Ilham Aliyev interviewed by First Deputy Director General of Russian news agency TASS Mikhail Gusman

05 april 2018, 21:00

President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has been interviewed by First Deputy Director General of the Russian news agency TASS Mikhail Gusman.

- Mr. President, Ilham Heydarovich, thank you very much for the opportunity to meet with you. We are meeting just a few days before the presidential election in Azerbaijan. These five years have passed very quickly. I think that maybe for you they have flown by like an instant. And yet, if you could say in a few words, although it might be difficult, what do you think have been the main achievements for you and for the country over the past five years?

- I think that the main achievement is that Azerbaijan continued to develop successfully over these years. Very many programs related to the social and economic development of our country have been implemented. Everything we had planned on was accomplished. Our achievements are also evaluated by international organizations. According to the latest assessment of the World Davos Economic Forum, Azerbaijan is ranked 35th in the world in terms of global competitiveness. According to the inclusive development index of the same Davos forum, we are in third place among developing countries. There are only 30 developed and two developing countries ahead of us. So I think that this assessment of the World Davos Forum best demonstrates what we have managed to achieve.

We have largely managed to achieve economic diversification, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been created, unemployment in Azerbaijan is at about 5 per cent. We have also managed to significantly reduce poverty, which is at 5.4 per cent today. All this is the result of the social and economic policy we have implemented in recent years. It has yielded significant results.

- You have talked about the economy, and this is very important. But Azerbaijan is still a young country by historical standards. In essence, it is less than 30 years old as a state with a developed political system. What political reforms in Azerbaijan do you consider successful and what more needs to be done for political development and political reform in the country?

- Of course, this topic is always on our agenda, and I have repeatedly stated publicly that it will be impossible to achieve sustainable development in the economic sphere without reforming the political system. A lot has been done in this direction in recent years. Azerbaijan is a country open to the world. All democratic institutions are available in our country. The freedom of the press is fully guaranteed. Azerbaijan is a country with a free Internet, and the number of Internet users is growing and approaching 80 per cent. The freedom of assembly and political activity is also fully guaranteed. As a member of the Council of Europe with considerable experience, we committed to further democratize our society, and I think we are confidently and successfully coping with that. Although, of course, there are still issues that require additional efforts, and we are working in this direction. We try to give a sensible assessment to the level of political reforms and achievements. We believe that the maximum possible has been done in 26 years of independence - considering our history and the emergence of Azerbaijan as a newly-independent state, the geographical location, the existing and possible risks in our region.

Among the areas we still need to develop, I would point to the strengthening of public oversight. I have spoken on this topic on a few occasions and urged our people to take more active steps in exercising control over the implementation of reforms. A lot is being done in terms of socioeconomic development and infrastructure in Azerbaijan, and inadequate public oversight sometimes leads to violations and delays in our plans. Also, we will certainly continue to work on further democratization of Azerbaijan. We are an open country. We have consciously embarked on this path and will continue to deepen both political and economic reforms.

- Ilham Heydarovich, when you talked about high expert assessments of Azerbaijan's achievements in the economy, this, of course, is primarily the result of Azerbaijan's economic independence. The foundations of this economic independence were laid by Heydar Aliyev, President and national leader of Azerbaijan. But it would be fair to say that complete economic independence was achieved literally in the last five years or a little more. In this regard, what areas of social and economic development do you consider to be of higher priority? Where has Azerbaijan achieved the greatest success and what areas do you think should still be developed?

- You are absolutely right. One of the main directions of our activity has been to ensure complete economic independence, which forms the basis of political independence. Because if a country is economically dependent, it can and often does experience great difficulties in implementing its independent policy. For this reason, this has been the main direction of our activity, and today Azerbaijan a fully self-supporting country from an economic point of view and has no economic difficulties. I can also quote a few figures: over the past 15 years, the Azerbaijani economy has grown 3.2 times, which I think is a world record. Also, despite the huge investment projects, we have carried out work to stabilize the external debt, which currently accounts for about 20 per cent of the GDP. I have issued instructions to significantly reduce it in the coming years. Azerbaijan’s currency reserves constitute the same volume as the gross domestic product. In other words, we can pay off all our debts in a matter of a few days or months if we want. Azerbaijan’s financial position is quite stable, and the investment projects we are implementing will certainly bring additional profit. I should also note that more than 230 billion dollars have been invested in the Azerbaijani economy over the past 15 years.

- Foreign investments?

- One half is foreign and the other internal, which also speaks about the active investment policy of both the state and the Azerbaijani private sector. Therefore, all this formed the basis of economic independence, which is fully assured today.

Of the significant achievements of recent years, I would note the progress in the energy sector. We have become a country exporting electricity. We used to import it. We are an exporter of gas, although we also imported gas just recently. We have implemented major oil and gas projects enabling us to accumulate major financial resources. We have invested heavily in the transport infrastructure both in the country and in the region, thus laying the foundations for sustainable development for the future.

Of the things that still remain to be done, I would, of course, mention the continuation of the policy to diversify our economy, reduce the certain dependence on the oil and gas factor and increase non-oil exports. We are actually working hard on this now. The results of the last 2-3 years have been very impressive. We have increased non-oil exports by 20-30 per cent, and this issue will be one of the highest priorities in the future, of course. I should note that, unlike some countries, we should constantly work on creation of jobs. Over the past 15 years, we have created 1.4 million jobs. But over these years, the population of Azerbaijan has grown by 1.5 million people, which, I think, is also an indicator of economic growth. Therefore, our economy should always be ahead of demographics. I put this task before the government and we are working in this direction.

Therefore, the creation of new industries and social infrastructure designed for a bigger population will be our top priority for the coming years.

- If we look at the map, we can see that Azerbaijan is located not in the quietest region of the world, so to speak. Here and there, there are flashes of all sorts of conflicts. This, of course, creates some concern and, at the same time, necessitates the strengthening of the country's defense capability. I know, and you have said it yourself a number of times, how much is being done to strengthen the army. Azerbaijan today has a modern army equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry. What other steps do you think should be taken to strengthen this area so that the country is truly and, as you said, reliably protected?

- Yes, you are right. This issue is always in the spotlight, and strengthening of the country’s military potential is one of our top priorities. A lot has been done in this direction. The Azerbaijani army today, according to international experts and organizations preparing various ratings, is among top 50 most equipped and efficient armies in the world. We have almost completed the process of rearmament. Our army is equipped with the most modern, high-precision and technological weapons of both offensive and defensive nature. We purchase weapons from the very best manufacturers, and this armament gives us the opportunity to feel confident enough. Of course, it is impossible to create a strong army with weaponry alone, of course, which is why a lot has been done to increase the fighting efficiency of our army and strengthen the discipline. Of course, the numerous exercises and trainings also show us where we still have shortcomings. We have significantly strengthened the material and technical infrastructure of the Armed Forces. More than 80 per cent of all our military bases and camps have been essentially rebuilt. In the coming years, we will complete the process associated with the material and technical infrastructure. In the coming years, we will be heavily involved in military construction, of course. As for the acquisition of weapons, it will be more selective, more specific and aimed for the solution of relevant tasks. In parallel with this, the Ministry of Defense Industry was established in Azerbaijan on my initiative about 10 years ago. Before that time, we did not manufacture any military products. We not only produce, but also export them now. More than 1000 military products meeting international standards are manufactured in Azerbaijan. This reduces our dependence on imports in many respects and also creates a good export potential. So Azerbaijan is becoming a country exporting armaments.

- Unlike several neighbors, Azerbaijan has historically been a multinational country. There are more than 10 large ethnic Diasporas and dozens of smaller nationalities in Azerbaijan. What is being done in your opinion, and how important do you think this activity is for maintaining interethnic accord and interethnic peace, so that these Diasporas live in good interaction with each other?

- You know, Azerbaijan has historically been a country noted for a high level of intercultural and interreligious dialogue. In former times, there were no such terms as multiculturalism, for example, but this has always been our way of life. We have managed not only to maintain these positive trends in the years of independence, but also strengthened them. Today, all peoples, representatives of all faiths living in our country feel comfortable. They feel like worthy citizens of our country, and they are indeed. I have repeatedly said that our wealth is in our diversity. Ethnic and religious diversity of Azerbaijan is a great asset for us. We value it very much and we do our best to ensure that these positive trends are strengthened further.

There are no potential problems in the sphere of interethnic and inter-confessional relations in Azerbaijan. We are implementing a state policy in this direction. It is also very important that society fully supports this policy. We are working hard on having these positive trends spread to both the region and the world. After all, we are not living in a vacuum. Naturally, the processes connected with certain strains and difficulties in interethnic relations anywhere in the world pose a potential threat. Therefore, many international events have been held on our initiative – the Baku Humanitarian Forum, the International Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, the Global Forum of the UN Alliance of Civilizations. This year, we are marking the 10th anniversary of the Baku process initiated by Azerbaijan, and it consists, briefly, in coordinating the efforts of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation member-countries and those of the Council of Europe precisely in terms of the dialogue between cultures, religions and civilizations. We are not doing this only to demonstrate our achievements in this direction, but to ensure that these positive trends are strengthened further. If we were to summarize briefly how we have achieved such a high level of interethnic and interreligious harmony, I think that this is due to the fact that we not only talk about it, but also think and act in this direction. If such an approach prevails in the world, there will be no such problems.

- In this regard, you have talked about inter-confessional peace. This is true. I have seen mosques full of people on Novruz, Orthodox people go to the Russian Orthodox church for the Easter, and people of the Jewish faith always go to the synagogue. Azerbaijan is a secular but at the same time Muslim country. It is not a secret for you that there are concerns about the development of radical Islamic groups. How likely is this threat, the threat of radical groups infiltrating here, for Azerbaijan? Do you think it is necessary to fight it and how could this be done?

- You know, this danger potentially exists in all Muslim countries. The main thing is how the government and society treat it, what the state of society is, and whether it perceives these ideas or not. Therefore, we have long understood that it is not enough to fight the export of radicalism by only administrative or any other measures. We had to – and this was achieved – narrow down, so to speak, the space for dangerous ideas. This is how I define it. We must narrow down this platform by our actions.

First of all, I think that education is the main guarantor of the consistent and successful development of Azerbaijan as a secular state. The literacy rate in Azerbaijan is approaching 100 per cent today. Education enjoys the most attention. Suffice it to say that the two leading expenditure items in our budget are defense and education. Defense is there for obvious reasons. Education is there for future generations of Azerbaijani citizens to be educated and vaccinated against radicalism. The second important factor is socioeconomic development. We can see that the ideas of radicalism and extremism catch on where there are many socioeconomic problems – poverty, unemployment, despair, and illiterate people think that this is their salvation. Therefore, I think that education coupled with economic and social development – as I said, the level of unemployment and poverty in Azerbaijan is one of the lowest in the world – are important factors in countering such propaganda. Of course, an active state policy and promotion of the ideas of national self-awareness, ideas related to our past, our plans for the future – all this also helps us counter potential threats. I must say that there are no potential risks associated with the radicalization of society within our country. We should simply protect ourselves from outside negative and dangerous influence – by administrative, socioeconomic and ideological nature measures, of course.

- Azerbaijan is pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy. Azerbaijan's foreign policy positions are clearly visible to everyone and grow stronger every year. Evidence of this is the fact that Azerbaijan was elected a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council a few years ago. What directions of foreign policy do you think should be developed and are there any inhibitions and shortcomings? How does Azerbaijan feel in the political family of nations today?

- We feel very comfortable and confident. I think that we have achieved the maximum possible in the sphere of foreign policy. As you mentioned, we were elected a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council a few years ago. We gained the support of 155 countries. This constitutes the absolute majority of members of the United Nations, which means that we, in the short period of independence, have been able to demonstrate ourselves to the world as a reliable country enjoying great respect. In our foreign policy, we have always proceeded from national interests. Foreign policy is a continuation of the domestic one. It helps us solve internal problems. Naturally, it has always been our position that we must strengthen our ties with our partners through mutually beneficial cooperation and through this cooperation achieve closer communication and mutual understanding. I think that we have succeeded in that. We did not intend our foreign policy to be multi-vector from the very beginning or to be acceptable to all. On many issues of principle, we have quite a few differences with our traditional partners. However, this does not stop us from seeing the main thing – the strategic nature of our relations, their importance for us and for our partners, and the focus on results.

I must say that we enjoy great confidence in the international arena. Some may disagree with us, but I think we are respected and trusted. Again, our national interests consist in having good relations with all countries, but not at the expense of any one-sided concessions, but as a result of an effectively structured policy of cooperation aimed at a tangible result. I think it is the result of this that Azerbaijan has very strong positions in the Muslim world and actively participates in and defends its interests in European structures. We have very close and good relations with our neighbors, which also treat us kindly. So there are no directions of foreign policy we should improve or correct something. I think that the main thing is to preserve this positive vector of development. This will contribute to the strengthening of regional stability.

- You have repeatedly talked about the strategic nature of Azerbaijan's relations with the Russian Federation. This is what Russian President Vladimir Putin has said too on a number of occasions. There have been elections in Russia. You were one of the first people to congratulate the President of Russia on his election to this post. Numerous experts speak of your particularly trusting relationship with the President of Russia, the so-called personal chemistry. You have met on many occasions. In this regard, how would you evaluate the current state of Russian-Azerbaijani, Azerbaijani-Russian relations? What else needs to be done? What is not going well? On the other hand, how important do you think personal contacts between the two leaders are for the development of these relations?

- Of course, personal contacts between leaders always play an important role in any interstate relations, especially in relations between neighboring countries, between countries that are linked by centuries of history. Our personal relations with President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin are certainly one of the important factors for the successful development of our bilateral relations. Our frequent meetings, contacts in a bilateral format, in a multilateral format contribute to the strengthening of our bilateral relations, to the strengthening of mutual understanding. As you have noted, we have a relation of great trust between us. There are no taboo themes. Should there emerge some issues that may require our intervention, we promptly contact each other by telephone or meet personally to iron out all wrinkles some of our subordinates may have let develop. This is the most important factor of our bilateral relations, which has played an important role in our interstate cooperation. I believe that our personal relations of trust and the common understanding of the importance of our countries for each other have enabled us to propel our cooperation to the level of strategic partnership Russia and Azerbaijan have declared.

We cooperate very closely on many issues. In the economy, our trade turnover is growing. We are working on joint projects in transport and energy sectors. Humanitarian cooperation is a vast field for cooperation. There are more than 300 Russian-language schools in Azerbaijan. All state higher educational institutions of Azerbaijan have a departure in Russian. Also, two branches of leading Russian universities – MSU and the Sechenov Medical University – were opened in Azerbaijan relatively recently, which is also an important factor for bilateral humanitarian cooperation. So the relationship is full-fledged, and I think that this is what relations between neighbors and friends should be like.

- I have another question on the international agenda. It is a question of the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan is a Caspian littoral country, and there are interests of other Caspian countries – Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran. I know that negotiations on the status of the Caspian Sea and on certain conditions for using the subsurface resources of the Caspian, are under way. What stage are they at and where do you see prospects of this development?

- I think the fact that we are moving in the right direction is important for determining the final legal status of the Caspian Sea. In all the issues that require evaluation and analysis, it is necessary to look at the trend. In other words, the trend is towards finding an understanding on this issue, and I must say that most of the work that needed to be done has already been done. I think that the goodwill that will continue to be displayed by all Caspian littoral states will allow us the opportunity to resolve this issue and to put a full stop in the issue of the Caspian status, as it were. At the same time, let me also note that the unresolved status of the Caspian Sea does not in any way affect the multilateral or bilateral formats of cooperation among Caspian states – at least, as far as Azerbaijan is concerned.

We have very close and friendly relations, relations filled with real content and a very high level of trust with all of the Caspian littoral countries. Therefore, I think the approach shared by all littoral countries is that we should not put the issue of the Caspian status as number one issue on the agenda of our relations with neighbors but should rather concentrate on the issues that can and should be resolved today, thereby laying the groundwork for resolving the issue. I believe that, as in all other issues related to international problems, the principles of international law and best international practices pertaining to the such issues, and the goodwill of the parties should prevail. Therefore, I believe that what has been done in this direction deserves commendation. There are plans to achieve progress in some areas of this issue. I think we will see some good results in the near future.

- Ilham Heydarovich, I cannot but ask you about how the situation around Nagorno-Karabakh is developing, of course. I understand that this topic is probably always present in your reflections and professional presidential activity. The Minsk Group is working, ministers meet and occasional high-level meetings in different formats take place. Yet I have the impression – and I think this impression is shared by the expert community in general – that the situation is cyclical. It is in a somewhat frozen state. How acceptable is this situation for Azerbaijan? Is it possible to expect a breakthrough in this regard and what steps should be taken to resolve this painful situation?

- Of course, the current situation is not acceptable for Azerbaijan and for the world community. Moreover, the countries that have the mandate for mediation, the Minsk Group co-chair countries Russia, France and the United States, have repeatedly stated in joint statements at the level of heads of state that the status quo is unacceptable and should be changed. We fully share these positions and consider such statements to be very correct. But we expect specific action. Of course, statements are important, but we need a settlement of the issue. All legal mechanisms required for the settlement are available. The UN Security Council adopted four resolutions more than 20 years ago, demanding an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops from the occupied territories. These resolutions remain in force and must be implemented, but Armenia refuses to implement them. Unfortunately, no sanctions were imposed on Armenia for this refusal.

Other international organizations have also adopted similar decisions and resolutions. The OSCE, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the European Parliament, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Non-Aligned Movement and other organizations have adopted similar resolutions. Armenia does not fulfill them. The occupation of Azerbaijani lands continues. As a result of this occupation, more than a million Azerbaijanis became internally displaced and refugees on their own land. Our cities have been destroyed and people driven out. We were subjected to ethnic cleansing. All this has been proven by facts and materials. There are sufficient materials available. The main reason why the issue is not being resolved is that Armenia does not want to change the status quo. They declare a desire to negotiate, but are actually engaged in imitating them and do everything to make sure that everything is cyclical, as you said, and that there is no end to this process. This is not acceptable for us or for the world community. Therefore, the soonest execution of UN Security Council resolutions by Armenia and the early start of de-occupation of Azerbaijani territories – in fact, Armenia has occupied not only Nagorno-Karabakh but also seven other districts of Azerbaijan that have no bearing to the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region of the Azerbaijan SSR – should be the first step in a phased settlement of the conflict. Again, it must be resolved on the basis of norms and principles of international law.

- When you talked about Azerbaijan’s international activity and the fact that Azerbaijan is becoming the venue for major forums and events, Azerbaijan acted as the initiator of these events and invited others. But there are already many examples of international organizations and international institutions choosing Azerbaijan for their meetings themselves. For example, in the current Russian-American relations, everyone has noticed that the chiefs of the general staffs of Russia and the United States, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States General Dunford and Chief of the Russian General Staff, Army General Gerasimov, have met in Baku twice. It was their choice which you approved. This, I think, is also a very important sign of Azerbaijan’s strengthening authority in the world. Do you consider it important that Azerbaijan and its capital Baku continue to be a platform for multilateral or bilateral meetings on the most pressing issues?

- Yes, you are absolutely right that Azerbaijan is becoming a platform for cooperation – not only regional but also global. We view the choice of Baku and the suggestions to host a meeting of the chiefs of general staffs of Russian and US armies as a sign of respect and confidence in us. We also see this as a part of Azerbaijan’s properly structured foreign policy. Azerbaijan is perceived by the world community as a very reliable partner and friendly country, a country that not only declares but also takes concrete steps towards international regional and global cooperation. We are a country that has already hosted a large number of major international events. These are international forums and sports events – the inaugural European games and the Fourth Games of Islamic Solidarity. There was an interval of two years between these two events. This is also a demonstration of our opportunities, a demonstration of the world’s attitude towards us. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Council of Europe unite more than 100 countries, or more than half of the world community. In essence, these are the leading countries of the world. Naturally, we have achieved this with hard work, with our policies and the fact that Baku has become a very recognizable city on the world map.

I must also say that the number of tourists coming to Azerbaijan has recently increased. The growth of tourism has been very significant over the past three years. All this is the result of the work we are doing. Azerbaijan is a stable country and the Azerbaijani people are noted for their hospitality. Our country has everything necessary for work and recreation. Of course, I think there will be more such events in the future. For our part, we always strive to ensure that the countries with which we have close cooperation also have a good working relationship among themselves. We live in this region. Everything that happens in the region, whether we want it or not, has a certain impact and influence on us. Therefore, we must strive to minimize the risks through international cooperation. If we can make a small contribution to the reduction of tensions between leading countries of the world, we, of course, will continue to do this in the future.

- Ilham Heydarovich, you know, those who love Azerbaijan and follow its successes, cannot but rejoice at Azerbaijan's achievements in the social and economic sphere and in terms of political development, of course. In the run-up to the election, looking back on the past five years, could you say what has been the most difficult over these years? Have there been situations that left you sleepless at night, when you thought that something was not working and more should be done? After all, you think beyond the election too, don’t you!

- To be honest, it is hard to remember something that would be so disturbing that would lead to sleepless nights. You know, I cannot recall any special difficulties. Of course, there are working situations, moments when there is a certain disappointment because the instructions are not always followed properly. But in general, everything went according to plan over these years. From the very beginning, I adopted the principle that sustainable development of the state is possible only if the steps are planned correctly, if there is proper sequence and prioritization. Everything should be focused on the result. We have always been far from populism and from populist rhetoric. Sometimes we even tried not to show ourselves too much, as it were, and just did what was necessary for the country to develop successfully. Again, I must say that there were no difficulties with issues related to our domestic development. And I think there won’t be any. The only concern was occasionally raised by issues related to the regional situation: how the aggravation of the regional situation can adversely affect our citizens, our country and what needs to be done to protect our people and country from the risks? If we talk about difficulties, I think this could be cited as an example, and only in the sense that these factors are beyond our control. As for the issues that depend on our decisions and actions, I cannot recall any difficult moments. Again, I must say that everything went according to plan and everything that was promised at the beginning of the journey was fulfilled and overfulfilled.

- Then, if you don’t mind, I will clarify this question. Hardly a week passes without you traveling to districts of the republic, to different regions. You meet with people a lot. As you correctly pointed out, populism is not typical of you. At the same time, people turn to you with some requests, with some questions. If you summarize and take different regions, what are your people most worried about? What do they turn to you for?

- I think the dynamics of such appeals is also the key indicator of our socioeconomic development. In my first years as president, there were many appeals over issues related to infrastructure, a poor state of schools and hospitals, a lack of electricity, gas and water, a lack of roads, etc. But as these issues were gradually resolved, proposals became completely different, of course. Today, as we already look back on the road we have covered, we see that almost all infrastructure issues in Azerbaijan have been resolved. Over the past 15 years, we have commissioned more than 30 power plants and turned into an energy exporting country. The level of gasification in Azerbaijan will reach 95 per cent by the end of this year. We have been commissioning more than 100,000 hectares of irrigated land every year recently, which gives a strong impetus to the development of agriculture. Over the past 15 years, including this year, 15,000 kilometers of roads have been built in Azerbaijan. These were the main issues of concern for our people. Also, 1.4 million jobs have actually reduced unemployment to 5 per cent. Therefore, the dynamics and themes of appeals have changed.

I visit the regions very often. At first, local leaders thought: he has come and given instructions, and no-one knows when he will come here again. But I went back in six months and then again six months later. So leaders on the ground realized that it was necessary to execute decisions and do their work not from one visit of the President to another, but on a daily basis. So this type of live communication allows me the opportunity to keep my hand on the pulse, know what people are concerned about and, of course, monitor the implementation of decisions. I think that the main direction of our activity in the coming years will be to improve the system of governance. As I said, infrastructure issues in the regions of Azerbaijan, issues related to the social infrastructure have been almost completely resolved. More than 3,100 schools have been built over the course of 15 years. To give you an idea, this is 80 per cent of all the schools. More than 600 medical institutions have been rebuilt or renovated. In other words, we are paying great attention to the social infrastructure as well. Issues related to governance, social justice, violations and bureaucratic red tape will be top of our agenda in the years ahead. This is exactly what public oversight I spoke about at the beginning of our conversation is needed for. This is mostly the reason behind my travels.

By the way, I must say that we are completing the third program of social and economic development of the regions of Azerbaijan this year. The first program was adopted in 2004. All of these programs, most of them are based on suggestions from the ground. In other words, these programs are not general in nature, they are not about slogans. They specifically state what will be done in each city and village and when. It is a graphic document of our activity for five years. We are about to complete the third program. It is already clear that we have significantly exceeded it. Therefore, I think that the most important task for the future will be to improve governance, increase the effectiveness of our work and create even better conditions for entrepreneurs and for diversifying the economy.

- We know of the modern Azerbaijan as a democratic and developing country, but 100 years ago there was already experience, albeit short, of the construction of a modern democratic republic. You have signed a relevant order to officially celebrate these events. From that experience, what mechanisms of formation of a democratic republic a hundred years ago seem important to you to be somehow used today? How useful is this experience?

- This year has been declared a "Year of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic" in Azerbaijan. We will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the democratic republic during the year, and this is the main event of the year. You know, when we look back on history, we think that it was no coincidence that the first democratic republic in the Muslim world was created by the Azerbaijanis. In other words, it originates from the history and from the character of our people - freedom-loving, proud and progressive. After all, if we read the works of classical Azerbaijani literature, there are quite a few philosophical themes in their works connected precisely with the issues that are so relevant today. Therefore, the creation of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan 100 years ago is a historic event for us. We feel a legitimate sense of pride for the fact that it was the Azerbaijani people who founded democracy in the East. The traditions of the democratic republic are alive today and modern Azerbaijan is its successor. A lot has been done in a short period of time to carry out political reforms. Suffice it to say that women were granted the right to vote much earlier than in many European countries. Many other important decisions were made. Today, looking back, we certainly remember the founders of the first republic with gratitude. But we should also learn from what happened to it. It existed for a little less than two years and, of course, we should not forget these lessons. Therefore, we are doing everything to strengthen the independence, sovereignty, economic potential and international authority of Azerbaijan, so that our country is always independent not only in form but also in essence. I think that if the founders of the first democratic republic could see Azerbaijan today, they would be very proud.

- Historically, Azerbaijan has always been a cultural center not only of the East but also of the whole world. Even if we take the last decades, the music of Gara Garayev and Fikret Amirov, the paintings of Sattar Bahlulzade and Tahir Salahov, who, thank God, is very much alive today, the literary works of Anar and the recently deceased Magsud Ibrahimbayov, in my opinion a great writer – all these are treasures of the world culture. These names are known to any cultured person. Do you think Azerbaijan’s cultural treasury is a special asset? What should be done to make sure that this cultural component, for which Azerbaijan really stands out, remains a priority?

- It is beyond doubt that our cultural heritage is a great asset, and we are proud of our outstanding representatives. For centuries, Azerbaijan has been giving the world prominent thinkers, poets, scientists and public figures. These traditions are continued today. Of course, the luminaries of Azerbaijani culture are the people who glorify Azerbaijan. They are the cultural heritage of our people, and we are very sensitive about our cultural heritage. We cherish it. The main task today is that the younger generation of Azerbaijanis is also brought up on the example of our outstanding personalities, is educated in the spirit of patriotism and is attached to our culture. I think that from the standpoint of educating the younger generation, this is one of the main directions. Of course, they should be open to the world, but they should also be attached to their historical and cultural roots. This is the guarantee of the progressive development of Azerbaijan and our society. We may have a strong economy, a strong army and a strong foreign policy, but we will not succeed in the absence of a foundation and roots. Therefore, the modern Azerbaijani state is based on deep cultural, national and moral roots and values, which we cherish, of course. We are certainly proud to have presented so many outstanding cultural figures to the world.

- You mentioned that Azerbaijan hosted the first European Games and the Games of Islamic Solidarity, but I think the choice of Azerbaijan as the venue of such major international competitions is explained not so much by the availability of good sports facilities here. Above all, it is a recognition of Azerbaijan as an increasingly serious sports nation. I have noticed that Azerbaijani athletes returning, let's say, from summer Olympics bring medals not only in traditional sports such as wrestling, but also in the most unexpected sports for Azerbaijan. In this regard, how important do you think it is to develop this component in Azerbaijan, so that the nation grows healthy and sport develops? What do you do for this?

- As the head of the National Olympic Committee of Azerbaijan with more than 20 years of experience, I must say that we have done a lot in this direction, and the progressive development of sport and our achievements are the best indicator. We progressed in several directions. First and foremost is mass sports. This is the foundation of public health – both physical and moral. Our athletes not only delight us with victories, they are also a good example of conduct in society. They are worthy people and behave with dignity. They are a good example for children. We decided to start building Olympic sport centers all over the country. There are 43 such centers all over the country and four more are under construction. Of course, the sports infrastructure of Baku is capable of hosting any competition, which we demonstrated at the European Games. Of course, professional sport also received great attention. Our athletes, of course, have delighted us a lot and will continue to do so. Suffice it to say that Azerbaijan finished in 14th place for the number of medals at the last Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Just imagine – of 200 countries, or slightly less, we finished 14th for the number of medals. This is a historic achievement. We could not even dream of that 20 years ago. We dreamed of one, two or three medals. We have dozens now. This is an indicator of the development of sports. After all, the life of an athlete is not long. It wasn’t just one outstanding athlete who has won so much. We have new people in almost all sports every year.

There are targeted programs. There is very strong state support, and all our agencies involved in the development of sports coordinate their efforts. The Olympic Committee, the Ministry of Youth and Sports, federations, clubs and sport associations – all of them work hard to further increase our achievements in sports. After all, it is not only an object of national pride, it is also a very important factor in public life. It raises the mood, the sense of patriotism and pride for your country. Most importantly, our champions are a good example for the younger generation, so that they do not smoke, do not drink, do not hang around idly, but do sports, achieve good results, and the country will adequately assess them for that.

- Ilham Heydarovich, Azerbaijan has to deal with tough competition in economy. Athletes are also faced with competition. But I think there is an area in which Azerbaijan has been the absolute champion of the world for many years, and I say this as an expert – it is your cuisine. Some people may disagree with me but since I am convinced of this, I think that Azerbaijani cuisine has no real competitors. In this regard, I know that you are not a particularly picky person when it comes to food but, nevertheless, what are your favorite dishes of Azerbaijani cuisine? In other words, what is the menu of the President of Azerbaijan? There are so many admirers of Azerbaijani cuisine today. There is hardly anyone who would leave Azerbaijan without having fallen in love with Azerbaijani cuisine. Moreover, as part of my program I have the honor of communicating with many of your colleagues who have been here. To be honest, when we start talking about Azerbaijan, they do not mention what you have talked about at length, but start with your cuisine. And this is also an indicator.

- Of course, the cuisine of each nation is an indicator of its culture, traditions and opportunities. Azerbaijani cuisine is very diverse and tasty, but also very dangerous.

- What is the danger?

- The danger is the uncontrolled weight gain.

- I apologize but I have even told my friends and colleagues who are in charge of the tourism industry that there is a great slogan – Azerbaijan is a paradise for those who do not want to lose weight. It is a slogan.

- I think you are right. This is why I try not to abuse it in my everyday life although, of course, I also think there is nothing tastier than Azerbaijani cuisine. I think that representatives of all peoples love their own cuisine. I am no exception. But in my everyday life I try to stay a little away. As for my favorite dishes of the Azerbaijani cuisine, I must say that I like almost all of them. But most of all I like those cooked by my wife Mehriban. She is an expert in this and, of course, delights me and all family members by her culinary works.

- This is particularly valuable these days, because Mrs. Mehriban Aliyeva also performs the functions of First Vice-President and has many other commitments and responsibilities. And the fact that she finds time to do that is especially valuable, I think.

- Yes. We appreciate this, of course, and are very grateful that she takes so much care of the family.

- Ilham Heydarovich, I have the honor of knowing you for many years. I looked in the media but never found this ... I realized that you don’t have a hobby. You have colleagues who collect stamps, but I can’t imagine you with a fishing rod or something else. I understand you do not have a specific hobby. But hobbies exist to somehow relieve the stress and relax. Where do you derive energy and how do you get rid of presidential stress? After all, you can’t avoid it.

- I do not have a hobby per se, but I think that hobbies are about doing something that gives you joy and pleasure. In my case, the greatest joy for me is to see the results of my work. Believe me, these are not just words for the camera, it is actually the case. When I see that what was planned on has been done or there is progress in a certain sphere of Azerbaijan's development, it gives a huge moral satisfaction. It is better than a hobby. So I think I compensate for the absence of a special hobby by this. Of course, I spend my free time in the family and this is probably where I draw energy for life. I am someone who is happy to go to work and returns home happily.

- This is my last question, Ilham Heydarovich. It is connected with my observation that you have been communicating with young people more and more often recently, attending youth events and receiving delegations of young people. The first political generation of the 21st century, so to speak, now comes into life and gains strength. It is a political generation that will replace the current one. What would you like the youth of modern Azerbaijan – it is very interesting and diverse – to be like, as it will eventually replace the current political generation?

- Yes, you are absolutely right. I think it is the most important area of activity for any country's leader. After all, young people are future leaders. They are people who will determine the future of the country. This is why the future must be in reliable hands. I am happy that the Azerbaijani youth today meets the highest requirements. I think that we will pursue an even more active policy in this direction in the future. Of course, I would like all Azerbaijani youngsters to be devoted to their Motherland. It is the main prerequisite of independence and the main guarantee of success to love your Motherland and serve it honestly. Of course, it is important that young people are brought up in the spirit of traditional values characteristic of the Azerbaijani people, and we are doing everything for that. Our national culture, art, music and national ideology – all this promotes our values, and we must always be attached to our moral roots. Young people must be protected. But they must also protect themselves from outside influences because in the first years of independence it seemed to many that someone would come and show us how to live and help us. There was a feeling of dependency in the air. But then we realized that our destiny is in our own hands. And today, when someone obsessively wants to give us some help, we are always a little doubtful. Therefore, young people should understand that the future of Azerbaijan is in the hands of the Azerbaijanis, the people of Azerbaijan, and be very selective in assessing certain ideological actions. In other words, I think that protecting young people from negative outside influences is one of the main directions of our ideological work.

At the same time, our youth, of course, should be open to the world, should be open to everything modern and progressive. Briefly, our management formula is that the state is based on very strong traditional roots, traditional values which the Azerbaijani people have followed, are following and should follow. We must be attached to our traditions, to our culture, to our language, to our perception of the world. At the same time, we must adopt all the best and progressive practices in order to modernize our country, strengthen its potential, strengthen the secular character of our society, thereby ensuring progressive development. Ideally, this is the picture we would like to see. To a large extent, we have succeeded in doing that, and the youth should build their activities in this direction in the future.

- Thank you very much, Ilham Heydarovich. Thank you very much for the conversation.

- Thank you.