Ilham Aliyev was interviewed by the influential British magazine “The Business Year”
04 april 2013, 15:50
- Mr. President, next year will mark a decade since you were elected President. Looking back over the years, what developments in the country would you say that you are most proud of?
- The last 10 years have been an important period of dynamic socioeconomic development, a stage of democratic and modern state building in Azerbaijan. Remaining committed to the political course of nationwide leader Heydar Aliyev, we have made great strides in maintaining public and political stability, laying an economic foundation and securing strong popular support. Numerous state programs outlining both the general directions of the country’s development and the specific work to be done in all areas have been adopted and successfully implemented. These activities have had an important impact on the socioeconomic development of the country, improved the well-being of the population and facilitated the solution of other problems facing our citizens. The launch of Azerbaijan’s new oil strategy has opened up extensive opportunities for the implementation of all our future plans. The commissioning of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline in 2006 and of the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline a little later, the renewal and diversification of the Caspian hydrocarbon export infrastructure secured direct access of Azerbaijani oil and gas to world markets. These have become landmark events not only of the past 10 years but also in the years of Azerbaijani independence in general.
In the last 10 years, we have tripled and diversified our economy, created a modern social and economic infrastructure and secured the dynamic development of the non-oil sector. In 2003, our state budget was $1.5 billion, while in 2013 we have increased it to $25 billion. More than a million jobs have been created in the country, while the level of unemployment has dropped to 5.1 per cent. Whereas in 2003 the poverty rate in Azerbaijan was 49 per cent, it was brought down to 6 per cent in 2012. This is one of the highest indicators related to poverty reduction in the world. A total of $140 billion has been invested in the Azerbaijani economy, while the country’s exchange reserves are in excess of $46 billion.
In the 2005-2009 period, Azerbaijan was a leading country in the world for the rate of economic development and completed the period of its economic transition. Starting from 2009, our focus has been on reducing the country’s dependence on oil, and the dynamics of the last three years show that we have achieved this goal. At the present time, we maintain the stability of oil production and secure the country’s economic development largely by means of the non-oil sector. As a matter of fact, the Azerbaijani economy registered a 9-per-cent growth even in 2009, the year when the global financial recession began. Although oil production in Azerbaijan slightly declined last year, the gross domestic product increased by 2.2 per cent, while the non-oil sector grew by about 10 per cent. The non-oil sector has expanded twice in the last eight years and by 8 per cent in 2012.
It is common knowledge that a number of countries in the world are currently experiencing major financial constraints and have to borrow extensively in an effort to prevent the trend of economic decline. In some countries, for example Armenia, the public debt is approaching 50 per cent of the GDP and this situation is expected to gradually aggravate further. In Azerbaijan, public debt accounts for only 7-8 per cent of the GDP, one of the lowest indicators of this nature in the world.
As a result of the implementation of important state programs and large-scale infrastructure projects, the appearance of cities, villages and settlements across the republic has changed beyond recognition, while the living standards of the population have dramatically improved. By implementing programs on the socioeconomic development of districts, we have managed to eliminate the gap in the level of development between the capital and the countryside. We have achieved major progress in the social sphere in Azerbaijan. More than 2,500 schools meeting contemporary requirements, hundreds of healthcare institutions, sports and numerous social infrastructure facilities have been put into operation in the last 10 years. Salaries and social benefits have been regularly increased and this policy will be continued in the future too. In addition to that, in 2012 we started the process of payment of compensations for the deposits left in the Soviet savings bank. It is worth mentioning that Azerbaijan is the only country of the former Soviet Union to repay these deposits in a short period of time and with a high interest rate.
As is known, 20 per cent of Azerbaijani territory has been occupied as a result of Armenian aggression. More than a million people have become refugees and internally displaced and had to live in extremely unfavorable conditions in tent-camps and places not suitable for habitation. In 2004, we began to take serious steps to improve the plight of the internally displaced people. Over this period, all the tent-camps have been eliminated, 77 modern settlements have been built and the living conditions of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people have been improved. Last year alone we provided 20,000 internally displaced persons with modern apartments and houses. Another 20,000 people will be provided with new residences this year.
Over these years we have successfully implemented the country’s security strategy. First and foremost, we have ensured the energy security of Azerbaijan and got rid of the country’s dependence on foreign energy. Today, Azerbaijan is a country contributing to the energy security of both the region and Europe and an important player on the global energy market. Azerbaijan’s contribution to the gas market of several European countries has increased to 40 per cent. After the implementation of the TANAP project, which was initiated by Azerbaijan and is being realized jointly with Turkey, i.e. after 2017, the country’s role in the natural gas market of Europe will further increase. This project is expected to become a major contributor to our long-term development and will secure Azerbaijan’s economic and other interests for decades to come.
Taking into consideration the fact of occupation of Azerbaijani territories in the aftermath of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, we have identified army building as one of our priority objectives. Today, the Azerbaijani army is the strongest army in the South Caucasus in terms of its material and technical logistics, provision with weaponry and ammunition, discipline and combat readiness. We have established the Ministry of Defense Industry in Azerbaijan, launched several military industry enterprises and are currently producing over 700 military commodities.
Azerbaijan is currently the leading country of the region from the standpoint of its economic potential. Our economy accounts for more than 80 per cent of the South Caucasus economy. We have become a country with a sustainable economy. It is possible to say with full confidence that we have accomplished everything we planned on in 2003. The world’s leading economic and financial institutions are currently giving a thumbs-up assessment of Azerbaijan’s successes. We are ranked in leading positions in all international reports. While the world’s leading rating agencies such as “Fitch”, “Moody’s” and “Standard and Poor’s” have downgraded the credit ratings of most developed countries, our rating has been upgraded. Azerbaijan has advanced into the category of countries with “high human development” in a human development report of the United Nations Development Program. The “Global Competitiveness Report” of the World Economic Forum rates Azerbaijan as 46th country in the world and first in the CIS. The decision has been made to conduct this year’s session of the Davos Economic Forum in Azerbaijan. This is evidence of the fact that Azerbaijan’s economic achievements are recognized by the international community.
As is evident, the list of achievements of the last 10 years our people can be proud of is quite extensive. It was in the last decade, in 2011, that Azerbaijan was elected a member of the UN Security Council for the first time in its history despite tough competition. In May 2012, our country presided over the said organization. I think that this has been an international assessment of our country’s sustainable development in the years of independence, an indicator of respect Azerbaijan has earned globally and recognition of our contribution to global security.
Azerbaijan has turned into a platform of dialogue between civilizations, a center of multiculturalism and a venue for the discussion of pressing political, economic, humanitarian and other issues. In 2011, we organized the Global Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, thus elevating the initiatives implemented by Azerbaijan on the regional scale onto the global plane. The Baku International Humanitarian Forum, which is attended by heads of state and government, Nobel Prize laureates and internationally renowned public and political figures, has already become a tradition.
In 2011, Azerbaijan won Europe’s top music competition, the “Eurovision” song contest, while in 2012 we successfully hosted this competition in Baku, thus demonstrating our great potential to the world.
Last year’s Seventh UN Forum on Internet Governance was held in Baku. I think the fact that this forum was held in Azerbaijan was no coincidence. The sector of information and communication technology is a rapidly developing and the most promising segment of our economy. In fact, 2013 has been declared “The Year of Information and Communication Technology” in Azerbaijan.
On 8 February Azerbaijan launched its first artificial telecommunications satellite into orbit. It has been a very significant, a historic day and a major achievement for our country. Let me also note that the decision to put an Azerbaijani satellite into orbit was made in 2008. In 2009, we adopted a relevant State Program, while the “Azerkosmos” Joint-Stock Company was established in 2010. The results we have achieved show that Azerbaijan is indeed a rapidly and comprehensively developing country today and that we are already a member of the space club. Two more satellites will be launched into orbit in 2015 and 2016, which will create excellent opportunities for the development of the space industry in Azerbaijan. The development of new technologies, in particular the ICT sector, has become a hallmark of Azerbaijan today and will facilitate our successful development in the future.
In other words, over the said period Azerbaijan has successfully hosted a number of globally important political, economic, cultural, sporting and other events. In addition to that, the decision of the European Olympic Committee to conduct the inaugural 2015 European Olympic Games in Azerbaijan is not only a historic achievement and a huge success of our country, it is also evidence of Azerbaijan’s growing international authority and recognition of our extensive opportunities on the part of the international community.
In parallel with all this, democratic reforms have been continued and a strong civil society has emerged in Azerbaijan.
Today, Azerbaijan is a country where freedoms of expression, speech and the media are guaranteed. People and the prosperity of our nation are at the heart of all our policies. All our steps and work serve the interests of the people of Azerbaijan. Of course, we could not implement such gigantic plans without the confidence and support of our people.
- Regarding the upcoming election, what can you say about the future of the country and the key goals you intend to achieve?
- You know, more than 20 years ago Azerbaijan shook off the manacles of the totalitarian system and has been on the path of democratic state building ever since. At the sensitive time when our republic had just regained its independence it was vitally important for our people who and what force would come to power in Azerbaijan. The bitter experience of the early 1990s shows that the rise to power of completely accidental people unaware of their responsibility for public administration may lead people to a tragedy and expose the state to serious problems. The people of Azerbaijan are very wise and have always been able to make the right decision at crucial times in their history. When our statehood was faced with the imminent threat of destruction in 1993, our people said their resolute word by inviting nationwide leader Heydar Aliyev, who had tremendous experience in public administration, to assume power. The consistent implementation of the development strategy laid down by Heydar Aliyev for over 20 years has secured our dynamic development and transformed Azerbaijan into a modern and democratic country on the world map.
As you know, there are certain unchangeable principles of building a modern and democratic state, a system of values that are consistently secured and the main strategic goals that are always protected. I am absolutely convinced of the firm belief of the people of Azerbaijan that the course towards building an independent state, towards democratic development, social prosperity and civil society laid down by Heydar Aliyev must be continued in Azerbaijan. Of course, the top priority of this policy is that Azerbaijan should stand among the most developed countries of the world, be competitive, restore its territorial integrity and be an independent, strong and democratic state.
- Mr. President, given the important geo-strategic location of Azerbaijan, how would you describe the relations with Russia, Turkey and other neighboring countries?
- Azerbaijan is a reliable partner, a country that has its own position on any issue and pursues a completely independent policy. With the exception of Armenia, we build our relations with countries of the region and the world on the basis of the principles of effective cooperation, mutual respect and noninterference in each other’s affairs. It was on these principles that Azerbaijan joined the Non-Aligned Movement in 2012, thus identifying new vectors of the country’s foreign policy. As with any other country of the world, we are currently working to strengthen our relations with African and Latin American countries and to establish new partnerships.
The development of relations with regional countries remains a priority direction of our foreign policy. Turkey is a friendly and brotherly country and a strategic ally for Azerbaijan. The transnational projects implemented on Azerbaijan’s initiative in recent years, as well as mutual investment projects, have brought our countries even closer together. We are currently implementing a project on the construction of a petrochemical and refining complex in Turkey worth $17 billion. Azerbaijan’s major energy projects enhance the importance of Turkey as a transit country and a contributor to European energy security.
As was the case in previous years, our relations with Russia are also rapidly developing. Our relations have assumed the nature of strategic partnership. Political dialogue, humanitarian cooperation, strengthening of economic relations and other issues form the core of our bilateral agenda. Russia is in the first place for the volume of imports to Azerbaijan.
At the same time, Russia is an important market for our agricultural produce. We have recently started to invest in real estate and in the shares of major commercial entities in Russia. Azerbaijani companies are implementing projects in the area of processing of agricultural produce in Russia, etc.
Azerbaijan is also developing friendly and sincere relations with other countries of the region. We are guided by the interests of the Azerbaijani people and the state in bilateral and multilateral relations.
- The year 2012 was declared a “Year of Sport”. Having achieved Azerbaijan’s best Olympic medal haul ever in London 2012, having successfully hosted the UEFA U-17 Women’s World Cup and, more recently, Baku having been elected to host the inaugural European Olympic Games in 2015 — reflecting upon all of this, how would you evaluate this past year?
- Our achievements in the field of sport last year are giving us the opportunity to talk about the results of the “Year of Sport” with a sense of great pride. When making this decision at the beginning of last year, we expected our sportsmen to earn victories and to succeed, and they have lived up to our expectations. Our sportsmen have successfully represented our country in international competitions, winning a total of over 700 medals in various tournaments, including 255 gold medals.
I would like to indicate that about 300 international sports events have been held in Azerbaijan in the last 10 years. Of these, I want to particularly highlight the UEFA U-17 Women’s World Cup because it was a new and very successful experience for us. Both FIFA and UEFA have given a very high assessment to the organization of the World Cup in Azerbaijan.
This year we marked the 20th anniversary of the National Olympic Committee. Azerbaijan has been a member of the international Olympic family for 20 years now. The historic results of our sportsmen at the London Olympic Games in 2012 are further evidence of the fact that our country is already a fully-fledged member of this family. Our athletes have won 10 medals at the Games, including two gold, two silver and six bronze. We finished in 30th place in the world, in 15th among European nations and in third among Muslim countries.
Finally, on 8 December 2012, a session of the General Assembly of the European Olympic Committee held in Rome decided to conduct the inaugural European Olympic Games in 2015 in Baku. I think this is a historic decision. Historically, Olympic Games originated in Europe, but European Olympic Games have never been held before. The decision to conduct the first Olympic Games is in itself a very serious step, a watershed in the Olympic movement. It is tremendous responsibility for us to host the first Olympic Games in the history of Europe, but it is also a high assessment on the part of the international and European Olympic movement of the work being done in our country, including our achievements in the field of sport. The ever-growing international authority of Azerbaijan, the country’s economic power, the dynamic development, the modern social, economic and cultural infrastructure, the existing public and political stability and the popular support for the reforms being implemented have played an important part in the adoption of this decision.
Let me also note that we had started to create a modern sports infrastructure suitable for conducting important international competitions in Azerbaijan long before the decision was made. In 2012, these activities were continued and two more regional Olympic centers were commissioned, bringing the total number of Olympic centers in the countryside to 35. Eight other centers are currently under construction and there are plans to build a few more. New sports facilities have been built and put into operation in Baku. The country’s central stadium has been renovated in accordance with international standards. Another stadium has also been commissioned. The construction of a large gymnastics center and an aquatic palace is currently under way. Last year we laid the foundation of an Olympic stadium, which will be the biggest stadium of the region.
I am absolutely sure that the infrastructure and all technical and organizational issues will be successfully resolved for the inaugural European Olympic Games in 2015. I would also like to note that host countries are usually allowed six to seven years to prepare for Olympic Games, but we have only two years. This is why we have already started to take the necessary action. On 17 January, we established the Organizing Committee for the First European Olympic Games, which held its first meeting on 2 February and discussed future objectives and tasks. I am sure that all relevant organizations will do their best to conduct the Games at a high level and we, as ever, will demonstrate the power of our country, the hospitality of our people and the dynamic development of Azerbaijan to Europe and the world.