President Ilham Aliyev has been interviewed by the host of Russia-24 TV channel, Evelina Zakamskaya.
- Hello, Mr. President!
- Thank you for receiving us here in Baku. Mr. President, we are summing up the results of the year. What were the developments that stand out in the life of your country in the outgoing year? And what was this year like for Azerbaijan?
- Overall, it has been a successful year. We have managed to meet all our goals and, in general, are optimistic of the future, because we have achieved what we wanted in the economic, social and foreign political areas. And, of course, the economy is the basis of everything. We are glad that the Azerbaijani economy has continued to develop. It is especially gratifying that we have managed to diversify our economy, get rid of the heavy dependence on the oil and gas sector, and our non-oil economy has grown by around 10 per cent. Inflation is in the region of one per cent. Real incomes have increased by more than 10 per cent, so we can also see the improving well-being of the population. Unemployment has further declined to around 5.2 per cent, poverty has fallen to 6 per cent. About $22 billion was invested in the Azerbaijani economy, most of which is domestic investment, which also shows that the business environment for domestic companies allows them to actively invest in the country.
- What directions of the non-oil and gas sector are currently growth drivers of the Azerbaijani economy?
- For us, the priority is to ensure economic competitiveness and reduce unemployment. Therefore, we approach this process from two angles. A huge sector of the economy with tremendous potential is agriculture. Agricultural development also means further employment opportunities. The export potential in this area is fairly large. In one or two years at the latest we will become fully self-sufficient in terms of staple foods. This will be followed by entry into foreign markets.
From the standpoint of technological trends, of course our priority is the sector of information and communication technologies. We have completed all the work and if all goes to plan, including the weather conditions, we will launch Azerbaijan’s first telecommunications satellite in February. We have already created a space industry and are actively moving in this direction. Of course, we are also implementing a program of large-scale industrialization. We will soon adopt a package of tax benefits for the creation of industrial parks. We believe that the establishment of large industrial complexes, along with the development of medium-sized and small businesses of course, will give us the opportunity to completely get rid of the dependence on the oil and gas sector in the future.
- What is the timeline for these objectives? How soon will this be possible? And how will this dependence reduce?
- A program called "The Development of Azerbaijan until 2020" has been adopted. By year 2020 we plan on implementing all our plans. In general, we have managed to increase our economy threefold in less than 10 years. Our GDP has grown by 300 per cent. In the next 10 years we plan on doubling the GDP. In this case, it will be accomplished mainly by the non-oil sector.
- Do Azerbaijani companies, the Azerbaijani economy plan on accessing foreign markets?
- In terms of investment, we are now implementing a major investment project - a petrochemical and oil refining complex in Turkey which will cost around $17 billion of direct Azerbaijani investment. We are also actively investing in Georgia, Ukraine, we have begun to invest in Switzerland, Romania and are just beginning investment programs in Russia. So we are starting large investment projects in Russia – investment in real estate and major Russian commercial structures. Azerbaijani companies have also started to invest in agricultural processing in Russia, and there are already first projects. So we are expanding the range of external investment because, as you rightly noted, this is necessary. The Azerbaijani market is becoming a little too small for our public investment.
- How you can summarize the status of Russian-Azerbaijani relations, economic relations today? I remember that two months ago our countries marked the 20th anniversary of signing the free trade agreement. It was the first diplomatic and legal document to be signed after the establishment of diplomatic relations between independent countries.
- Indeed. In general, our relations are developing dynamically and positively. We have resolved all the issues that needed to be addressed. And the last important issue was the agreement on the state border. Of course, it is the most important document between neighboring countries, any neighboring countries, especially ones that used to constitute a single entity. But in addition to that, we have an ongoing dialogue in the field of political consultations at all levels. This is a partnership, as both countries view it as a relationship between strategic partners. This definition incorporates the full range of relations. In the economic sphere, the structure of trade is also improving. Russian imports to Azerbaijan are in first place. In other words, we import most of all from Russia. Of course, Russia is a very important market, primarily for our agricultural produce. A lot is done in the humanitarian sphere. This year, for example, I would note the opening of a new building of the Baku branch of Moscow State University.
- When we last met three years ago, you said while commenting on the process of regional integration in post-Soviet republics, that this experience must be carefully studied and monitored. Has this experience become attractive for you?
- We are committed to active engagement with a large number of countries. For example, as one of the highlights of the recent times I would point to Azerbaijan’s accession to the Non-Aligned Movement. I believe that this is a very important, necessary, timely and significant step. Thus, we first emphasize our openness to the world because it is a union of many countries. On the other hand, we stress our vision of the future of Azerbaijan in the world. As for economic integration, we certainly proceed from the principle of expediency. When we see that integration will bring us additional economic benefit, we, of course, participate actively. But if we see that it will either bring us nothing or may actually take us back, we have a rather reserved attitude. As an example I can say that Azerbaijan has not yet joined the World Trade Organization although we are being persistently invited. But after weighing all the "pros" and "cons" – of course, there are quite a few "pros" and we all know this – we felt that at this stage of our economy, it will harm our agriculture, farming, private enterprise and local production.
- Don’t take it for campaigning, but how can the Customs Union and the Common Economic Space, for example, cause you damage?
- The point is that we need to think how it can damage us, but we proceed from how it can help us. And, frankly, we didn’t find any special benefits for ourselves. On the other hand, the economic situation of our country is quite stable. This includes sufficient foreign exchange reserves, economic diversification, complete self-sufficiency, rich deposits of natural resources, an extensive network of pipelines, geography, transport logistics, etc. There is a good Russian saying: "Enough is as good as a feast." Therefore, if we see real prospects to make things even better, then, of course, we will enter into any association – we have no taboos in this regard.
- But so far non-alignment is a position?
- Well, yes.
- You have mentioned the political consultations with Russia as a form of cooperation, one of the most important areas of cooperation. Russia is very interested in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it is extremely interested in peace between its nearest neighbors. But the discussion on this issue remains tense. How would you assess the results of this year in terms of this issue?
- I view the results of this year as negative. Many years of negotiations entered a stage of stagnation this year. And we see the main reason for that in the fact that the Armenian side wants to maintain the status quo by all means. They are not interested in a settlement because it would involve de-occupation. In addition to Nagorno-Karabakh, seven districts that have never part of the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region and never had the Armenian population are under occupation today. So the Azerbaijani population has been driven out of there. It is becoming increasingly difficult for Armenia to justify its occupation of Azerbaijani territories. Therefore, the change of the status quo is the main prerequisite for a settlement.
Of the positive aspects – we should always try to look for something positive even in a deadlocked situation – I would point to the statement by Minsk Group co-chair countries – Russia, France and the United States – that the status quo is unacceptable. In order to change the status quo, it is necessary to begin the de-occupation of Azerbaijani territories, and as soon as this process begins, I am sure that the negotiations will enter a new phase. Armenia's attempts to leave everything as it is and to shift responsibility for this situation in the talks on Azerbaijan can’t be justified. Maybe in terms of propaganda they are still able to blame us. But if you look into the matter, I believe that Azerbaijan's position has always been consistent, principled and based on the principles and norms of international law. In fact, Armenia itself signed the Meiendorf declaration together with us and Russia in Moscow in 2008. It explicitly says that a settlement should be based on the resolutions and decisions of international organizations. And there are more than enough resolutions and decisions. The UN Security Council has passed four resolutions demanding a withdrawal of Armenian occupying forces from our territory. Also, all the documents refer to the Helsinki Final Act where people’s right to self-determination does not mean a violation of territorial integrity. If you carefully read the documents of the Helsinki Act, you will see that self-determination of peoples is carried out within the framework of the territorial integrity of countries.
The territorial integrity of Azerbaijan is recognized by the whole world. Nagorno-Karabakh is historically, politically and legally part of Azerbaijan. The formula proposed by the co-chairs of the Minsk Group in late 2009 was accepted by Azerbaijan and rejected by Armenia. Later, there were aspects in the negotiations which altered this clear formula. As a result, this enabled the Armenian side to speculate that Azerbaijan has allegedly rejected something, which is completely untrue. We are the most interested party in the settlement because it is our lands that are under occupation and our refugees suffer from being unable to return to their homes.
- How much time do you still think it is possible to conduct negotiations if, as you say, the opposing side simply wants to leave everything as it is?
- We still count on the countries that have taken up the mediatory function to be more active in this process and be involved in a settlement, not the process of security measures. After all, excessive security measures may harm the negotiation process. There have been repeated attempts to accuse Azerbaijan of not wanting confidence building measures and a lasting ceasefire on the line of contact. But, first, the ceasefire is violated from both sides. On the other hand, without progress in the very gist of negotiations, i.e. the de-occupation, no other measures seem particularly important. The main thing is that the mediators should work hard on the essence of negotiations. How long it will take remains to be seen. I find it hard to give any forecasts. But I think that this situation of the status-quo, hard as it is for us, is just as dangerous for Armenia. Because if they calculate at least the medium-term balance of forces in the region and, in general, the regional situation, the strengthening of Azerbaijan, it will be clear that in five to 10 years the situation will get even worse for them than it is now. It will be difficult and to some extent even dangerous for them to be at odds with Azerbaijan and keep our lands under occupation. If they want those who are living in Nagorno-Karabakh now to keep on living there in peace and security, they should start withdrawing the occupying forces from our territory.
- Mr. President, I suggest talking a little about the disputes that are resolved only in a peaceful and harmless manner. I mean sport. First, I congratulate Azerbaijan: I think you have shown the best result in your history in the Olympic Games in London – 10 medals. Wrestlers are the main suppliers of medals for Azerbaijan. In fact, this is the case in Russia too. What conditions are being created for athletes now and how do you prepare for the Winter Olympics?
- We have modest expectations for the Winter Olympics, of course. We still need to develop winter sports. After all, Azerbaijan is a southern country. But the outcome of the London Games is certainly gratifying and inspiring. It is the result of many years of hard work. We have achieved historic success and finished in 30th place in the world and in 15th in Europe. But this year, just recently, another important and I would say historic decision was made – to hold the inaugural European Olympic Games in Baku. As you know, European Olympic Games have never been held before although Olympic Games were established in Europe and restored by Baron de Coubertin also in Europe. But somehow European games, as opposed to other continental games, have never been conducted. When the decision was made to hold such games, I am very happy that the European sports family voted to hold the Games in Baku with a big margin. So we are preparing. In contrast to the big games, we have only two years to prepare. Countries are allowed six to seven years to prepare for the big games, but we hope to hold the first European Olympic Games in 2015. Thus, we will become a center of sporting achievements and development of the Olympic movement.
- I would like to add that this is an important recognition of Azerbaijan as part of Europe - it is in many ways a political decision.
- Yes, of course. You are quite right, this is a recognition of Azerbaijan as part of Europe, because, as you probably know, there is an ongoing debate, in Azerbaijan and in Europe, as to whether Azerbaijan is part of Europe. Our geographical position is such that there may be two opinions. Both are acceptable in principle. We are a member of the Council of Europe and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. We are at the crossroads of continents, and I think that this decision was very balanced, wise and correct. By the way, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Russian Olympic Committee for its support of our candidacy. It was expressed not only in the voting but also in active moral support. We are grateful to our Russian friends for that.
- This is because people in Russia want to come to Azerbaijan on a visit.
- I think this is because of what we have talked about - the relations between our countries are developing very positively and have a very solid base.
- I wish you every success. Thank you. I know that people in Russia don’t wish someone a happy birthday in advance, but since we don’t see each other every day, I will allow myself to do that and wish you and your family all the best.
- Thank you. Thank you very much. I also take this opportunity to wish a Happy New Year to all the people of Russia. I wish you all happiness, good health and prosperity.