Speech by Ilham Aliyev at the opening ceremony of the international festive event marking the 20th anniversary of the state independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan

23 september 2011, 11:10

- Dear Ladies and Gentlemen!

- Dear guests!

I would like to welcome you all in Azerbaijan! Welcome to our country! I am very glad that you came to participate at this very important occasion, which marks the 20th anniversary of the restoration of our independence.

This year - 2011, we celebrate 20 years of our independence in Azerbaijan and outside of our country. It is a good opportunity, to evaluate what has been done during these 20 years, how Azerbaijan has transformed as an independent country, and what else must be done in order to develop our country, strengthen the political system and develop the economy. Looking back from where we started, we can see that in the early years of our independence the situation in Azerbaijan was very difficult. As a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan restored its independence. I would like to particularly underline that because first democratic republic in Azerbaijan was established in 1918 and lasted for less than two years. Therefore, 1991 was the year of restoration of independence. But, the country's potential and situation inside and around were not supportive to our goals and ideas. Economy was ruined. Industry was in stagnation. There was a very deep political crisis, economic and military crisis. If we add here the Armenian aggression and occupation by the Armenian armed forces of the internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan, with large number of refugees and IDPs, and the civil war, which started in the early years of independence, you can imagine that the future of Azerbaijan as an independent country was under question. Therefore, a lot of efforts were needed to improve the situation, to stabilize it, and to develop the country as a modern, democratic state with strong economy and strong regional positions. Looking back now from 2011, we can see that we basically managed to overcome all the difficulties and to build a country, which I am sure all Azerbaijani people can be proud of.

The crucial moment in our history as independent country was 1993. Because at that time, with all those difficult elements and situation, which I described as aggravating, the Azerbaijani people made a historic choice, by electing  Heydar Aliyev as President of the country. A person with great experience and popularity, he managed to create such a situation that Azerbaijan started to develop. First of all, civil war stopped. Second, a ceasefire agreement was signed with Armenia. We started very serious and deep political and economic reforms. At that time we did not have any financial resources. As I said, industry was not functioning. The oil industry was also in stagnation. Azerbaijan is known to the world as a place where first oil was extracted. During the years of the Second World War, more than 70% of the oil in Soviet Union was produced in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani oilmen played a significant role in the victory over fascism. Because, without the Azerbaijani oil there would have been no fuel for the Soviet Army. That industry was also in stagnation. Therefore, we needed to find ways to survive: not only to protect our statehood, but also to build a really independent country. The strategic decision at that time was to develop democratic processes in Azerbaijan, strengthen democratic institutions, help to create a sound political system, and to start implementing liberal economic reforms, that could create attractive climate for foreign investments.  At that time, without foreign investments, Azerbaijan's survival could be very difficult. And that happened.

Just a year after the civil war stopped, here, in the Gulustan Palace, a major oil contract was signed between Azerbaijan and a number of major oil companies of the world, which opened a new era for Azerbaijan. It gave us an opportunity to present ourselves to the world. Because, at that time we were also in information blockade. The Armenian lobbies worldwide were acting against Azerbaijan and trying to mislead world's public opinion with respect to the aggression of Armenia against Azerbaijan. Also, for the first time in the world, Caspian Sea energy sources started to be developed by international energy companies. We enjoyed multi-billion investments in Azerbaijan and created a very good investment climate. Actually, that moment was one of the most important stages in our history, not only because we managed to attract investments, but also the cooperation with leading companies of the world gave us experience and knowledge about how things in international business community must be solved.  

Since that time a lot has been done in our country. The country is developing. In all other areas, we have significant progress.

Today, Azerbaijan, from a regional point of view, plays an important role as a stabilizing factor in the region, as a country which initiated and continues to initiate numerous political, economic and energy projects. And all of them are successful.

Of course, our biggest problem is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It poses a threat not only to Azerbaijan, but also to the entire region. This conflict is in international spotlight now. Azerbaijani lands are under occupation. This goes on for two decades. The internationally recognized historical Azerbaijani land of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding seven districts have been under occupation for 20 years. Our people have been subjected to ethnic cleansing. We have more than a million refugees and IDPs. Twenty per cent of our land is under occupation and, unfortunately, this situation has yet to change. Of course, there is quite a strong legal basis on this issue. As you know, there are four UN Security Council resolutions. And these, as you know, are international decisions taken at the highest level. These resolutions demand an unconditional withdrawal of occupying troops from our territories. However, although about 20 years have elapsed, these resolutions have not been implemented. The people of Azerbaijan are asking perfectly legitimate questions: Why are these resolutions not fulfilled? Why is it that UN Security Council resolutions start to be fulfilled within hours in some cases, but when it comes to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, they remain unfulfilled for years? As you know, there are a number of resolutions passed by other international organizations – the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Unfortunately, they also remain on paper. For this reason, I would like to note again that this injustice poses a big threat and danger to the stability and security not only in Azerbaijan but also the entire region. Our citizens have the right to return to their lands. The fundamental rights of more than one million Azerbaijani citizens should be secured. The territorial integrity of our country is recognized by the international community, by all countries.

We are demonstrating a constructive stance in the talks to the maximum extent possible. But in return, we see a destructive position of Armenia. We are coming to the conclusion that Armenia intends to maximally prolong the negotiations. Our last meetings also demonstrate that the only issue on their agenda is a rejection of peace. The preservation of the status quo is intended to delay the process. But I would like to indicate that the status quo is unacceptable. The leaders of the Minsk Group co-chair countries have also said that the status quo must be changed. This is a strong message from the international community to the Armenian leadership. We are also in favor of changing the status quo. We want to resolve the issue peacefully and have repeatedly stated our commitments in this regard. In contrast to the Armenian leadership, we are sincere in these negotiations. I think that under such circumstances, the co-chairs of the Minsk Group should make more effective effort, be more active. The Armenian government has to understand that a country that has occupied an internationally recognized territory of another state in the 21st century cannot remain unpunished.

If Azerbaijan had had a strong leadership in the 1990s, if it hadn’t been for the incompetent people in the government and if these people had had some skills in geopolitics, statehood and governance, we would not be in this situation today. The weak and economically very poor Armenia could not have seized an inch of our land. We intend to change this situation, we have the desire to do so. We aim to resolve this issue peacefully, and from this standpoint the efforts of the international community and international organizations are very important.

I see some of my colleagues here – we worked together when I was leading the Azerbaijani delegation to PACE. The question arises: do we really want to resolve the problem? Let’s discuss this in detail. Let's conduct a broad discussion in the Council of Europe, the OSCE, the European Union, the European Parliament. I would like to take this opportunity to express my deep gratitude for international support. I would like to note again that we are striving for a solution that would ensure the rights of all ethnic minorities, restore the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and enable us to live in peace and friendship. Azerbaijan is a very tolerant country which is home to many ethnic minorities. Representatives of various religions live here in friendship. There have been no problems, not even misunderstandings in our country, and we are proud of that. So we propose to use the positive experience of Europe. We propose to use the positive and very successful experience of the autonomy model existing in Europe. I think the successful examples of autonomies applied in the European family can be applied here. We are well aware of what an autonomy is, what the right to self-government means. I am sure this will be the most important factor in resolving the issue, and we will succeed in that.

The Azerbaijani economy is developing. In terms of gross domestic product growth, we have achieved the highest indicators. Our economy has grown practically by 300 per cent. Industry has developed at the same rate. We have resolved the country’s biggest problems. The problem of unemployment has practically been resolved. Over the last seven years, 900,000 jobs were created in the country. Domestic production has increased. Today, we can provide for the country's needs by domestic production. We have substantially reduced the level of poverty. In the last seven years the level of poverty has dropped five times. Today we are showing everyone that our economy is built on a solid foundation. Even during the global political and economic crisis Azerbaijan was demonstrating sustainable development. This year we have raised pensions by 40 per cent. Assistance to those in need of state support will continue to be provided.

The share of the private sector in the economy has already reached 80 per cent. Thus, our liberal economic policies and political reforms, the solution of existing problems have created a favorable environment in society. Our society is united around national interests. In the first years of independence, of course, there were some issues and problems. But a strategic choice was made at that time: the future of our country is in the creation of a modern state. The rule of law must be ensured, there must be freedom of religion, freedom of the media. Today 50 per cent of our population are Internet users. Today we have the freedom of speech and the press. Of course, further reform should be implemented in this sphere. We must strengthen our institutions and promote democracy. But I want to say that given the difficult situation in the region over the past 20 years, we can say that we have done the most of what could be done.

The Azerbaijani economy accounts for 75 per cent of the South Caucasus economy. This figure will grow further in the future. As you know, our countries emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Of course, some statistics concerning neighborhood issues is of great interest. But the public has been repeatedly informed, and I have personally stated several times that Azerbaijan has become a modern state. Strong political, economic and social reforms are under way. According to the World Economic Forum, Azerbaijan is 55th in the world and first the CIS in terms of competitiveness. This is also evidence of our ongoing reforms. Our main goal is to create a modern state. We attach exceptional importance to cooperation with European institutions in all areas. I am very pleased that there are people from all over the world here, in particular the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. It is also an indication that we have a very successful cooperation with European institutions. European institutions have played an important role in the transformation of our country. This is due not only to the improving legal framework. I believe that in the last 10 years we have learned a lot from our European partners. But I think we are mutually contributing to the enrichment of each other’s lives. Our new summit with the European Union will be held in a few days. Our relations with countries of the European Union are at a wonderful level. Our relations with the European Union are at a very high level. We have a very broad agenda. For this reason, I believe that we are working very successfully. Over the next few years, our relations will become even stronger.

We strive to bring our country’s development criteria into line with the standards of European states. I think we will succeed in that. At the same time, we are not going to Europe, if I may say so, empty-handed. We can offer a lot in terms of European energy security, combating terrorism, and transportation. In the past years we have discussed many issues. Our negotiations were dominated by oil, gas and fuel issues. Today, I am very pleased that we are talking less about oil and gas. I am very pleased that Azerbaijan is not only seen a partner capable of transporting energy, but also as a modern country. We are viewed as a model of ethnic and religious tolerance. Azerbaijan has turned into an enlightened state with a young population, a country with a great potential in tourism. We are very pleased to have turned the oil into the human capital. We have left behind the Dutch Disease. Many experts used to say that Azerbaijan will be affected by the Dutch Disease, that the rich will become even richer and the poor will live even in worse conditions. We have proven that it is possible not to be exposed to the disease.

We have used the experience of a number of leading countries. The transparency of our oil and gas operations is at the highest level. At present, the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan is the most transparent of such organizations. This is not just my statement, but an assessment of international organizations. The reduction of poverty from 49 to nine per cent confirms that the revenues from Azerbaijan’s oil and gas resources are distributed equitably. Today, we have reduced the gap between the rich and the poor. I think we can eliminate poverty completely.

Of course, as I said, I would not like to talk a lot about oil and gas. But I want to say that this is our important and main wealth. Ten years ago Azerbaijan was in a very different situation. Our oil and gas resources have facilitated economic development. These resources will play a growing role in European energy security. Azerbaijan’s role in the relations with many European countries and in the energy consumption of many European states is growing. Some countries already rely on Azerbaijani oil and gas by 40 per cent. We have proved to be a strong partner. We have always taken steps to strengthen partnership and cooperation. We have used our resources in the name of peace. We are already seeing the fruits of that. In the community of energy producers we are already considered a strong partner, a friendly country. Today we are turning from an oil exporter into a gas exporting nation. Our energy policies will bear fruit. As you know, we have discovered a major gas field. It will provide our country with gas for the next one hundred years. We already have seven pipelines through which energy is transported in different directions. We intend to extend our pipelines, in particular in the direction of consumers that do not have access to the sea. It is also very important.

The work already done in Azerbaijan and our initiatives show that the energy cooperation between Azerbaijan and the European Union will continue to grow. We have a solid foundation for this cooperation.

As you know, Mr. Barroso, the President of the European Commission, has visited our country, and the Agreement on the Southern Gas Corridor was signed. I would like to note that this document, one in a series of agreements signed in this area, will open up good opportunities for cooperation with Europe. We have already started implementing this Declaration. Naturally, this document is not of the agreement nature, but rather a declaration. But we have already begun to fulfill our obligations under this Declaration.

As I have mentioned, Azerbaijan’s relations with the European Union are entering a new phase. This is a relationship of a mutually beneficial cooperation. This relationship is built on mutual respect and consideration. Key factors here are also mutual understanding, mutual profit and profitability. As I have said, we will cover the path of development, establish cooperation on the basis of our ideas and the ideas of our European partners so that there are no questions as to what form this cooperation will have.

As I have said, we have been independent for 20 years. We are proud of our history and culture. The fact that we live as an independent and free nation is causing the greatest pride. Azerbaijan's future lies in the hands of the Azerbaijani people. That did not happen for centuries. Today, this factor is very gratifying. The Azerbaijani citizens present here today will know that we all lived in a period when Azerbaijan was not independent. Sometimes hearing talk about the past, representatives of the younger generation do not always realize the constraints and limitations of that time. We could not travel to any neighboring foreign countries then. We could not visit our socialist neighbors. As for decision-making, it was impossible then. I am very glad that the younger generation is aware of this today. We have great experience because we lived in that period and are well aware of its positive and negative sides. I want to say today that our biggest accomplishment is our independence and freedom. For the people of Azerbaijan this is the biggest asset because it was deprived of independence for centuries. So today I want to say that independence is our greatest achievement. Today our state conducts an independent, friendly and predictable policy. This proves again that Azerbaijan can become a confident and strong European partner. It is this factor that Azerbaijan’s relations with European structures and institutions are built on today, and I am sure that this will provide a firm foundation for the development of our relations.

Let me welcome you to our country again, dear friends! On behalf of our state, I want to thank you for taking part in such a respectable event. These days Azerbaijan is hosting a number of international events, conferences and seminars. But this event has special significance. Your visit to Azerbaijan, to Baku and participation in this event are hugely important to us. We perceive this as your friendly and partner contributions. Many of you have been to our country before. I want to specifically welcome those of you who are here for the first time. I hope you will not only hold discussions, but also see the sights of Azerbaijan.

Thank you and I wish your conference every success.