Speech by Ilham Aliyev at the first session of Azerbaijani Parliament’s sixth convocation
10 march 2020, 11:05
Dear members of parliament, dear ladies and gentlemen.
The Milli Majlis of the sixth convocation begins its work today. I heartily congratulate all the MPs on this occasion and wish you success.
First of all, I want to express my gratitude to members of the Milli Majlis of the fifth convocation for their activities. The Milli Majlis of the fifth convocation, its members and leaders played a major role in the successful development of our country. The laws adopted by the parliament have strengthened the legal foundations of our successful development. I am sure that the Milli Majlis of the sixth convocation will also work successfully and thus contribute to the wide-ranging and comprehensive reforms under way in our country, to deepening them.
The parliamentary elections held on 9 February became an important event in the life of our country. All elections are important, but the latest were special because they were early elections. The main reason for holding these elections in February was to deepen the reforms and organize the work of the new Milli Majlis without wasting any time. I believe that the elections were successful and there was a lot of interest in them this time. Clear evidence of this is the participation of more than 1300 candidates in the elections. Of course, candidates were able to carry out extensive work, freely convey their thoughts, views and ideas to the voters. Equal conditions were created for all the candidates and there was no discrimination. In fact, the participation of more than 1300 candidates is a manifestation of their confidence in the elections. I believe that in general the electoral process was successful and the results reflect the will of the Azerbaijani people. The key thing is that the Azerbaijani people were satisfied with the elections, as once again witnessed by the events observed after the elections.
We invited many international organizations and observers to follow the elections, and the vast majority of them very positively evaluated the period of preparations, the campaigning and the voting day. It is possible to say that the vast majority of observers assessed the elections as yet another successful step towards the development of democracy and stated that the Azerbaijani people freely exercises their suffrage and the election results reflect the real picture. The international observers who declared this, of course, reflected the real state of affairs. At the same time, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and some organizations under its influence, which always approach the electoral process in Azerbaijan through the prism of double standards and bias, have again tried to exaggerate some minor irregularities in order to present them as a major event. No elections are perfect. There were shortcomings this time too and the cancellation of results in four districts shows that Azerbaijan itself is interested in not having such shortcomings. Post-election processes have once again demonstrated that our intention was to enable Azerbaijani people to freely exercise their suffrage and vote for their candidate, thus expressing their opinion and political will. In general, we succeeded in doing that, and the picture observed after the election shows that the Azerbaijani people agreed with the election results. This is the main thing for us.
At the same time, I believe that the European Union made a very objective statement in connection with the elections. It expressed its readiness to work with the newly-elected MPs, the Azerbaijani parliament. This essentially means recognition of the elections. As for the opinion of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, apparently due to the absence of serious incidents, it had to present its report in a somewhat balanced manner this time. However, we have long known that their reports are written before elections. We also know where they are written. In addition, the recent statements by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and its assessment of the elections in some countries show again how biased and prejudiced they are. This shows that this organization is fulfilling a political order. The latest example was the parliamentary elections held in Armenia in 2018. As you know, those elections were completely rigged by the then ruling fascist party of the Republicans. I call this party fascist not only because of their ideology and essence, but also because it is enough to look at their emblem to understand that it doesn’t differ much from the emblem of fascist Germany. And the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights gave a positive conclusion on those rigged elections, during which the Republican Party appropriated more than 50 percent of the votes. In other words, it became an accomplice in this falsification, and the events that followed are known to all. After that, this illegal and corrupt regime was overthrown, the deputies allegedly representing them in the Armenian parliament surrendered, raised their hands up and stepped aside with a miserable look. New parliamentary elections were called, and the fascist Republican Party was not able to get into parliament at all. What does this suggest? This suggests that the results of the elections that had been rigged two or three months prior to these elections were evident, but the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights expressed a positive opinion about this rigging. So by citing this as an example, I want to say again that the opinion of this organization does not mean anything at all to us because it is written on the basis of a political order and serves, as it were, a means of pressure for leading circles of some states.
I want to mention another issue related to observers. Honestly, I was surprised by this too. I can say that in the current elections we saw all the organizations we invited as observers. However, we did not send an invitation to the European Parliament because, firstly, we are not a member of this organization, and secondly, we do not see the need for that for about the same reasons. The European Parliament is the leader in adopting unfair resolutions against Azerbaijan. Their resolutions have absolutely no meaning for us too. However, I must say that such trends against us are still being observed today.
So we did not invite this organization. But they circulated a statement that they refuse to observe these elections. This, to put it mildly, is a political falsification because we did not invite you, we don’t want to see you here and we don’t believe you. This being the case, to say that they are refusing to observe the elections is ridiculous and surprising.
In other words, the elections showed again that the people value our political course highly. I believe that post-election processes will develop in a positive direction. The Milli Majlis of the sixth convocation is a multi-party parliament. This is a very positive sign. I believe that the Milli Majlis will and should play a huge role in improving the political system. All political forces took part in the elections. The marginal group calling itself the opposition allegedly boycotted the elections. This is ridiculous because the Azerbaijani people have long boycotted this disgraceful entity which has been in the dustbin of history for 27 years. Under such circumstances, the announcement of a boycott is both funny and surprising.
Thus, as a result of the elections contested by all political forces, a multi-party parliament was formed, and I believe that this is an important step towards development of democracy. As you know, the New Azerbaijan Party has won the majority of the seats. Of course, the words of the New Azerbaijan Party in the Milli Majlis are quite valuable and effective. MPs representing the New Azerbaijan Party gathered on my instruction this morning and made important decisions. I recommended that representatives of parties be represented on the leadership of the Milli Majlis of the sixth convocation and in the leadership of committees. This was not the case before. Representatives of the opposition were not represented in the leadership of committees in the Milli Majlis of the previous convocation or in the leadership of the parliament. However, I believe that in order to strengthen the political system in Azerbaijan and strengthen political relations on a sound basis, this is necessary. Of course, I believe that the New Azerbaijan Party is taking the right step in this direction in common interests.
I can say that the Milli Majlis of the sixth convocation will, of course, have its say in this area. At the same time, representatives of the Presidential Administration have recently held meetings with leaders of practically all political forces. I am regularly updated about these meetings. Overall, the initial opinion is positive. I believe that in the current period of large-scale reforms, it is necessary to carry out political reforms that cannot be carried out without a broad dialogue between the parties. One ruling party cannot conduct political dialogue on its own because a dialogue requires partners, and the initial impression is positive. This initiative is being implemented without any preconditions. However, the marginalized and club-like group that has completely lost all popular support has refused to hold this meeting again. They refused, they know better. In any case, we will not be the losers. A new political configuration of Azerbaijan is being formed. I believe that the Milli Majlis will take the necessary steps to improve the political system in the legislative sphere too, and the multi-party system in Azerbaijan will be built on an even more solid foundation. Currently, no serious criteria are required to establish a political party. I believe that this practice must end. If we are really interested in developing a multi-party system in Azerbaijan – and we want and propose this as a party in power – then, of course, we need the whole range of tools necessary for the activities of political parties. I believe that this will be one of the issues on the agenda of the Milli Majlis.
In a nutshell, the elections, the post-election period and the steps taken by the authorities in relation to political parties – all this reflects a new stage in our policy. This reflects our course towards reforms. As you know, a new phase of reform began after the 2018 presidential election. I proclaimed these reforms at the inauguration ceremony in this assembly hall. We are consistently implementing them, which is reflected in life. This also suggests that our words, as always, do not diverge from our actions.
Reforms are both conceptual and structural in nature. Personnel reforms are underway. The Presidential Administration has been formed in an almost fully new composition. New departments have been set up. The establishment of these departments also confirms my words and our intentions again. A new Cabinet of Ministers is now in place. The Cabinet of Ministers operates more quickly and flexibly now. Personnel reforms have been carried out in the ministries. Reforms are and will be carried out in local executive bodies. The disgraceful picture observed in some local executive authorities is causing the indignation of all our people. Cleaning will continue to be carried out in central and local executive authorities and in all state structures. I said this before and want to say it again: if someone wants to work in public service, their actions and thoughts should be clean. If someone does not see these qualities in themselves, then they should leave civil service in order not to become unhappy.
Therefore, the deepening of reforms could not have bypassed parliament, of course. I believe that the new composition of the Milli Majlis will give a new impetus to the reforms. The MPs have major tasks ahead of them, first of all in the legislative sphere. Because the main work of the parliament is legislation. I recommend paying more attention not to quantity but to quality because it is necessary to consider improving the existing laws, to review them. I have asked executive bodies to review the implementation status of the adopted laws. We adopt many great laws. The President also signs many important orders, but control over their implementation is not up to standard. Therefore, a special department has been set up within the Presidential Administration. I consider that the Milli Majlis, the MPs should also be engaged in this. See if the laws are being implemented, whether or not they are violated. If such facts do come to light, strict penalties must be applied, of course.
Therefore, I believe that, in general, it will take some time, of course, but it must be done in any case. We must review our legislative framework. If necessary, we must bring it into line with the goals we are facing because life does not stand still, new challenges and new problems are emerging. Suddenly events take place that confuse the whole world. Therefore, these laws are not dogma, of course, they should be reviewed. The main essence of the new laws that will be adopted is to deepen the reforms. Therefore, as I have already noted, legislative initiatives will be needed to form and strengthen the political system. Laws should be adopted that will contribute to the deepening of economic reforms.
I believe that the legislative framework related to our national values and to the preservation of our traditional national values should be broader.
With regard to information security. We live in an age of information, and the circulation of the so-called fake news is unfortunately widespread. And any false information can lead to major consequences. We in Azerbaijan have long been faced with these slanderous campaigns. The main reason for this is our independent policy because we do not bow our heads to anyone. And the consequences of this are that an information campaign is being waged against us – a smear campaign, a campaign built on lies, slander and fabrications. Therefore, there must definitely be new approaches in the legislation, new thoughts related to the protection of information, information security.
With regard to social policy. Azerbaijan is a social state, and all our steps confirm this. The socially oriented package implemented on my initiative last year alone covers 4.2 million people. The regular increase in the minimum wage and minimum pension, of course, requires major economic sources, and we are creating them. The processes taking place in our country in relation to transparency, the processes aimed against the shadow economy strengthen our economic opportunities, expand our tax base and deal a serious blow to the shadow economy. Therefore, all these issues should certainly be the spotlight of laws.
With regard to the youth policy. Young people constitute the vast majority of the population of Azerbaijan, the demographic picture in Azerbaijan is very positive. Therefore, of course, it is necessary to take legislative steps towards effective organization of youth leisure, engaging it in active work, for example the volunteer movement, and educating them in the spirit of patriotism. Young people should be raised in the national spirit, not fall under external influence, especially in the current age of the Internet when any lie that is subsequently presented as a reality circulates very fast. This is a part of the shady policy being pursued against us because it is no secret that the public and political situation in Azerbaijan is currently very stable. There is not a single factor in our country that can pose a threat to public and political stability. This is why the anti-Azerbaijani forces are trying to create these factors outside our country. They no longer rely on the group that calls itself the opposition here and supposedly continues to operate in an absolutely shameful position. And there is no more confidence for them. So work is underway to create a new fifth column because the current fifth column does not justify the confidence of its owners. They could not carry out a coup in Azerbaijan, perform a “revolution" or win popular support, and simply appropriated the money given to them on a regular basis and thus left their patrons high and dry. Therefore, a new fifth column is being sought. In this regard, I want to strictly warn all political forces: this is a path of betrayal. Whoever follows this path will commit treason against the people and state. Therefore, all our internal problems should be resolved within Azerbaijan. We should not export our domestic problems or political discord. First of all, it is absolutely pointless because there is no force in the world today that can impose any solution on us or dictate anything to us. There is no such force out there and as long as I am president, there won’t be any. Therefore, it is absolutely pointless. Attempts to exert pressure on Azerbaijan or threaten us with sanctions are all completely meaningless. This is a crime against the state, not against the government, and let no-one forget that.
In recent years, we have faced different forms of pressure, different campaigns, but we never turned away from our path. The calm of our country and people, security, stability, the well-being of our people and the independent policy are above everything else for us. We cooperate with international organizations, are a member of some organizations, we entered them of our own accord and can of our own accord as well – if something doesn’t suit us in these organizations at some point or if prejudice against us reaches an extent too high for us to tolerate. Therefore, I believe that representatives of all political bodies should be very careful in this area.
As for the young generation, let me say again that it is patriotic in our country, it is attached to the motherland and national roots. And it should be the case. I have repeatedly said this, but I want to say it again – our young people should be raised in the national spirit. At the same time, additional measures should be taken to train our young people morally and physically. I believe that the Milli Majlis and its respective committees will do this and put forward specific proposals.
Of course, I recommend that MPs be active in the constituencies they were elected from and to always stay in touch with the voters. It is no secret now that some MPs were a little or completely detached from the voters before. They did not even visit their constituencies and enquire about problems. Personal problems were put at the forefront. This must also end. There were many such facts before. Having their relatives appointed to senior posts, acquiring some land plots, supporting a business, etc. I don’t want to go into the nitty-gritty of that. Therefore, the new Milli Majlis should be morally flawless because this is the main essence of our reforms. If our citizens look carefully at the reforms in the political sphere, structural and personnel reforms, they will see that the personnel appointed to new posts are clean. So there is no negative background behind them, so to speak. The Milli Majlis and his members should meet the same criteria. You will have to answer to the people tomorrow. Therefore, you should always be interested in the problems of the constituencies you were elected from, meet with voters and visit the constituencies. At the same time, you need to identify existing problems, raise them with executive bodies and bring them to the attention of central executive authorities. I believe that the new Milli Majlis will carry out activities in this area successful.
In connection with international activities, I want to say that our MPs are represented in several international organizations. Of course, our activity there was quite extensive in previous years. It should be even higher now because we must communicate the realities of Azerbaijan to the world. In particular, we must communicate the historical realities associated with the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Historical justice is on our side. International law also supports our position. Therefore, the Armenian side cannot put forward a single serious argument against ours – only lies, slander, historical falsification and mythology. This is actually their essence. Within a broad network, they bribe certain politicians. This is no secret to anyone. Under such circumstances, their historical falsification seems to be justified. Therefore, our MPs in all international organizations must present the historical truth. After I mentioned the Kurekchay peace treaty in Munich, I know that people in Armenia are reading it carefully. It clearly indicates who and when concluded this agreement. There is no question of the Armenian people there at all. On the one hand, there was Russian general Tsitsianov and on the other Ibrahim Khan. In fact, it is written in Russian – Ibrahim Khan "of Shusha in Karabakh". This is real history. Suffice it to look at the maps published by the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 20th century to see that the vast majority of place names in the present territory of Armenia are of Azerbaijani origin. It is necessary to say all this. It is necessary to show these maps. It is necessary to show the maps of our occupied lands. They must be shown to all international organizations and their representatives working there. At the same time, during meetings with representatives of the parliaments of Muslim countries, it is imperative to show pictures of our mosques destroyed by the Armenians. I am doing that. I show these pictures to the leaders of many Muslim countries. If the broad political elite sees them, the leaders of these countries will be embarrassed to kiss the leaders of Armenia, of course. We must talk about this. We must say that this fascist regime declared war not only on us, but also on the entire Muslim world. Our mosques and historical monuments have been destroyed. However, we cannot communicate this information adequately. Therefore, this should become a special direction.
Of course, we must be active in all organizations in connection with the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. We must pursue offensive diplomacy because the truth is on our side. The Khojaly genocide. It has already been officially recognized by the parliaments of more than 10 countries. This process should be continued, and MPs should be active in this process because state bodies play a major role in making these decisions. Therefore, the parliament should be active. This is a fact accepted within the framework of international relations. Inappropriate, deceitful and insignificant attempts of Armenia manifested themselves at the Munich Security Conference and exposed them again. Because their whole story is a falsification. They built a state on historically Azerbaijani lands – unfortunately, with the help of our Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. Having changed all our historical names today, they are trying to appropriate our history and monuments. Therefore, MPs must always raise this issue.
In general, our activities within the framework of international organizations should be more focused. The MPs representing us there should be active, should not go there as tourists and submit a report on what they have done, who they met with and what issues they raised. Sometimes it looks like tourist trips – they go, get together, talk, eat and come back. In fact, some trips are completely unacceptable. I don’t want to talk about this for a long time, but I know what is happening, what events are happening. Therefore, we must enhance the effectiveness of our international activities. We must demonstrate our intransigence in the organizations displaying an unjustified approach towards us and bringing charges against us. In other words, we should not try to be nice to them, but serve the interests of our state and people. We must not step aside under the pretext that we do not want to aggravate a particular issue, but rather speak our word. We must expose a biased approach. Just as I always do, and there is ample evidence of that. You don't have to be a politician to say that. The average citizen can see this on television. Look at the crimes committed by those who are trying to teach us a lesson in democracy. In the countries of Europe, which is considered to be the “cradle of democracy", right under the nose of the whole world, peaceful demonstrators are beaten up, suppressed, their eyes are hollowed out, they are killed, they are arrested. Journalists are arrested on unsubstantiated charges and cast behind bars. Everything is visible. Dogs are set against peaceful demonstrators. People are dispersed using horses. This is happening not just in one or two countries, it has acquired a large-scale nature today – practically the whole region that is trying to criticize us. Look at the attitude towards Muslim migrants! In the 21st century, they are confronted with dogs and driven into cages. And then they throw pieces of food into the cages, as if those inside were animals. What kind of an attitude is this?!
And now they intend to oppress them using all possible means. Where did these migrants come from? Why did they appear? Why did they leave their countries? Who attacked their countries? Who destroyed their countries? Who violated stability? Who contributed to the emergence of millions of refugees? Whoever has done this should reap the benefits now. Why should Turkey, our brotherly country, accept and feed 4 million refugees and spend billions of dollars? Has Turkey imposed this suffering on them? No! Let those who imposed this wandering on them take responsibility.
It is necessary to talk about all this. I am saying this from this podium, openly and without fearing anyone. Because I am right, and it is hard to argue against the truth. Of course, you will see a few days after these words that some dirty articles will reappear, as some far-fetched organization will make a statement that everything in Azerbaijan is bad. Never mind, let them talk. But if we don’t tell this truth, then it will hit us tomorrow. Therefore, we must say this, and so must you. I am telling all MPs: don’t collude with anyone. We need to work with international organizations, and we are doing that. But we have our own interests and sufficient arguments. Therefore, I urge you to wage this struggle – in the Council of Europe, in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and in all organizations. So I believe that steps in this direction will further strengthen the position of our country.
Of course, the parliament should play a more active role in the economic sphere. I believe that members of the government should also be in closer contact and communication with the parliament. It is necessary to ask them questions so that they report on the work done, speak, and we must make this systematic. Because this will enhance the responsibility of members of the government. At the same time, the role of the parliament will grow – I want the role and capabilities of the parliament in Azerbaijan to increase, as this will also have a positive impact on our work. After all, responsibility is one of the most important issues. Responsibility and control. Where these are not available, nothing will work. On the contrary, we may face a very negative picture. Therefore, this should also become a kind of control mechanism.
I always appeal to citizens in connection with public oversight. This process is moving slowly, we are not used to it yet. We still believe that some head of the executive authority is a master, a khan who can do whatever he wants, make people work like slaves, and people should put up with it. I am saying this: report it, send letters. The situation at the Presidential Administration is completely different now. Previously, certain people concealed these letters from us. They were sent to those who were being complained about. And then that person oppressed the complainant. That practice is over now. True, it takes time, but this is already a trend. Therefore, citizens should be more active in public oversight. I used to get information about many issues from the media. It did not reach me, it was concealed, covered up, and this created great difficulties. Therefore, I believe that constant contact with members of the government is necessary. A special department for work with the parliament has been set up in the Presidential Administration. Of course, this once again shows that we attach great importance to the work of parliament.
As for economic reforms, they are in full view. Thanks to transparency, we transferred 1 billion manats into the budget over the forecast last year alone, and this process continues. In the first two months of this year, tax authorities collected 181 million manats over the forecast and customs authorities more than 71 million manats – specifically thanks to transparency and the fight against the shadow economy. The fight against the shadow economy is yielding fruit. Gradually, the scope of the shadow economy will narrow. Of course, it is impossible to do this in one day, it is a whole process. However, all government agencies have been mobilized and are active in this matter. The economic performance of first two months is also very positive. The gross domestic product grew by 2.8 percent, and in the non-oil sector in January-February by 6.7 percent. That is what we see as the key indicator. Growth in non-oil industrial production is 21.7 percent. This happened due to the development of the non-oil sector in recent years, because there is no such growth in the oil sector. On the contrary, production is declining and prices completely collapsed yesterday. In two months, household incomes increased by 9 percent and inflation is only at 2.8 percent. I am sure that this trend will continue to be observed. True, the excitement taking place in the world today in connection with the coronavirus inevitably affects us. However, I believe that by mobilizing all our efforts, we will overcome this situation with our head high. At present, many countries are seriously affected by this. An operational headquarters has been set up in Azerbaijan and, as I was informed this morning, the recovery process of those affected is going well. Persons in quarantine are already completing the quarantine period and being discharged. So the situation is fully under control. The situation at the borders is also under control. Special columns are formed and escorted by police into the territory of Azerbaijan with trucks. On the way, drivers are provided with meals so that they don’t leave vehicles too often. So all necessary measures are being taken.
In general, the activities of parliament related to the social sphere should be very active, of course. This area is, as always, a priority for us. As I already noted, important steps were taken last year and they will be continued this year. In particular, additional funds are envisaged to support low-income families. The number of families covered by targeted social assistance is increasing. On my instructions, amendments are being introduced to the methodology because the previous one did not reflect reality. The amount provided to each family is also increasing. This year 7,000 apartments will be provided to internally displaced persons, which is a record high. Martyr families will be provided with 1,500 apartments, which is also a record figure. Last year, 934 apartments were provided.
The role of our parliament in the development of interreligious and intercultural dialogue can also become very effective. Our MPs should actively participate in international events and the numerous events held in Azerbaijan. We respect our religion. It is sacred for us. At the same time, we must respect other religions. The ideas voiced at the he 2nd Summit of World Religious Leaders at the end of last year show that there is probably no other country in the world today that would address this issue and achieve serious results as much as Azerbaijan. The Muslim world supports us, while the Organization of Islamic Cooperation refers to us as an example due to our attitude to the Muslim religion. The inter-religious processes taking place in Azerbaijan are praised by both Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Cyril and Pope Francis. I have already met him three times – once in Baku and twice in the Vatican. He also appreciates the work carried out in Azerbaijan in this area. So it is not me saying this. These are the words of the leaders of the world’s traditional religions. Of course, we will take steps in this direction.
Along with this, we must strengthen Azerbaijan as a modern and secular state. The principles of secularism should be affirmed even more broadly. It is necessary to rigorously fight against radicalism. The parliament’s role is important here. However, to be honest, I don’t remember any serious discussion about this being conducted in the parliament before. We have to talk about it. There should not be any banned topics because our future depends on that. What kind of state do we want to live 20, 30, 50 years from now? We know that, and so do our people. But this must be ensured. If we sit and wait for something, major problems may occur. Therefore, we must ensure our policy in this area, we must show its advantages and compare. We shouldn’t be bashful. We have enough arguments to compare with anyone – security, tranquility, development, social well-being, freedoms. Therefore, the parliament should and, I am sure, will deal with these issues quite seriously.
These elections once again showed that there is no alternative to the political course pursued by the Azerbaijani authorities today. There are very simple reasons for this. The development that has been observed in our country in recent years, of course, convinces people. The Azerbaijani people live in the conditions of calm, stability and security. For about 27 years, we have been living in stability. Look at the processes happening around us – wars, the influx of refugees, coups, civil strife, crises. Countries have broken up, it is possible to say that the geographical borders of many states do not reflect the real situation, these countries retain sovereignty and territorial integrity only on maps and have actually long lost them, have long been divided into tribes, communities and various regions. So many negative processes and revolutions have happened in our neighborhood. What revolution has brought people benefits? Only harm, problems and confrontations, and they are continuing. Look at the post-Soviet space and the situation in Azerbaijan. I can’t compare, but you can do that. MPs should say what the President can’t. I am sure that this will be the case.
Therefore, the results of these elections are the embodiment of the work done. Both security and stability are provided today. Azerbaijan has stepped up its military capabilities. The military victories we won in 2016-2018 aroused a sense of pride in every Azerbaijani, demonstrated the power of our army. It is no coincidence that our army is among top 50 strongest armies in the world. Our international positions are quite strong. We became a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, and in less than seven years were elected to chair it with the support of 120 countries. As you know, the differences between these countries are quite deep. I do not believe that is another country that could have been unanimously elected to chair this organization. It is the largest international organization after the UN. There is no leader in the UN, but the Non-Aligned Movement has a leader, and it is Azerbaijan.
Last year, we took over chairmanship of the Turkic Council, and I can say that Azerbaijan plays a very important role in the cooperation of Turkic-speaking states and in all other international contacts. Now we are working on an agreement with the European Union, we have documents on strategic partnership with nine member-countries of the European Union. This is one third of the countries of the European Union. We have relations with neighboring countries built on a sound, businesslike and friendly basis. We enjoy great authority in the Muslim world. Such are our international positions. Therefore, they respect us, listen to us also because we are pursuing an unambiguous policy. Our policy is not situational. It is fair, our words do not diverge from our actions. I express our position in front of all audiences. For me there is no such thing as one topic for in Azerbaijan and another abroad. There is and must be a position on each issue, and I advocate that. Some may like it, okay, but some don’t – it is up to them. They may not like us precisely for these actions, for our independent policy. But we are respected. I have repeatedly seen this. Therefore, MPs should also carry out such activities in international organizations that we are always treated with respect.
The successes achieved in the economic sphere over the past 16 years are unmatched in the world. If there are, let them say, look at the statistics – what country has been able to increase its economy 3.4 times in 16 years? The poverty rate that was close to 50 percent is at 4.8 percent now and will decrease even more because salaries and pensions are increasing and will increase further, as well as benefits. The external debt accounts for 17 percent of the gross domestic product. This is a very low rate. In some developed countries, it exceeds 100 percent. But more importantly, our foreign exchange reserves are six times the size of the external debt. So if we want, we can repay our external debt in a month. In order for some countries to pay off their external debt, their foreign exchange reserves should be 50 times higher than they are now.
Such successes in the economic sphere have been achieved in recent years. In the social sphere – salaries and pensions have grown more than 10 times. Problems of internally displaced persons and martyr families are being addressed. We have become a space-faring nation. We have three satellites. The International Congress of Astronautics will be held in Baku in 2022, we won this right in a tense struggle. Four cities took part in this competition - Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Singapore and Baku. We won. Why? Because we are respected there.
I can list such facts for a long time. Just look at our energy policy to see what we have done for our people, state and continent. Oil and gas pipelines – the implementation of the Southern Gas Corridor is nearing completion today. We did this in a difficult geopolitical setting with minimal, one might say zero losses. Not only did, but also created a format for long-term international cooperation between seven countries. Today these countries are natural friends. Though not allies, but natural friends. Therefore, our role in this area is undeniable, we are the leaders in this area.
In the field of transport. We have turned a landlocked country into a transportation hub. There are many such facts, and each of them had a positive impact on the elections. The vast majority of MPs elected to parliament correctly assess these positive trends. Perhaps their victory depended, among other things, on this factor.
Today we live as an independent country, pursue an independent policy, do not interfere in anyone’s affairs and we do not allow anyone to interfere in ours. I am sure that we will continue to follow the path of independence and development. I am convinced that the Azerbaijani parliament will be active in this matter. I congratulate you once again and wish you continued success. Thank you.