President Ilham Aliyev: Today Azerbaijan is leader in region in terms of economic potential

President Ilham Aliyev: Today Azerbaijan is leader in region in terms of economic potential

President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has given an interview to British The Business Year magazine, AzerTAc reported.

TBY: Looking back over your years as President, what developments are you most proud of?

The last 10 years have been an important period of dynamic socioeconomic development and a stage of democratic and modern state building in Azerbaijan. While relying on strong popular support, we have made great achievements by following the political course of our national leader Heydar Aliyev, who established strong public and political stability and laid the foundation of economic reforms. Numerous state programs outlining both the general direction of the country`s development and the specific work to be done in all areas that 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 launch of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline in 2006, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline after that, ushered in the renewal and diversification of Caspian hydrocarbon export infrastructure, and secured the direct access of Azerbaijani oil and gas to world markets. These have become landmark events-not only for the past 10 years, but also in the years of Azerbaijan`s independence in general. Over the last 10 years we have diversified and tripled the range of 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 increased it to $25 billion. More than 1 million jobs have been created in the country, while the level of unemployment has dropped to 5.1%. Although the poverty rate in 2003 in Azerbaijanwas 49%, we successfully brought it down to 6% 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.

During the 2005-2009 period, Azerbaijan was a leading country in the world for its rate of economic development, and it 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 stable oil production, and we have secured the country`s economic development largely by means of the non-oil sector. As a matter of fact, the Azerbaijani economy registered 9% growth even in 2009, the year when the global financial recession began. Although oil production in Azerbaijan slightly declined in 2012, GDP increased by 2.2%, while the non-oil sector grew by about 10%. The non-oil sector has expanded twice in the last eight years, and grew by 8% in 2012. It is a well-known fact 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, public debt is approaching 50% of GDP and this situation is expected to gradually be further aggravated. In Azerbaijan, public debt accounts for only 7%-8% of 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 for 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, and numerous sports and 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 as well. In addition, in 2012 we started a process for the payment of compensation for deposits left in Soviet savings banks. It is worth mentioning that Azerbaijan is the only country of the former Soviet Union to repay these deposits over a short period of time and with a high interest rate. As is known, 20% of Azerbaijani territory has been occupied as a result of Armenian aggression. More than 1 million people have become refugees or internally displaced, living in extremely unfavorable conditions such as tent-camps and places not suitable for habitation. In 2004, we began to take serious steps to improve the plight of 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. In 2012 alone, we provided 20,000 internally displaced persons with modern apartments and houses. Another 20,000 people will be provided with new residences over 2013. Over these years, we have successfully implemented the country`s security strategy. First and foremost, we have ensured the energy security of Azerbaijan and eliminated the country`s dependence on foreign energy. Today, Azerbaijan is a country contributing to the energy security of both the region and Europe, and the country is an important player in the global energy market. Azerbaijan`s contribution to the gas market of several European countries has increased to 40%. Starting from 2017, after the implementation of the TANAP project, which was initiated by Azerbaijan and is being realized jointly with Turkey, 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 occupation of Azerbaijani territories in the aftermath of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, we see the strengthening of the army 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 capacity, 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 in the region from the standpoint of its economic potential. Our economy accounts for more than 80% 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 in 2003. The world`s leading economic and financial institutions are currently giving a high 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" according to a report from the UN Development Program. The Global Competitiveness report from the World Economic Forum rates Azerbaijan as the 46th country in the world and first in the CIS. The decision was made in 2012 to hold a session of the Davos Economic Forum in Azerbaijan in 2013. This is evidence of the fact that the international community recognizes Azerbaijan`s economic achievements. Obviously, the list of achievements over the last 10 years, for which our people can be proud of, is very extensive. It was 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 organization. I believe that this has been an international assessment of our country`s sustainable development through our years of independence, an indicator of the 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 level. The Baku International Humanitarian Forum, which is annually attended by heads of states and governments, 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.

The Seventh UN Forum on Internet Governance was held in Baku in 2012. The fact that this forum was held in Azerbaijan was no coincidence, as the ICT sector is rapidly developing to become the most promising segment of our economy. In fact, 2013 was declared "The Year of ICT" in Azerbaijan. On February 8, 2013, Azerbaijan launched its first telecommunications satellite into orbit. It was a very significant and historic day, and a major achievement for our country. The decision to put an Azerbaijani satellite into orbit was made in 2008. In 2009, we adopted a relevant state program, Azerkosmos JSC was established in 2010. The results we have achieved show that Azerbaijan is indeed a rapidly and comprehensively developing country today. 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 technology, in particular the ICT sector, has become a hallmark of Azerbaijan and will facilitate our successful development in the future. Over past decade, Azerbaijan has successfully hosted a number of globally important political, economic, cultural, sporting, and other events. In addition to that, the European Olympic Committee`s decision to conduct the inaugural 2015 European Olympic Games in Azerbaijan is not only a historic achievement and a huge success for our country, but it is also evidence of Azerbaijan`s growing international authority and a recognition of our extensive opportunities on the part of the international community. In parallel with this, democratic reforms are being continued and a strong civil society has emerged in Azerbaijan. Today, Azerbaijan is a country where freedom of expression, speech, and the media are guaranteed. People and the prosperity of our nation are at the heart of all our policies. All of 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.

TBY: Regarding the upcoming election, what can you say about the future of the country and the key policies you intend to implement?

More than 20 years ago, Azerbaijan freed itself from a 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, can lead to 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 stood up and invited national leader Heydar Aliyev, who had tremendous experience in public administration, to 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. There are certain unchangeable principles of building a modern and democratic state, a system of values that are consistently secured, and main strategic goals that are always protected. I am absolutely convinced that the course toward building an independent state, democratic development, social prosperity, and civil society laid down by Heydar Aliyev must continue 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.

TBY: Given the important geostrategic location of Azerbaijan, how would you describe the country`s relations with Russia, Turkey, and other neighboring nations?

Azerbaijan is a reliable partner 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 in the region and the world on the basis of the principles of effective cooperation, mutual respect, and non-interference in each other`s affairs. It was on these principles that Azerbaijan joined the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 2012, thus identifying new vectors of the country`s foreign policy. As with any other country in the world, we are currently working to strengthen our relations with African and Latin American countries and 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 by 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 refinery 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 a strategic partnership. Political dialogue, humanitarian cooperation, the strengthening of economic relations, and collaboration on other issues form the core of our bilateral agenda. Russia is in 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 the shares of major commercial entities in Russia. Azerbaijani companies are also implementing projects in the area of agricultural produce processing in Russia, for example. Furthermore, Azerbaijan is developing friendly and sincere relations with other countries in the region. We are guided by the interests of the Azerbaijani people and the state in bilateral and multilateral relations.

TBY: The year 2012 was declared "Year of Sports." Reflecting on Azerbaijan`s achievements at the Olympic Games in London 2012, the hosting of the FIFA U-17 Women`s World Cup, and the election of Baku to host the inaugural European Olympic Games in 2015, how would you evaluate this past year?

Our achievements in the field of sports in 2012 give us the opportunity to talk about the results of the "Year of Sports" with a sense of great pride. When making this decision at the beginning of 2012, we wanted our athletes to win and to succeed, and they have lived up to our expectations. Our athletes have successfully represented our country in international competitions, winning a total of over 700 medals in various tournaments, including 255 gold medals. About 300 international sports events have been held in Azerbaijan in the last 10 years. Of these, I want to particularly highlight the FIFA 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 of the organization of the World Cup in Azerbaijan. In 2013, 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 athletes at the London Olympic Games in 2012 are further evidence of the fact that our country is already a full-fledged member of this family. Our athletes have won 10 medals at the Olympics, 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 December 8, 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 believe that this is a historic decision. Historically, the Olympic Games originated in Europe, but the European Olympic Games have never been held before. The decision to conduct the first European Olympic Games is in itself a very serious step, a watershed in the Olympic movement. It is a tremendous responsibility for us to host Europe`s first Olympics, 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 sports. The ever-growing international authority of Azerbaijan, the country`s economic power and 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. However, 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 country to 35. Eight other centers are currently under construction and there are plans to build several 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. In 2012, we laid the foundation for the Olympic stadium, which will be the largest stadium in the region. I am absolutely sure that the infrastructure and 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 the Olympic Games, but we have only two years to go. This is why we have already started to take the necessary actions. On January 17, 2013, we established the Organizing Committee for the First European Olympic Games, which held its first meeting on February 2, 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.

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