ONWARD & UPWARD

Azerbaijan 2016 | DIPLOMACY | INSIDE PERSPECTIVE

He Ilham Aliyev, President of The Republic of Azerbaijan, on his nation's remarkable growth, its future trajectory, and multiculturalism.

He Ilham Aliyev
BIOGRAPHY
After receiving his doctorate, HE Ilham Aliyev lectured in International Relations at Moscow State University. From 1994 to 2003, President Aliyev, was the Vice-President and later the First Vice-President of the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) and was actively involved in the implementation of President Heydar Aliyev’s oil strategy. He is an author of numerous research works on the geopolitical aspects of Azerbaijan’s oil strategy. In 1995 and 2000, he was elected to the Milli Majlis (National Assembly) of the Republic of Azerbaijan. In 2003, he became Prime Minister of the Republic of Azerbaijan, before taking the Presidential oath of office later in the same year.

Baku has become a favourable platform for discussion of significant issues happening in the world and in the region, Nizami Ganjavi International Center transformed into a world scale international institution. The guests who participate at the forum contribute with their valuable thoughts and ideas to the cause of peace, security, predictability in the world. I think that every international forum, its level mainly depends on the list of participants. We have among our guests more than 50 acting and former heads of state and government, prominent politicians, public figures, experts.

The situation in the world has changed over the past year. We have all witnessed that and, unfortunately, the changes are not in the positive direction. The world didn't become more safe and secure. On the contrary, it became more dangerous. The situation in our region also changed dramatically. Existing conflicts still remain unresolved. But we have now new conflicts, new areas of confrontation and threats. Therefore, I think that our main goal is to play our role as countries, as governments, and as politicians, in order is to try to reduce the tensions, in order to try to create the grounds for cooperation, mutual understanding, and mutual respect. Otherwise, the situation will continue to deteriorate.

The situation in the Middle East, situation in parts of Europe, and refugee crisis - these are all realities of the recent years. Therefore, I think one of the main objectives of the 4th Global Baku Forum is to address these issues. Especially, taking into account the level of participants and their contribution to the world affairs, their experience, knowledge, that may help to find a way out from the existing situation.

We are all united in one objective to promote cooperation, mutual understanding, stability, and peace because we are all inter-related. Sometimes it may seem that the dangerous events we see on TV are happening on another planet. But it is just next door. And the crisis of refugees showed that we are all inter-related and every action, every step, and every interference in internal affairs of other countries will definitely result in difficulties for those who interfere.

So, I think, that is the main lesson of today's reality. We all need to respect each other; we need to respect our choice, our territorial integrity, and our plans for the future. We all need to interact because the main goal is to reduce tensions and diminish existing threats.

This year, in 2016, Azerbaijan will celebrate the 25th anniversary Anniversary of its independence. In the early years of independence, we suffered from a civil war, from a humanitarian crisis, from occupation, aggression, economic difficulties, and actually economic collapse. Azerbaijan became a target for terrorist attacks. Armenian terrorist organizations committed numerous acts of terror against civilians in the beginning of 1990s. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, unfortunately, is has not been not resolved.

Azerbaijan achieved a lot of success during the years of independence, and today is developing as a modern, stable, predictable, and self-sufficient country. However, the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict still needs to be resolved. It needs to be resolved in order to allow a million refugees of Azerbaijan to return to their homes, needs to be resolved as well as to stop the violence and establish peace in our region because without that all the countries will suffer. Armenia, which continues to occupy illegally the historical and legal part of Azerbaijan, did not benefit from that. The economic difficulties, isolation, migration, poverty are the result of that aggression and occupation. Nagorno-Karabakh is a historic part of Azerbaijan, legal part of Azerbaijan. All international community recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as an integral part of Azerbaijan. As a result of the conflict one 1 million Azerbaijanis became refugees and internally displaced persons. We were a subject of ethnic cleansing, while the, occupation of almost 20% percent of our territory continues. International organizations, particularly the UN and its Security Council, adopted numerous resolutions demanding unconditional and immediate withdrawal of Armenian troops from the territories of Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, these resolutions are not resolved, they are not implemented.

Of course, the mechanism of implementation of resolutions of Security Council of United Nationsthe UN, I think, should be also a special topic of discussions. In some cases, resolutions of Security Council are being implemented within hours or days. But in our case it is more than twenty 20 years that the resolutions of the UN Security Council have not been implemented. That shows that there is a lack of political will, especially of those countries which that have adopted these resolutions.

Today, the negotiation process continues without any successand the main reason for that is that Armenia doesn't want peace. They want to keep occupied territories under their illegal control, they want to keep status quo unchanged. But this is not possible, status quo must be changed and the countries which are chairing the negotiation process—the three permanent members of United Nations Security Council—on numerous occasions have publicly spoken about that, saying that status quo is unacceptable and must be changed. To change the status quo, Armenia needs to leave the occupied territories. In the 21st century Century, it is absolutely abnormal from all points of view—political, legal, and humanitarian—to occupy illegally the territory of a neighboring country and block the negotiation process.

Therefore, I think that in order to resolve the conflict, first Azerbaijan must become stronger and second international community, especially those who have a mandate to deal with this conflict, must show the political will and force aggressor to stop occupation as we see in many other places in the world when aggressors are stopped, punished, sanctioned, and forced to stop aggression.

Everything is destroyed on the occupied territories. OSCE has sent twice sent a fact-finding and field assistance mission to the occupied territories and they reflected the real situation, and we know that. All our historic monuments, graves, our mosques are have been destroyed. Today, we have many TV reports about the destruction of historic monuments in the Middle East. Twenty years ago, the same happened in occupied territories of Azerbaijan. The difference is that at that time international community and media didn't pay attention to or probably didn't have access to that information. But it's the same;. The the same story, and the same approach. And this is dangerous,dangerous; this is dangerous for the future peace and security in the region because if the aggressor is not punished, then they will plan another scenario.

Despite this situation and also humanitarian crisis which we faced in the beginning of 1990s, Azerbaijan successfully develops. By the way, we had the highest per capita number of refugees at that time. One million people became refugees and internally displaced on their own land. At that time, the population of Azerbaijan was something more than eight 8 million. So we know how to deal with humanitarian crisis.

At that time Azerbaijan was different from today's Azerbaijan. It was a very poor country, just a newly-independent state, its economy was ruined, and industry had collapsed. There were no prospects for the future. So our main goal was to establish a state, to create a strong economy, to open the country for foreign investments and to become part of world market economy.

And that happened. Today, the country is stable, and we continue reforms. Political and, economic reforms go in Azerbaijan in parallel, while all the fundamental freedoms are provided—freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, religious freedom, and media freedom;, we have free internet and, no censorship for almost 20 years and with more than 70% percent of our citizens are internet users. Political freedoms are supported by economic reforms.

From 2004 to 2014 Azerbaijan's economy was the fastest growing economy in the world. We managed to dramatically reduce unemployment and poverty from 40 percent down to 5 percent. According to Davos World Economic Forum Azerbaijan's economy is number 40 in the world with respect to its competitiveness. We implemented many infrastructure projects including social infrastructure projects to improve living standards of our people and at the same time create better conditions for investments.

We were among the countries which received one of the biggest amount of per capita direct foreign investments primarily into oil and gas sector. Now our goal is to attract investors to non-oil and gas sector. Reduction of dependence on oil and gas was part of our reforms. As a result of these reforms today oil and gas makes only something more than 30% percent of our GDP and about half of our budget revenues. So the target is to completely reduce dependence on oil and gas. For Azerbaijan the post oil period already started. Not because we reduced the production but because the price of oil collapsed four times. Therefore, it is absolutely new situation. No country in the world was prepared for that. Nobody could even imagine that it will be so dramatic and the oil prices will fall four times. And it happened within one year. So we had to work very actively and efficiently in order to reduce negative impacts of this situation. Now our financial situation is again stable, predictable. Our budget is based on the price of oil of $25 dollars per barrel, which is a kind of a guarantee from any kind of economic complications. We have a substantial amount of reserves in our oil fund and that allows us to find a way out from this situation with minimum risk.

At the same time, this situation forces us to be more efficient with reforms., and theA big package of reforms have, which is already introduced, by the way, which have been is supported by the International Monetary Fund. We are dealing now mainly with the issues of diversification of economy, finding the new areas of economic development. One of them is transportation infrastructure. We already work in this area for many years, but it is new for international community. We are building the transportation network, which will allow Azerbaijan to have a strong position in this region in the future.

Our geographical position is very preferable. So investments in transportation infrastructure including railroads, airports, and seaports allow us to be a crossroad of transportation infrastructure. The East-West transportation corridor has already started to work, and hopefully this year we will finalize the connection of railroads between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. Thus Europe and Asia will have a new, the shortest transportation route. The first container train from China to Europe already passed through Azerbaijan. This is a new Silkroad with a modern infrastructure, and we made a proposal to our partners to have single tariffs in transportation in order to make this route attractive.

Another transportation route which that we are actively working on with our neighbors and partners is North-South transportation route. This will allow cargos to be transported from Pakistan, India, Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Northern Europe. Azerbaijan is investing in the modern infrastructure and hopefully very soon this route also will be in operation. So all these routes are crossing our territory and, of course, this increases the geopolitical importance of our country. This will generate additional revenues, which we will use for development of our country in the future.

Of course, energy sector remains very important for our economy and now more important for energy security. On February 29, 2016, we had in Baku the second meeting of the Advisory Council of the Southern Gas Corridor, which we call a project of the 21st Century. It is a mega project, one of the biggest infrastructure and energy projects in Europe initiated by Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan plays a leading role in that project as the initiator, organizer, and investor. This is a project of $45 billion dollar investment. We established a strong team of countries and companies.

The purpose of having this Advisory Council was to coordinate our efforts and to meet the targets of implementation of this project because it will be implemented in stages. Southern Gas Corridor is a project of four elements. That will allow us to connect Baku and Italian ports with a 3,500 km long pipeline.
Of course, it's it is a huge investment and at the same time this project needs coordination. So on February 29, eleven countries plus European Commission signed a declaration, which underlines the key and strategic role of Azerbaijan as a main enabler of the implementation of the Southern Gas Corridor. We really established a team of countries. I will name the countries in accordance with the route of the pipeline: Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, and Italy are members of the Southern Gas Corridor project. We have two more signatories to the declaration—Croatia and Montenegro, which, I am sure, will join the team in coming years, and also the high representatives of the governments of the US and the UK and the vice-president of European Commission. So we have 12 signatories, which actually shows that the Southern Gas Corridor is already a reality.

This is a project of energy security, energy diversification, and free competition. I think this is how energy projects should be implemented. Our main goal is to implement the project and to treat it as a commercial project. Sometimes issues related to energy security are too much politicized and we are against of that. Politics and energy should be separated. Energy should not be used as a political tool. At the same time, political instruments interfering into the business development also sometimes create complications.
Therefore, for Azerbaijan this is a project allowing to be able for decades ahead to explore its natural resources to diversified markets. For Europe, it means an additional source of gas, which Europe will need, because we all need the demand of European consumers. Though today, we see the economic difficulties in the world, and this is temporary. The price of oil will not remain at this low level. Economic growth will generate activities. Therefore, the demand for natural gas in Europe will only grow. And there will be enough room for everyone. I think that the producers also need to coordinate their efforts in order to avoid unnecessary competition because producers have their own goals and consumers have their own goals.

I think that in the project of Southern Gas Corridor we managed to provide the balance between producers, transit countries and consumers. So it's a win-win situation. That's why it develops successfully. To implement such a huge project with so many participants in a short period of time, at a time when the oil price is down and you have to spend billions, is a serious challenge. Energy security will definitely dominate the political agenda. I think the example which we show in the Southern Gas Corridor demonstrates that when energy and politics are separated you can achieve success.

This year is a year of multiculturalism in Azerbaijan. For centuries people of different nationalities, ethnic roots, and religions have lived in Azerbaijan in peace and dignity. We are proud that during the years of independence these positive tendencies became only stronger. Multiculturalism, religious tolerance is a state policy in Azerbaijan. And at the same time, this is a reflection of the mood of the society. And that's important because the state policy and general atmosphere in Azerbaijan in this respect is not different.
In 2008, we launched Baku process when we invited the ministers of culture of members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to participate at the meeting of the ministers of culture of members of the Council of Europe for the first time. Now, Baku process became a reality. We organize numerous events in Azerbaijan, promoting the values of multiculturalism—World Religious Leaders' Summit and, several International Humanitarian and Intercultural Dialogue forums. In a month, this April 2016, we will hosted the 7th Global Forum of Alliance of Civilizations organized by UN.

Azerbaijan's experience in this area is highly appreciated by leading international organizations, international community, and it demonstrates that multiculturalism is alive, it has a future. But politicians, those who can influence on public opinion, including media representatives must be more responsible. Of course, I think that the role of the media in this respect must be more positive because unfortunately, what we see in the news mainly is pictures of confrontation, refugee crisis and difficulties in that regard.

This leads only to alienation. We cannot afford alienation because we are all interconnected, we are all living on the same planet and the distance between Europe and the Middle East as we all see is not very far. And even if it is far, it does not prevent people from finding or trying to find shelter and save their lives and, lives of their families. Therefore, I think concentration on the positive examples of multiculturalism and promotion of these values will help all of us because no country, no nation can live in isolation. We are all interconnected. Absolute majority of the countries of the world have multi-ethnic, multi-religious population. We must be proud of that.
In early 2016, we were celebrating the inauguration of Imamzade religious and historic monument after restoration, renovation, and new construction. It is one of the sacred places in the Muslim World, which situated in Ganja, the motherland of Nizami Ganjavi, and which a place Azerbaijani people have protected since the 8th Century. The new mosque was build built there, and I invited all representatives from all the regions of Azerbaijan and at that ceremony along with myself other speakers were leaders of traditional religions of Azerbaijan, including the leaders of Azerbaijani Muslims, the leader of Azerbaijani-Russian Orthodox Church, the leader of Azerbaijani-Jewish community, and leader ofthe Catholic Church. They not only participated, but spoke in front of the audience. Then, we jointly moved into the newly-built mosque, and were there together. This is how it works in our country. That was a message to our society, that was a message to our people, and that was a message to our the world.

A couple of months earlier, in one of the biggest mosques of Azerbaijan, Shia and Sunni Muslims prayed together. It was named a Unity Namaz (Prayer) for the first time. This also demonstrates the real situation here, where there is no distinction neither inside the Muslim community, nor inside our society. And this is a reality of Azerbaijan, this is probably one of our biggest assets and this is a main guarantee for successful development because without this consensus, without unity we cannot achieve success. And we want to achieve more success, we want to continue to modernize our country and only based on these common values of friendship, multiculturalism, we can achieve that.

Last year, in 2015, Azerbaijan hosted the inaugural European Games, in 2012 we hosted Eurovision Song contest, and Baku was announced the capital of Islamic culture and next year we will host Islamic Solidarity Games. Azerbaijan is a member of Council of Europe, member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It is a bridge between cultures, between traditions, between religions. This is our responsibility. We play this role first of all in order to ensure successful development of our country and also in order to create most stable and predictable situation in the region.