The opening ceremony of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly’s second session has been held in the building of the Milli Majlis of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has attended the session.
Opening the session, Parliament Speaker Ogtay Asadov said:
- Dear Mr. President!
Dear session participants!
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen!
I would like to sincerely welcome you all to the second plenary session of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly and wish all the colleagues in attendance effective and successful work.
The fact that Baku is hosting the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly’s first session to be held outside the European Union is a historic event for our parliament. The Milli Majlis of Azerbaijan has been receiving so many representatives of the European Parliament and partner states for the first time. I do hope that the exchange of opinion, the recommendations and decisions to be made at the session will help us achieve the goals of our organization.
Dear colleagues, the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Mr. Ilham Aliyev is attending the second session of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly.
The floor is given to the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Mr. Ilham Aliyev.
Remarks by President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev
- Dear ladies and gentlemen!
I would like to welcome all the guests to Azerbaijan and wish this session of the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly every success. I am very pleased that Azerbaijan is hosting the first session to be held outside the European Union and would like to thank our partners for making this decision. I am sure that the decisions to be made and the issues to be discussed here will be highly important.
Some members of Euronest are visiting Azerbaijan for the first time. They will have the opportunity to learn Azerbaijan better and familiarize themselves with our country. Of course, this session will further enhance the spirit of cooperation between Azerbaijan and European Union institutions. Our cooperation has been developing for years. Azerbaijan cooperates with the European Union in various spheres. We have been a member of the Council of Europe for over 10 years now. I am proud to say that I was the first head of an Azerbaijani delegation in the Parliamentary Assembly.
Of course, there are many issues on our agenda and they cover a number of areas.
Our cooperation has a good history and a good future. Because our high-level and regular contacts, the high-level visits and visits by members of parliament further strengthen the cooperation between the European Union and Azerbaijan.
We are conducting political reforms together. Azerbaijan is committed to the political reform. We have achieved major strides in all areas of life in the years of independence, we have established stable political institutions. We have all the institutions. We have a multiparty system. We have a parliament composed of representatives of many parties, we have the freedom of expression and assembly, a free Internet. I am very pleased that the number of Internet users in Azerbaijan is growing every month. More than 50 per cent of our population are Internet users, they use broadband Internet.
Political reforms will certainly be continued in the future. For many years during our independence, we laid the foundations of our statehood and political system, so this cooperation with European institutions is highly important. The Euronest format is very important. There is cooperation between former Soviet republics and European Union member-states here, they are working together as a team. The fact that this session is held in Baku is very positive. The issues to be discussed during this session will further bolster the spirit of cooperation within Euronest. There are not too many organizations of this nature.
Azerbaijan cooperation closely with members of the “Eastern Partnership” program, in particular GUAM member countries. We have been a member of GUAM for over 10 years. This organization includes Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Our bilateral and multilateral relations with these countries are very good. At the same time, our cooperation with European colleagues is creating a favorable environment. I am sure that this session, being held outside the European Union, will also bring about a good sprit of cooperation. We will do our best to create favorable conditions for cooperation. I am sure that session participants will also have a good opportunity to get to know Azerbaijan. In other words, seeing is believing. You will see Azerbaijan’s realities, the way Azerbaijan has changed, its reforms, the challenges facing us, the wishes and aspirations of the Azerbaijani people and, in general, our future plans.
As far as the 20 years of our independence are concerned, Azerbaijan’s development has been very good with the exception of the early years. The first years were marred with chaos, the situation in the country was very complex. But we knew all along that we were on the right path. We have managed to transform our country from a formerly Soviet and communist republic into a modern state and to outline plans for the future. Of course, political reforms must be supported with economic transformation. We are currently pursuing these reforms in parallel.
Because it was impossible to transform a republic that was part of an empire and lived in a totalitarian state into a free and modern country without a strong economic foundation. It was for this reason that there was a deep political, economic and financial recession in Azerbaijan at the time. The economy was not sustainable. Oil production in Azerbaijan, a country that pioneered the world’s oil production in the 19th century, was in decline. We needed resources to prevent this negative scenario. Thanks to the strong will and courage of the Azerbaijani people, we have transformed our country and identified explicit plans for the future. As I mentioned earlier, a political system was established and economic reforms got under way.
These reforms are still ongoing and will be continued. We have diversified our economy and created a strong economic foundation. Over the last eight years our economy has tripled, the GDP has increased 300 per cent. This is at least a regional record. We have also reduced the level of poverty. This is important too. Because GDP growth can only succeed if there is a proper division of resources.
As regards the economic and social sphere, the reduction of unemployment has been our top priority. Over the last eight years, we have reduced the level of poverty from 49 to 7.7 per cent. More than a million jobs were created in Azerbaijan in the course of eight years. At present, the rate of unemployment is 5.3 per cent.
Billions have been invested in our economy. We are pursuing the policy of open doors. We have opened our doors wide to friends and investors. Azerbaijan is currently in first place among formerly Soviet republics for the volume of direct foreign investment per capita. Last year alone more than 21 billion dollars was invested in our economy, including about 30 per cent foreign. This is evidence of major interest in Azerbaijan on the part of foreign investors. I am very pleased that we are witnessing investment inflow not in the energy sector, but in our non-oil economy. This is the result of our diversification policy. We are using our immense natural resources for the prosperity of our people and country, we are diversifying our economy.
If we look at last year’s statistics we can see that our GDP did not grow too much. But the non-energy sector formed 10 per cent of the GDP.
Our plans for the coming decades are also quite clear. I disclosed them a few months ago. In the next decade we plan to double our gross domestic product. In other words, we will further double the already tripled GDP in the coming years. Thus, Azerbaijan will turn into a high-income country. This is our goal. Our goal is to become a developed country. I think we have all the opportunities to do that. We have a stable political system, our society clearly understands the country’s development directions. We have a strong economy. We have a stable social policy, natural resources, a modern infrastructure, a favorable geographical location, qualified professionals and knowledgeable young people. Therefore, we have no right to waste the opportunity to become a developed country.
Our cooperation plans with European institutions are of tremendous importance for us because I believe that the European Union is one of the best examples in the modern world, perhaps even the best. Political and economic freedoms there represent a single entity. We can see progress. Despite the problems associated with the financial recession in some European countries, we know that this crisis is of temporary nature and I am sure it will soon be resolved. We in Azerbaijan are doing our best to further strengthen our country. As I have mentioned, economic reforms have already produced results.
Our future plans are supported by leading international financial institutions and the work we are doing receives good feedback. The Davos World Economic Forum has put Azerbaijan in first place in the CIS for economic competitiveness. The rating agency “Standard & Poors” has further raised our credit rating. As you may know, this is not a very widespread phenomenon these days. Our economic achievements are recognized and supported by relevant international financial institutions. Therefore, we are very optimistic of the future. We know our goals and how to achieve them. We have both the political will and financial resources to do that. We are fully committed to a market economy.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the share of the market economy in our GDP was equal to zero. Now it accounts for 83 per cent. In essence, in addition to our strategic energy resources, it has been an important factor in conducting a broad policy of privatization and creating the private sector. We have also encouraged the development of the non-oil sector. While remaining committed to the market economy, we could not forget social justice. In some cases the principles of a market economy create difficulties for a number of categories relying on government assistance. Therefore, social issues are very important for us. We have implemented numerous social programs. The number of people living below the poverty line has been reducing every year. Seven per cent of Azerbaijani population is still in need of government support. More than half a million of our citizens receive monthly benefits. At the same time, we are conducting a very modern pension reform. At present, the average pension accounts for 40 per cent of the average wage. I think this is very close to European criteria.
In general, I think that the fiscal and budget criteria existing in the European Union are successfully applied in Azerbaijan. We have practically no budget deficit. Our foreign debt constitutes about 7 per cent of the GDP. This is a very good indicator. We are also trying to benefit from the experience of developed European countries. We are creating a modern social infrastructure. More than 2,000 schools have been built in Azerbaijan in the last several years. Over 400 schools will be reconstructed and built this year alone. More than 400 new hospitals and 34 Olympic Centers have been established in the country.
One of our social and political problems is the problem of refugees and IDPs who have been affected by the Armenian aggression and the occupation of our lands. As a result of this aggression, more than a million Azerbaijanis have become refugees and IDPs. About 50,000 Azerbaijanis have been evicted from Nagorno-Karabakh. Over 700,000 Azerbaijanis have been driven out of seven districts adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh, while 250,000 Azerbaijanis have been exposed to the policy of ethnic cleansing and ousted from Armenia. A total of one million people are refugees and IDPs now. This figure was registered in 1994. About 20 years have passed and if we consider the positive demographic situation in Azerbaijan, these people are now over a million. Of course, this is a heavy political, economic and social burden. These people have the right to return to their homes. Our internationally recognized territory has been under Armenian occupation for 20 years now. As a result of this aggression and the policy of ethnic cleansing, 20 per cent of our territory has been occupied. As I mentioned earlier, more than a million of our fellow countrymen are refugees and IDPs. International organizations have passed numerous resolutions regarding the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The UN Security Council has passed four resolutions demanding an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian forces from Azerbaijani lands. The European Parliament and the Council of Europe have adopted similar resolutions. Similar decisions have been adopted in the summits of the OSCE and other international organizations. Unfortunately, the Armenian government is turning a blind eye to these decisions, failing to fulfill them and continuing to occupy Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territories.
Nagorno-Karabakh is native Azerbaijani land. We know history very well. We know that the resettlement of the Armenians to Nagorno-Karabakh started in the 19th century. This region is a historical part of Azerbaijan. The word “Karabakh” is an Azerbaijani word. It doesn’t mean anything in Armenian. It is absolutely clear that this is the case from a historical standpoint. From a legal point of view, Nagorno-Karabakh is an inalienable part of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan joined the UN with Nagorno-Karabakh being its integral part. Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity is recognized by the international community. This further reinforces our position. So the issue is completely clear from historical and legal standpoints. As regards the essence of negotiations, I regret to say that the OSCE Minsk Group was established 20 years ago – to be more precise, 20 years and one week ago. It was established with the aim of resolving the conflict. Unfortunately, 20 years have passed but the conflict remains unresolved. Our lands are still occupied. The districts adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh are in ruins. Our cities have been razed to the ground, the mosques and cemeteries of our ancestors have been desecrated.
All this is reflected in OSCE evaluations and reports. The OSCE has sent missions here twice: a fact-finding and a field evaluation mission. The final report confirmed the said destruction. It reflects the actions of the Armenian occupying forces with regard to local civilians. Twenty years ago we experienced the most tragic event in our modern history – the Khojaly genocide. A total of 613 civilian residents of Khojaly, including 106 women and 63 children, were slaughtered, more than 100 of our citizens went missing. The Khojaly genocide is an act of barbarism and a manifestation of fascism. It is the biggest tragedy of the late 20th century. Today, the parliaments of different countries are discussing it. Two parliaments have recognized the Khojaly tragedy as an act of genocide. I am sure that this issue will be reflected in the decisions of other parliaments too.
A solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict appears obvious. Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territorial integrity must be restored. The Armenian occupying forces must vacate our occupied territories. The four UN Security Council resolutions must be fulfilled. The people ousted from Nagorno-Karabakh must be able to return to their homes and live in peace, friendship and cooperation. Azerbaijan has a multiethnic and multi-confessional society. There has never been a stand-off on ethnic or religious grounds in our history. We are proud of our diversity and to say that representatives of many ethnicities live in Azerbaijan like one family. This is very important, it is one of Azerbaijan’s biggest assets. This is confirmed in the reports of international organizations. It is no coincidence that Azerbaijan is a venue for various international activities on inter-religious dialogue. We have conducted very important international forums on multiculturalism. I think other countries, countries that are home to representatives of different ethnicities, can also benefit from this example. Politicians in some countries argue that multiculturalism is dead, it is no longer viable. Such statements are very dangerous. We are very concerned about that. Because there is no alternative to multiculturalism. The alternative to multiculturalism is self-isolation, xenophobia and confrontation on religious and ethnic grounds. Therefore, it is important to prove using the example of Azerbaijan and a number of other countries with a similar situation that we must live in a multicultural country and world.
If we talk about Azerbaijan, we should not forget two other areas: energy and transit policies. We have very clear policies in these fields. Our initiatives create a very positive regional environment. We have started to implement a number of projects. These projects create a very positive cooperation format. We are trying to take full advantage of our geographical location. We are a country located at a crossroads of Europe and Asia. We have created a modern logistical and transit network. We have implemented all our plans thus far. At present, there are five international airports in Azerbaijan. We are building the biggest seaport on the Caspian Sea. It will be commissioned in a year or two.
We are building highways linking us with neighboring countries. We are implementing a strategic railway project that will link Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. It is called the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars project and we hope to commission it in less than a year. It will not only provide us with favorable conditions to fully capitalize on our transit opportunities, but will also create good logistical opportunities for our partners. We view it as a modern Silk Road. It will link Europe with Asia. I am sure that our friends and partners will take advantage of it. I want to reiterate that Azerbaijan is at the top of this project, we have assumed this workload and a serious financial burden. This project is powering ahead.
As for our energy policy, obviously we are pursuing our policies in accordance with national interests. As I mentioned earlier, Azerbaijan pioneered the world’s oil production. We were also the first country in the world to produce oil offshore. Unfortunately, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, our main oil reserves were depleted. We were not self-sufficient with gas. It was a Soviet legacy. We had to work hard to encourage foreign companies to come here and create a cooperation format that had been used in many countries for years. This not only enabled us to safeguard and secure our national interests, but also turned Azerbaijan from a country experiencing a shortage of energy into a state providing relevant energy assistance and an important regional supplier of oil and gas. Today our oil accounts for about 30 per cent of the energy balance of some European countries. We are actively investing our resources beyond Azerbaijan. Billions of dollars are invested today – especially in Europe and, of course, in the region. Therefore, as a result of our successful policies and the construction of oil and gas pipelines, we have created a corridor. We have linked the Caspian Sea with the Black Sea and, for the first time ever, with the Mediterranean Sea through pipelines. We have made our infrastructure available to other littoral countries. They transport their oil through Azerbaijan. So we are a transit country now.
In the past six years we went a long way in transforming Azerbaijan from a country dependent on gas into a self-sufficient one exporting its resources. This has been possible thanks to the efforts of our people and our resources. We now export natural gas to neighboring countries. In essence, by implementing these important projects we are turning into a reliable supplier of gas to Europe. We have vast resources. Azerbaijan has confirmed gas reserves of 2.6 trillion cubic meters. This is only a confirmed figure, of course. We will continue exploration and discover new reserves. We already have four gas pipelines and, as I said, they facilitate exports in different directions. We have completed the policy of diversification because it is important not only to consumers but also to producers, in particular those that don’t have access to the open sea. We now work closely with the European Union to realize the Southern gas corridor. An important Joint Declaration on the Southern gas corridor was signed last year. It describes Azerbaijan as an important supplier of gas to Europe and a country at the top of the Southern gas corridor.
All this serves our national interests. We have become a country with significant financial capabilities. We used to receive financial resources from others before, while now we are a donor country ourselves. Our financial resources will only increase in the coming years.
We know what our industry is made up of. We were consumers ourselves a few years ago. We are aware that when a consumer relies on one source, it is not very good. We knew it was not enough to have only one export route. So we built several oil and gas pipelines. Diversification facilitates competition, a good cooperation spirit, comfort and political relations. An important component of our energy policy consists in the fact that we know our energy potential. We will never use it for anything other than business. I think this is very important. Because energy security has become an important factor of national security of countries. This especially applies to countries that don’t have sufficient energy resources and depend on one supplier. So we think there should be a balance of interests of transit and producer states. We are working on this. This forms the core of our energy policy, of our philosophy, so to speak. We have set ourselves the goal of benefiting the energy supplies and cooperation with our partners, not using them as a means of pressure. I believe our consumers can confirm that. Azerbaijan is a reliable partner.
We are invited to participate in the privatization of energy companies, including those in Europe. Our oil company enjoys a great authority and has a huge potential. Of course, we will try to establish an even better partnership. For this reason we are pursuing a new comprehensive energy policy. This policy is based on friendship and brotherly support. I think if we can cope with that, future energy markets can be more predictable.
Azerbaijan’s initiatives and projects have already changed the energy map of the region and are changing the energy map of Europe. Azerbaijan is a stable, friendly and reliable partner. Of course, the energy sphere, one of the components of our comprehensive cooperation with the European Union, is very important. But there are also other spheres.
I met with leaders of the Euronest group yesterday. We discussed these important issues. One of the issues discussed was that Azerbaijan is not only a country of oil and gas. Your visit will confirm that, you will see that yourselves. I told our friends yesterday that we go about our daily lives. We don’t want to talk about oil and gas all the time. Oil and gas fields are located offshore and we need to talk about the present day. Our European friends usually see Azerbaijan as an oil and gas state. This is natural. We need to change this. How? Through cooperation! To do that, we need to invite people, stay in touch and discuss the important issues facing us. We also need to determine for ourselves how to further develop this strong partnership.
In conclusion, I would like to say that as far as our foreign political priorities are concerned, interested circles can see the way we cooperate with friends and partners and what role Azerbaijan plays internationally. As for our regional role, it is obvious that our initiatives have turned into regional and global projects. Our geographical location, opportunities and economic situation show that none of these projects can be implemented without Azerbaijan’s participation – be it economic, political or energy projects.
Azerbaijan is playing an increasingly important role internationally. We have a great authority and support in the world. We are trying hard and will continue to do that to become friends with as many countries as possible. I think our efforts and the work we have been doing for years manifested themselves through the international community supporting Azerbaijan’s candidacy. Just a week after that we celebrated the 20th anniversary of our independence. Azerbaijan has become a member of the UN Security Council. It was not an easy competition, but it was fair. A total of 155 countries supported us, believed in us and regarded Azerbaijan as a reliable friend and partner.
This was an attitude to the work we have done. I can say that this was possible thanks to our extensive relations. We have very close relations with these 155 countries. All this is an indicator of great trust and confidence in us.
Of course, it also means tremendous responsibility. We are very proud of that. After 10 years of independence we are already one of the 10 non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. This is the result of our policies. But it also placed additional responsibility on us. We appreciate that we must work with our partners to discuss important international issues. Of course, Azerbaijan is a friendly state that will protect justice, democracy, ideas of human rights and international law. After we joined the Security Council I stated that we will support international law and justice. We have done and will continue to do that.
I am sure we will get to know each other better during the Euronest session, that you will learn more about Azerbaijan. I wish all of you every success. I do hope that you will return to your respective countries with good impressions. Thank you very much.
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The opening ceremony of the session was concluded with a recorded video message from the chairman of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz.
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Then the session continue its work with discussions.