Azerbaijan, Baku, March 9 /Trend A. Badalova/
Azerbaijan is determined to continue its relations with the European Union and sees future relations being expanded and strengthened, Head of Azerbaijani Presidential Administration's Social and Political Department Ali Hasanov said in an interview with New Europe.
At the same time he urged Brussels to actively help the resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and help bring peace in this energy important region of the South Caucasus.
"We have very good partnership with the European Union and we have signed a number of partnership agreements. We recently signed a declaration with the EU on energy security and Azerbaijan is playing a
growing role in ensuring the growing energy needs of the EU," Hasanov said.
He signalled out the Eastern Partnership and the EU Neighbourhood Programme as two equally important projects for Azerbaijan.
"These two projects aim to promote European values in Azerbaijan, especially with a strong emphasis on economic relations, on promotion of free-market relations in Azerbaijan. These are very important both for Europe and for us," Hasanov said.
Hasanov added that another part of this partnership concerns the softening of imports of European goods and industry products to Azerbaijan.
This also concerns the liberalisation of custom duties, simplification of the visas among citizens
of Europe and Azerbaijan and finally the development of civil society as a result of partnership with the EU.
"This relates to development of political pluralism, development of civil society players in Azerbaijan,"
Asked about Azerbaijan's ties to Russia compared to the EU, Hasanov said that Baku considers that Russia is a very big player in this region.
"We think it's natural that Russia has interests in the entire region. And we partner with the EU just as our neighbour and this is a mutual relationship. So I wouldn't actually divide Azerbaijan's relationship between Russia and the EU," Hasanov said.
He added that Azerbaijan doesn't want to make any choices, since it regards both Russia and EU as good partners and neigbours.
"We partner with them in our own national interests," Hasanov said.
Russia is the major oil and gas supplier of Europe, he said.
"We also supply gas and oil to Europe. But we are not competitors because they have their own market, we have our own market," he explained. "For the purpose of economic development, for economic liberalisation, both Russia and Azerbaijan are oriented to Europe".
Hasanov said the only difference that comes with Russia is on the matter of regional security.
"Russia initiated the Collective Security Organization which comprises a number of former Soviet states but Azerbaijan is not part of it. Neither Azerbaijan is a member of NATO. So we have independent positions on security issues. Of course, we partner with NATO on different frameworks, but we are not a member of NATO and we don't plan to become a member of NATO," he noted.
The official said that at the same time Azerbaijan does not have any plan to become part of the Collective Security Organisation, initiated by Russia.
"I think being neutral on these matters is in favour of our national interests," he said. "Because we believe maintaining neutral position for Azerbaijan ensures very good transit or bridge function for Azerbaijan between East and West."
Asked if Azerbaijan counts on EU help to resolve the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Hasanov said Azerbaijan does expect EU to have an impact on this matter.
"Yes, not only we think, but we expect strong impact and support from the EU on the settlement of the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the form of support of OSCE Minsk Group. At the moment the EU is represented in the OSCE Minsk group by France. But we think that in the future the EU should consider having its own special representative in the OSCE Minsk Group and that will help strengthen the position of the EU on the conflict. Of course France represents the EU in the OSCE Minsk Group but this is only one country. So we really expect more active influence of the EU on this matter, because we believe that without proper peace in the South Caucasus we cannot talk about full security of Europe," Hasanov explained.
Speaking about Baku's role in resolving the nuclear issue with Iran, Hasanov said Azerbaijan is not a big country in order to have influence on political matters in Iran or in Europe.
"I don't think it fits our interests to be in between Iran and the EU and to be in favour of one or the other. So we are committed to our neutral position on this issue and we very much sincerely hope that they soon will come to a decision that satisfies both parties because if this controversy between the EU and Iran results in violence it might have bad consequences for Azerbaijan as well," he said, adding that there are many Azerbaijanis living in Iran, which may be forced out of their homes.
"Azerbaijan is actively co-operating with the EU on energy matters, on energy projects and this conflict can also seriously impact this exchange of oil projects. And therefore we very much hope there will
be peaceful solution to the issue. We hope that Iran will comply with all international laws and requirements and EU will recognise all legitimate rights of Iran," the official noted.
Turning to economic matters, Hasanov said poverty reduction has been one of the priorities of the Azerbaijani government. "We have done lots of efforts in the last ten years to alleviate poverty. In the last nine years the poverty level was reduced from 50 percent to 6 percent.
"In the upcoming five years our target is to alleviate poverty at all. Measures include increasing employment opportunities and strengthening social policy, especially for vulnerable people," he said. "Of course we also have lots of very wealthy people, but we believe everyone should have at least minimum conditions for living. This means everyone must have a housing and employment."
Azerbaijan also supports turning an industrial oil belt, better known as Black City, to a clean, brand new, high-quality urban quarter, known as "Baku White City".
Following a visit by New Europe to the site earlier in the day, Ali Hasanov said the government is ready to attract local investors and foreign investors, adding however that it is a commercial project.
"We are ready to consider any privileges in order to facilitate further development of this project. Also we are keeping under control the process of relocation of inhabitants who lived in Black City to make sure when they are moved they are living in proper conditions," he said.