and when you are surrounded by beauty, it is uplifting, it expands your world outlook and disciplines you. Therefore, the clean city is also a result of this transformation.

- Oil and hydrocarbons in general mean a lot for Azerbaijan. Are the losses high now? What is Azerbaijan’s strategy about in the circumstances of falling prices? What is the peculiarity of this strategy?

- We have tried for many years to reduce our dependence on oil. And to some extent we have succeeded. We are almost fully self-sufficient on commodities and food. We export food products, so we invested heavily in the development of agriculture, regional infrastructure and tourism. This is why the dependence on oil has declined a lot. Let me cite one figure: oil accounts for just over 30 per cent of our gross domestic product, but it makes up the bulk of our exports. The main task for today is to diversify exports and access the markets with competitive products in order to replace the foreign exchange losses we have incurred from the declining oil price. The losses are easy to calculate. If the oil price falls three- or fourfold, as was the case at the beginning of the year, our revenues reduce in the same proportion, of course. We calculated this year’s budget based on the price of 25 dollars per barrel, having revised it, so we are finishing this year with a surplus. We envisage 40 dollars per barrel for next year. We don’t think it should not fall lower than this, so in principle this will not create any additional difficulties for us.

The only thing we have had to cut down on was state investment projects. It may actually be even better because there was too much investment and too many needs. As you know, when there is a lot of money, there are many orders coming from various government agencies. Therefore, the oil price crisis even made us a bit healthier, brought us to our senses and showed that we need to spend money sparingly. And we are doing just that.

- Now, on the eve of the expected OPEC decisions on 30 November, what is better for Azerbaijan: reduced oil production, its freezing at the current level, the introduction of quotas or something else?

- You know, it is hard to say and predict what would give greater effect. The main thing is what the goal will be. To date, as far as we can see, both producers and consumers seek stabilization, i.e. an increase. The low price of oil has also hit consumers. In particular, large and developed countries have started to place fewer orders in countries that used to pay a lot for these orders, i.e. their economies have suffered. Today, of course, the economies of oil-producing countries heavily dependent on oil are affected. Therefore, the main factor in the stabilization would be an agreement between OPEC and major non-member states on a single policy. From what we can see, they are already approaching that. And I think that this should happen – but it is necessary for all parties to be sincere and honest, and there has to be an effective mechanism for monitoring the implementation of the decisions if they are made.

The general mood of the oil world is in favor of an increase of oil prices to 60, perhaps even to 70 dollars. I think that this would be beneficial for all: for companies, as it would allow them the opportunity to invest, for producing countries, as they could get money for various projects, and for consumers, who would benefit from the placement of orders they have now lost.

- Is Azerbaijan in favor of that?

- Azerbaijan is clearly in favor of that, and we have repeatedly stated this. We can unilaterally declare that we are not going to increase oil production even without waiting for any other decisions.

- So are you freezing production?

- To a certain extent. We are not increasing it.

- It is clear that this topic is linked to another question for Azerbaijan – the Turkish Stream Russia and Turkey have agreed on now. Azerbaijan has its own project called TANAP. To what extent do you feel competition or are these parallel projects? What is the status of TANAP now?

- TANAP is a part of a major project, the Southern Gas Corridor which consists of four components. In essence, it is about the development of one of the world’s largest gas condensate fields of Shah Deniz, the second stage in its development, the construction and expansion of the South Caucasus gas pipeline, which runs from Azerbaijan to Georgia, TANAP proper, the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline from the eastern border of Turkey with Georgia to western Turkey and Greece. And then, there is the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) from the Turkish-Greek border through Greece, Albania, via the seabed and with access to Italy. This is the Southern Gas Corridor project. TANAP is a part of it, which, of course, forms a unity with the other projects. Without the other projects, it would be incomplete. The gas volumes we will transport along this entire line at the first stage have already been contracted. They have already been sold. We have signed contracts for an increase in production, which will begin in 2018 and should reach its peak in 2020-2021. Therefore, no other regional energy project can objectively compete with it, because we have already sold this gas. This is the first thing.

Second, we believe that if there are projects that are carried out by our neighbors and friends, in this case it is the Turkish Stream, we are only excited about that because they strengthen interaction, cooperation and security in the region and allow countries to meet their economic and energy interests in the region more fully. Therefore, we have always supported the Turkish Stream project, and we are pleased that the project has been revived after some time. And Turkey and Russia signed this project during the recent World Energy Congress in Istanbul which I also attended. I congratulate our Russian and Turkish friends on this occasion.

- And yet, the signing of this project is not only about business. It is a symbol of reconciliation between Turkey and Russia. What role has Azerbaijan played in this reconciliation? You can probably share some details now.

- I guess it would be immodest of me to talk about it. It would probably be more appropriate if an assessment of what we were doing at the time was given by the countries directly involved.

- Why don’t you say what happened, and they will give an assessment?

- Of course, we were very worried about what happened between Russia and Turkey. And for a number of reasons! First, Turkey and Russia are our neighbors. Second, they are close countries, perhaps our main partners in politics and economy. And we were very pleased with the relations between Russia and Turkey. I remember President Putin and President Erdogan having a very good meeting in Baku during the inauguration of the first European Games in June 2015. Unfortunately, the tragic incident that took place disrupted these relations. It was very disturbing. It was bad for Turkey, for Russia and for their friends, including us. Therefore, we tried, to the best of our ability and to the extent that it was acceptable to Russia and Turkey, to make a contribution to the normalization of these relations. Again, we did it very carefully, without intervening strongly in these matters, but offering our opportunities, because we believed and we still believe that we have them.

The fact that there has been normalization is, I believe, the restoration of justice and the elimination of this tragic misunderstanding. Reasons will probably be analyzed. As far as I know, they have already been analyzed.

According to our information, there has been an intervention of certain forces which were anxiously watching the rapprochement of Russia and Turkey.

- What are you implying?

- I am simply giving you the assessment we have because of certain objective observations.

- So was it a foreign provocation?

- This is not ruled out. In any case, when the incident involving the plane happened, the first thing that came to mind was that we can’t rule that out because this was clearly not in the interests of Turkey. And we could not believe that someone deliberately took such an unfriendly step. It is clear that after such a tragic event there was an avalanche of emotions which to a certain extent took precedence in the situation, and it was hard to understand what had actually happened. One emotion was superimposed by another. One word evoked a response, and there was a spiral that had to be stopped. And it was stopped. Now we need to find out what happened. I think and am almost certain that it was a provocation because the spirit and nature of Russian-Turkish relations did not provide grounds for such reaction to the flights of Russian military aviation. But again, being very cautious and careful, without interfering in the bilateral relations of our close friends, I wanted to share these observations for our part. At the same time, of course, I want to express satisfaction with the fact that it has been left in the past. At the World Energy Congress in Istanbul on 10 October, we sat side by side: President Putin, myself on his right President Erdogan on his left. There was a very lively discussion between them, as in formal events, and it was evident that the misunderstanding is now in the past. We are very happy about that.

- This example shows the beneficial and powerful role Azerbaijan is playing in the region without thrusting itself forward. Also noticeable is the Azerbaijan-Iran-Russia triangle. It is a very solid political structure now. When we met last time, you said that you were working hard on it. And now there is a result. So is this triangle already there?

- You have touched upon a very important topic which has tremendous potential for development. It will play an important role in the strengthening of security and cooperation in our region in the future. Earlier this year, I was in Iran on an official visit and together with my Iranian counterpart, President Rouhani, put forward the idea of organizing a trilateral format of cooperation involving Iran, Russia and Azerbaijan. It was perceived very well and, on my return from Iran, I phoned Vladimir Putin who also welcomed this idea. And we began working hard in this direction. Just two months after these events, a meeting of the foreign ministers of the three countries took place in Baku. It was the first such experience. It was very successful, and we started preparations for the summit, which took place in Baku in early August and was attended by President Putin, President Rouhani and myself. I believe it was a historic summit: first, because the leaders of the three countries met in this format for the first time in history; second, because we returned to history. The history of relations between empires in this region was not easy. We all know that. But we see today that if there is goodwill, historical memories, no matter how difficult they may be, give way to pragmatism and a desire to strengthen cooperation. At different stages, Azerbaijan was part of the Persian Empire and of the Russian Empire. Therefore, the organization of this summit in Baku is of particular importance to us. We view it as a sign of respect of our great neighbors for what we do, and as a new format of cooperation. This is a serious geopolitical step. Of course, we discussed issues of transportation security, energy, investment, economic issues. The agenda was fairly extensive. But most importantly, we are creating a new format of regional cooperation based on geography because only Azerbaijan has borders with Russia and Iran. Our security as an independent state is provided in our region. And our security depends directly on the security around our borders. Therefore, close cooperation among our neighbors – we have just talked about Russian-Turkish relations and the same applies to Russian-Iranian relations – is in our national interest. And we are happy and proud to have been able to organize such a meeting. We hope that it will be continued in the future.

- So this triangle is already a fact in international politics, a fairly solid foothold, isn’t it?

- Of course. This is already a fact in global politics. It is not a regional format or a transport project – it is a serious foreign policy, geopolitical initiative and already a reality. For our part, we will do everything necessary to fill this format. We are seeing exactly the same approach from our Russian and Iranian colleagues.

- Two trends are fighting in the world: one is the destructive "divide and rule" trend and the other seeks to unite countries and create peaceful structures that would complement each other. One of such structures is the Eurasian Economic Community. Does Azerbaijan plan to join it?

- This discussion has been under way for a long time both in the expert community and among political elites of various countries. In principle, we feel confident enough in this capacity. And 25 years of our development, especially in the economic sphere and in the sphere of political development, are a vivid example of that. Over the past 13 years, we have tripled our GDP. We have been able to reduce our poverty rate from 49 per cent in 2003 to 5 per cent this year. In essence, there is no such social phenomenon as poverty any more. The same applies to unemployment – it is at 5 per cent. We have large foreign exchange reserves – we keep accumulating. Even this year, despite the drop in oil prices, the foreign exchange reserves of the Oil Fund have increased because we spend sparingly and earn more in non-oil sectors. Therefore, we are pleased with our situation: both economic and political. Of course, the world is changing. There are new threats and challenges. We see that "everything is on fire", new hotbeds of instability and potential sources of risk are emerging. Under such circumstances, of course, a lot depends on close interaction with traditional partners. Today, the format of our economic and indeed political cooperation with member-states of the Eurasian Economic Community is quite strong. To follow the path of integration, of course, motivation is required. It can be economic, social, political or any other. And we are working on this now. Of course, it is no secret that among Eurasian Economic Community member-countries, the priority partner for us is Russia – it is our big neighbor. It is a country with which we have the biggest turnover of all the other member-states of the Eurasian Economic Community, and the level of relations and mutual trust is the highest. We do not have political, public or economic problems with Russia. The latest visit of President Putin to Baku in August confirmed this once again – we could not find areas we would need to fix, neither on our side nor on the Russian. Azerbaijan and Russia have an agreement on free trade zone. So there are no such restrictions either. But there is a search for extra motivation. We are keenly watching the processes taking place in Eurasia, because not everything goes smoothly there. There are certain difficulties and, to some extent, even claims there. Therefore, we have to analyze everything. We need to integrate. The political style of Azerbaijan is not to complain, resolve our problems ourselves and take only positive things to foreign markets, so to speak. Therefore, we must see what the trends are and, of course, if the Eurasian Economic Community is attractive, then many will be interested in joining it. So nothing can be ruled out, but this is how I would describe the present stage.

- As you said, "everything around us is on fire". Of course, you probably meant the threat of radical Islam. To what extent does Azerbaijan feel this threat?

- I will put it this way: there is no such threat in the country. Our society is united around the national idea. It is about the priority of our values and promotion of multiculturalism. In fact, this year has been declared a year of multiculturalism in Azerbaijan. Our society is rallied behind the idea of restoring the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, as well as the strengthening of our independence and resolving all economic and social issues. Therefore, there is no niche for radicals here: neither economically nor socially. There is no basis for them because there is almost no poverty. How do they recruit followers? They recruit them from amongst the poor. The level of literacy in Azerbaijan is 100 per cent. Again, where do the radicals come from? From the illiterate masses! Therefore, there is no such environment. This is not the case around us. Therefore, the main thing for us is to protect ourselves from the negative external influence, including with regard to religious extremism. Our society is deeply attached to its roots: national, spiritual and religious. We honor our holy places and are very sensitive about that. At the same time, our society is secular and modern. And I think that the example of a secular Muslim state of Azerbaijan has yet to be studied. It could be a good example for many countries. Therefore, our main goal in fighting radicalism is to protect ourselves from external physical and information threats out there. But there are relevant bodies which ensure the security of our country. Therefore, against the backdrop of everything we see around us today, Azerbaijan continues to be a place of stability, development and peace. We cherish this very much. Our citizens cherish this. They see every day what is going on in the hot spots, what is happening in European countries, in the CIS, in the Middle East. Wars, bloodshed, destruction... This further consolidates our society. It is the best "inoculation" for radicalism. Despite all this, we should not stop our efforts to pursue a policy aimed at modernity, secularism and prevalence of good over evil. We regularly work in this direction.

- You have touched upon several topics that need to be elaborated. We will return to that later, but since we have started with radical Islam, what, in your opinion, is happening in Syria now? What is the dynamics there? There is so much talk about it... France and Hollande almost want to take Russia to the international tribunal. Everyone is talking about the alleged war crimes there. At the same time, you said that international politics should be sincere and honest. How does all this combine?

- You know, it is difficult for us to judge objectively what is happening in Syria because we do not have enough sources of information from that country. We mainly receive information from the world media, and each country presents its own interpretation of events. But one thing is clear – Syria is being destroyed for several years. There is destruction of cities. Civilians are being killed. There is suffering. And there is no end in sight. Therefore, I have repeatedly spoken about this from different platforms and I want to say it again that only combined efforts of the entire international community waging the fight against terrorism is it possible to defeat it. Unfortunately, we are not seeing that today. In this case, I believe that Russia's approach is fully justified when Russia says exactly the same: it is necessary to combine efforts against extremists, terrorists and radicals. It is impossible to divide them into good and bad. Those who oppose you are bad and those opposing your rival or opponent are good. Sooner or later, this will boomerang against you – history has showed this many times. But so far there is no consensus in this direction, which, of course, is very disturbing. The situation is deteriorating. Hopefully, the negotiations on a settlement in Syria will produce results. Most importantly, Syria should remain a single state. Syria's territorial integrity must be ensured. Secondly, the Syrian people should determine their own fate themselves. Here are two simple theses that you close to you too, as far as I know. We fully agree with this. It is necessary to address the issue in this context, although, as we can see, it is getting increasingly difficult to find a solution every month.

- Speaking about the national idea of Azerbaijan, you mentioned the restoration of territorial integrity as a part of it. Here we come to this very painful subject of Nagorno-Karabakh. Everyone dreams of a compromise. Is it possible and on what conditions?

- You know, we need to clearly understand what a compromise means and which side interprets it. To say what needs to be done, we need to know what happened. If we look at history, Nagorno-Karabakh is an integral part of Azerbaijan. This has always been the case. We know the history of the Armenian resettlement to these lands from Persia and Eastern Anatolia. The entire history, all place names, including the word Karabakh itself, are of Azerbaijani origin. In the Soviet era, because there was already a resettled Armenian population there, an autonomous region, not even a republic, was created. It did not have administrative borders with Armenia. And everything was fine, life went on as usual, there were no problems, and Nagorno-Karabakh was ahead of many other regions of Azerbaijan in terms of socioeconomic development. In other words, it would be unfair to say that no attention was paid to it, especially since the central authorities had a special attitude towards such autonomies. But shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, separatist tendencies prevailed and it ended in bloodshed. The Azerbaijanis were driven out first from Nagorno-Karabakh, where they accounted for about 30 per cent. Then Armenia occupied seven districts of Azerbaijan that had nothing to do with Nagorno-Karabakh and had only the Azerbaijani population. Everything there was destroyed. The OSCE has sent two fact-finding missions there and their report is simply a nightmare: there is not a single building left, including cemeteries and mosques. There is nothing there – zero. A total of 750,000 people were ousted from the territories outside Nagorno-Karabakh, more than 40,000 Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh and over 200,000 Azerbaijanis from Armenia. So there were a million refugees in our poor country in 1993. Almost all international organizations adopted correct resolutions. The UN Security Council has adopted four resolutions demanding immediate, unconditional and complete withdrawal of Armenian occupying forces. They have not been implemented for more than 20 years. The European Parliament, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Non-Aligned Movement – everything is the same: international law is on our side. No country in the world, including Armenia proper, recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh. All this is true, but the issue remains unresolved. The main reason is that Armenia does not want a solution. What does a solution mean? A solution means de-occupation of the territories Armenia has illegally seized. They do not want to do that and want to maintain the status quo. The presidents of the Minsk Group co-chair countries dealing with the settlement – Russia, America and France – have repeatedly stated that the status quo is unacceptable and must be changed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go any further than statements.

This is how we see a solution: of course, the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan isn’t and can’t be a subject of discussion. We will never agree to provide the status of independence to Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Armenian side is well aware of that. However, a reasonable compromise is possible: the security of the Nagorno-Karabakh population, the implementation of various investment projects on the part of Azerbaijan, peaceful cooperation between the two nations on the condition of liberation of territories outside Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region. This is how we see a settlement of the conflict. This is consistent with the proposals we are working on now, which were put forward by the mediators. But the main reason why the conflict remains unresolved is that Armenia has in every possible way blocked any slightest progress in negotiations for the last 24 years, ever since the Minsk Group was set up. Our position is that people should live where they lived before because they lived there for a long time: the Armenian population for 200 years, but the Azerbaijani population for much longer. But even that is not the point. For example, the Azerbaijanis accounted for 95 per cent of the Shusha population. They were expelled from there, their houses were either captured or destroyed and are now inhabited by other people. This must stop. Let the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh live there as before. We don’t mind that. But what has Armenia benefited from this conflict? Of course, they have caused suffering to a million of Azerbaijanis, but have they become happier by that? It is now a more secure and more prosperous place? Of course not! Without the normalization of relations with Azerbaijan, there can be no development in this region. They will always live under a certain pressure, thinking that something may happen any time. We want peace in the region, our position is quite constructive, but we want our territories back. Armenia wants peace, but it does not want to give back someone else's territory. This is the difference.

- So this is a compromise and a road to peace?

- Of course, and we can’t provide more compromise than this. As I have already said, there can be no compromise on the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. There could be a compromise on issues of local self-governance of Nagorno-Karabakh. In the future, if we agree, it can be an autonomous republic. The Armenian leadership is well aware of that, but they manipulate public opinion, create the image of an enemy, distort the essence of the negotiating process and portray everything as if Azerbaijan wants to destroy or expel the Armenian population. This is not true.

- What can we hope for? Are there any outlines when negotiations can begin for real? Is it possible to imagine some kind of a road map? Is it possible to identify some milestones?

- This is not up to us. As I have said, everything depends on the fact that there is a format of talks. Negotiations are conducted, but Armenia does everything to block them. At certain stages, it puts forwards conditions that are obviously unacceptable for us. And this makes the talks non-stop. Why? Because they either don’t want to resolve the issue or can’t do that for some inner political reasons. They either lack the courage or don’t want to resolve the issue. Maybe even both. The mediators, the leading countries of the world, the permanent members of the Security Council tell us that the issue should be resolved peacefully.

- John Kerry, the Secretary of State of the country that is a member of the international OSCE group, has said recently that the time to resolve this conflict has not come yet. What could that mean?

- This is a diplomatic lapse, and our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including myself, has already reacted to this inappropriate statement. As recently as on 7 October, at a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers, I spoke in express terms on this statement. I said that it was at least shameless to blame Azerbaijan for the failure to resolve the conflict. After all, this statement is completely inconsistent with the US position. President Obama, along with the presidents of France and Russia, made a statement that the status quo is unacceptable. And then, the US Secretary of State says that he does not see a settlement. Moreover, he suggests that this conflict is even more difficult to resolve than the conflict between Israel and Palestine. What kind of a signal is he sending and to who? Is he sending a signal to Armenia that it should keep delaying a solution as long as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? This is a completely unacceptable statement.

And this statement shows once again why the conflict is still unresolved. That is exactly why – because there are decisions and resolutions of international organizations, but they are not being executed. The aggressor state does not faced with any pressure. On the contrary, there is often a policy of encouraging the aggressor, as has been the case in the 20th century, not in such proportions, of course, but the essence is about the same. This is our problem. We are being told – a peaceful way, only a path of peace, nothing but a negotiated settlement. We say, fine, let's try to resolve the issue. After all, it is not fair and contrary to international law to occupy the territory of another country, drive the population out of there and keep this occupied territory under control. It is no secret today that the Azerbaijani army has the capacity to resolve many issues. We are being told to find a path of peace and we say, fine, we are waiting. Instead of putting pressure on the aggressor, we hear such statements.

- You have mentioned that the Azerbaijani army has great potential. Indeed, judging by the weapons Azerbaijan is buying, the level of equipment in the Azerbaijani army and the skill of its servicemen, the military potential of Azerbaijan looks impressive. It has recently been reported that Azerbaijan plans to buy weaponry from someone else in addition to Russia. What could this mean for the military-technical cooperation with Russia and what are the reasons for such innovations?

- You probably mean the recent visit of the Pakistani Prime Minister to Azerbaijan. Indeed, but the fact that we buy weaponry from other countries too, and this is well known. The business of weapons is such that it is impossible to hide anything there.

- So you are on the market?

- Absolutely. In addition to Russia, we buy weaponry from Turkey, Iran, Belarus, Israel and some other countries. And we do that quite seriously. We also have the intention to buy weapons in Pakistan, given the fact that Pakistan's military industry is well developed and it is a very friendly and close state for us. But Russia is our main partner in this regard. If I am not mistaken, we have signed contracts with Russia in the order of 5 billion dollars, and most of these contracts have already been implemented. In other words, the Azerbaijani army today is armed mostly with Russian weapons. We are pleased with this cooperation. We are one of the major buyers of Russian weaponry, one of the major ones. If I look at the countries, the level of cooperation is quite high. And the fact that we buy weapons in other places too is probably natural.

- So nothing is about to change?

- No.

- Mr. President, you spoke about double standards. We have just remembered the statements of John Kerry. Recently, speaking to members of the European Parliament, you approached this topic quite extensively and also mentioned the double standards existing in the West today. What does that mean for you?

- You know, our society perceives it as an extreme form of injustice, partiality and bias. But if you look into the essence of the issue, all democratic norms are guaranteed in Azerbaijan without exception. There is a freedom of assembly, and the opposition held rallies in the city center in the run-up to the referendum. It is a different issue that a maximum of 800 people joined them, and those were their close friends and relatives. There were no restrictions. We have freedom of the press, there are hundreds of newspapers, magazines, many television channels, the Internet is uncensored. There is free Internet, and more than 75 per cent of our population are Internet users. It is impossible to talk about a clampdown on the media under such circumstances. We do not have such a goal. We have guaranteed all freedoms. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan is constantly turned into an object for unjustified attacks in terms of a lack of democracy, freedoms and the suppression of human rights. All these are politically motivated actions which are not based on real facts, are intended to slander on us, put pressure and blackmail Azerbaijan.

- How do you explain this? Why do they need that?

- There are several reasons. One of the key reasons is that Azerbaijan is going its own way. We conduct an independent policy, and it is not aimed at anyone, including those initiating the dirty attacks on us. We have very broad political, economic and energy ties with the member-countries of the European Union, with the United States. We have political contacts and partnerships. But apparently this is not enough for some circles in these countries. They want more. Maybe there is a lack of confidence in our credibility.

- What do they want?

- Well, the same as everywhere. They probably want us to execute their instructions. And we are not fit for this role. We can’t even imagine such a role for ourselves. We are a dignified and self-sufficient state. We don’t ask anyone for anything, we have a very low external debt and we do not have any obligations to a single country. We want to cooperate, but we are categorically against any interference with our affairs, situations when there is secret financing of political parties under the guise of non-governmental organizations, when there are attempts to destabilize the situation and openly interfere with our internal affairs. Of course, we take measures to prevent such activities. Azerbaijan is an independent and sovereign state, and we ask everyone to respect that. Apparently, they want more. Another reason is the constant anti-Azerbaijani activities of organizations associated with the Armenian lobby in the West and beyond. They exist in many countries. One of the reasons could be – I do not rule that out – is that Azerbaijan does not join any campaigns they occasionally try to drag us into. I would even say that these are not campaigns but adventures. We do not go to places that are not beneficial to us. Perhaps another reason, in contrast to many other situations and other countries, is that it is impossible to give us instructions, exercise control and direct us.

- And here they can’t do that.

- Something like that. But I have always said, look, we are not your enemies. On the contrary, we seek only to cooperate. We do not have any negative intentions with regard to any country. Why should there be any? Companies from around the world work in our energy sector – America, Britain, France, Italy, Japan. They are all our partners and we have a good business relationship. We tell them, we ask: "Do not meddle in our affairs, please don’t, it is pointless." Here is the 800-strong rally of our opposition. And they collected people throughout the country, phoned them for several days and financed. What more do they want? There are simply no anti-governmental sentiments in our country.

- The reason for criticism was the recent referendum to change the country’s constitution. In this regard, many are wondering if the timing of the presidential election will change and if you go to the polls?

- Well, we have no intention of changing the dates of presidential elections. I am aware of the talk going on in Azerbaijan and beyond. There are no such plans and I don’t see a need for that. As to whether or not I will participate, the next presidential election is due to be held two years later, and there is plenty of time to draw conclusions or made decisions. If I feel, as I do today, the support of the population, then, of course, I will strive to live up to it. By the way, the referendum was indicative from several standpoints. First, 2016 has been the most difficult year for Azerbaijan in economic terms, despite the fact that we are completing 2016 with a good performance. Compared to previous years, this has been the most difficult year. And this year, we have conducted a referendum which was supported by an absolute majority of the Azerbaijani population. After all, those who have tried to criticize us could not find any violations or fraud. Even PACE, an organization that always criticizes us, sent observers and issued the maximum positive conclusion saying that everything was in accordance with all standards, fair and transparent. There were slightly more than 20 complaints. We have 5,000 polling stations and there were only 20 complaints. This is yet another indication of an open democratic process. And, of course, the most important thing in this referendum – there were many important questions, a total of 29 – but the main thing is that it was a vote of confidence in the government. For this, I am very grateful to the people of Azerbaijan. This is very inspiring and suggests that we are on the right track and that we will go further.

- Mr. President, I would like to thank you very much for the support you have provided to our agency "Russia Today". Today, we act under the brand name of Sputnik in Azerbaijan and around the world. What would you wish to our journalists and what are your impressions?

- The impressions are very good. I would like to thank your staff working in Azerbaijan for the coverage of events in our country. The launch of your agency in Azerbaijan is, I think, a result of a high level of trust between our countries. It would have been impossible without that trust. It is also an opportunity for us to communicate the truth about ourselves to the world through your agency because objectively we do not have the information resources that Russia has. And through you we can go out and talk more broadly about our country and share our views. Therefore, the activities of your agency are very important. I am glad that you are working here. I am sure that your agency will continue to provide objective coverage of the realities of our country.

- And perhaps the last question. The President of Russia is literally demonized all over the world now – from cartoons to some tales. A whole technology seems to have been developed. You are one of the people who are not just familiar with Vladimir Putin, but also maintain, as far as I know, regular contact and coordinate your policy with the policy of Russia. And Russia, in turn, also coordinates its policy with Azerbaijan. Between our two countries and between you personally, there seems to be the dialogue that is so necessary in the world today, something that is not available and does not exist between many countries. Moreover, you communicate with him on very difficult and contentious topics. What is your personal relationship with the President like and what can you say about him as a person?

- Our personal relationship with Vladimir Vladimirovich is very good. I would describe it as a friendly and trusting relationship. We have known each other for a long time. I remember his first visit to Azerbaijan as president of Russia in 2001. It was the first official visit of Russian President to Azerbaijan. In 10 years after the collapse of the USSR, the President of Russia never visited Azerbaijan. That visit was of exceptional importance. He visited the graves of those killed in the war, the "Alley of Martyrs", which was also received well in Azerbaijani society. Also, I sometimes took part in the meetings he had with my father Heydar Aliyev. There was a very close relationship between them – as you know, they were colleagues and were very respectful of each other. But then, when I became President, our contacts became more regular. The relationship is very trusting, as I have already said. Let me give you an example: the President of Russia has visited Azerbaijan three times in the last three years. This speaks volumes. But one of these visits is particularly important – the visit in 2015. I will tell you when he arrived, and you will see why – it was on 12 June. After the events associated with the Day of Russia, he got on a plane, flew over and was here for the start of the European Games – the Games most leaders of European countries ignored. In fact, according to our information, they received appropriate instructions. But he did come. The very fact of his arrival and the fact that it was on the Day of Russia is evidence of a special attitude towards Azerbaijan and of our own attitude towards Russia. His latest visit was in August: after the official meetings, we held several hours of confidential conversations. As a person, he enjoys great respect. I am saying this absolutely sincerely. I have great respect for him. He is a man of very high personal qualities and a person of dignity. He is a very honest person and always keeps his word. And he is also the leader of a great country, one of the two superpowers, but at the same time he is very easy to communicate with, very accessible. It is very easy and comfortable to work with him, and I want to say that Russia is very lucky. And so are all of Russia’s friends. So I want to wish the President continued success through your program, especially now. I know that all this pressure and attacks on him bounce back, have no and will not have any effect.

- Mr. President, thank you for the very detailed and candid interview.

- Thank you.