Ilham Aliyev: Azerbaijan's foreign policy underpinned by protection of national interests
Baku, Azerbaijan, May 14
President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has been interviewed by "The Business Year" magazine. Below is the text of the interview, presented by AzerTAc.
Your Excellency won a third sweeping victory at the polls last October. What will be the priorities of your third term in office?
The presidential election of 2013 was an important event in the public and political life of Azerbaijan. It demonstrated the attitude of our society towards the political course we have pursued in the last 10 years. Over the course of the decade we followed the path of nationwide leader Heydar Aliyev and succeeded in meeting the goals we had set for our state and society. In terms of its economic performance, Azerbaijan has become one of the world leaders, which has made our country even stronger.
As a result of the goal-oriented activities carried out on the basis of thought-out programs, our gross domestic product has increased 3.4 times, the non-oil sector of the economy 2.6 times and budget revenues 16 times, while the volume strategic exchange reserves now exceeds $50 billion. Over $170 billion has been invested in the national economy.
Such a rapid development has also led to the improved well-being of our citizens. Over the last 10 years the incomes of our population have increased 6.5 times and the average salary 5.5 times. I think that the decline of poverty from 49 to 5.3 percent and the reduction of unemployment in half to 5 percent can be viewed as important achievements of the country. The last 10 years have seen extensive construction in the country, our cities, settlements and villages have significantly improved, modern standards and advanced technologies are being applied to all our cities.
Azerbaijan's achievements are received well by leading international organizations and prestigious rating agencies. According to the "Global Competitiveness Report 2013-2014" of the World Economic Forum, Azerbaijan is ranked in 39th place in the world for competitiveness.
Over the years our standing in the world has strengthened further. Azerbaijan has earned itself a good reputation in the system of international relations and is treated with respect. The numerous international events held in Azerbaijan are evidence of the fact that our country is already seen as a political, economic and cultural center of the region.
Against the backdrop of growing trends of tension, unemployment and poverty in the world, Azerbaijan is registering processes of a completely opposite nature - rapid development, progress, growing well-being of the population, public and political stability, national solidarity, etc.
I think these have been the key contributors to the outcomes of the 2013 presidential election. The PACE, the European Parliament, the OSCE PA, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the CIS and other authoritative organizations have given unequivocally high assessments of the election and described it as free, fair and transparent. And this confirms yet again that our people and the international community see the election and its results in the same way. By their votes the people of Azerbaijan expressed their support for the policies pursued to this day and given us the mandate for a continuation of these activities.
Our plans are even more ambitious. There are important issues on our agenda. Activities on further enhancing Azerbaijan's potential, expanding the competitiveness of the economy, building a modern society, improving the well-being of our society, reinforcing our international standing in accordance with our foreign policy priorities, stepping up the systemic fight against corruption, bribery and other negative phenomena, etc. will be continued in a consistent manner.
Azerbaijan made great strides in ICT last year, the Year of ICT. Looking ahead, what role will technology play in Azerbaijan's future development?
The advantage of the economic policy pursued in Azerbaijan is the fact that all the activities are carried out on the basis of the country's real potential, best international practices and specific programs. Experience shows that the application of state-of-the-art technologies is one of the key preconditions of a competitive economy. For this reason, innovation is extensively used not only in the economy but also all other areas.
The sector of information and communication technologies is developing very fast and has a great future. The adoption of the National ICT Strategy in 2003 and the subsequent adoption and implementation of the state program on electronic governance gave a major impetus to the development of this sector. In the years of independence more than $3 billion was invested in the ICT development in Azerbaijan. As a result, the sector of information and communication technologies has expanded 8.2 times in the last decade.
The launch in 2013 of Azerbaijan's first telecommunication satellite into orbit and the establishment of a space industry has been a historic event. Work is currently under way to launch two more satellites into space in the years ahead.
The Internet has also developed very rapidly in recent years. According to a report of the International Telecommunication Union, up to 70 percent of Azerbaijan's population uses the Internet. We have started building broadband Internet channels to all cities of Azerbaijan.
I want to draw your attention to another fact. We don't just apply the innovations existing in the world but also try to initiate some innovations ourselves. I would like to emphasize what can be described as Azerbaijan's own brand - the State Agency for Public Services and Social Innovations and its "ASAN Xidmət" [Easy Service] centers. The scope of "ASAN Xidmət" services includes coordination of services provided by public agencies, oversight and evaluation, mutual integration of government databases, effective provision of electronic services and modernization of management systems.
This service is an example of a progressive government-citizen relationship. The centers currently provide a total of 25 legal services. It is no coincidence that over a million people have applied to the service in a matter of one year. Therefore, we intend to further expand the scope of services provided by "ASAN Xidmət".
As far as the role of advanced technologies in the future development of Azerbaijan is concerned, I can note that in order to facilitate the further dynamic development of the economy and increase its competitiveness, specific measures are taken to expand the ICT spheres based on advanced science and technology achievements, attract both domestic and foreign investment to this sector, create a database of qualified professionals, etc.
To fulfill these goals, we have set up a High-Tech Park, established the Information Technology Development Fund and the Information Technology University. The creation of a strong economy based on innovation is one of our primary objectives and we are consistently moving in this direction.
You declared this year as the Year of Industry. What activities are to be carried out in this direction this year?
Azerbaijan used to be considered an agricultural republic before. In the 1970-80s, steps were taken to develop the industry and hundreds of new industrial enterprises were established to produce goods for partner republics. However, the collapse of the USSR led to a cessation of ties between the formerly Soviet republics.
In general, the planned economy suffered a fiasco. At the same time, the Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan, the anarchy dominating the country at the time and the physical and moral obsolescence of the old enterprises led to a gradual economic decline and a disruption of to the manufacturing process. Only thanks to the efforts of nationwide leader Heydar Aliyev was it possible to restore production in the early 2000s to the level of the 1990s.
In the last 10 years, a portion of the revenues obtained from oil and gas production has been specifically and under special programs channeled into the development of the non-oil sector, the establishment of new high-tech industrial facilities and diversification of the national economy. As a result, the non-oil sector has been registering an annual growth rate of 10 percent each year. In addition, the comprehensive support for private enterprise, the implementation of major investment programs, the establishment and reconstruction of the socioeconomic infrastructure, and the construction of competitive enterprises based on cutting-edge technologies have increased the volume of industrial production 2.7 times.
One of the goals on our agenda today is to take advantage of the available potential to transform Azerbaijan into a powerful industrialized state. Certain work has already been done in the area of industrial diversification and modernization. We are engaging the existing natural and economic resources, creating new industrial estates and technology parks and speeding up the process of innovation.
For this reason, 2014 has been declared the Year of Industry. A general plan of activities to be carried out this year has been prepared and approved. At the same time, there are plans to prepare and adopt the "State program on industrial development covering 2015-2020". We believe that the experience we have accumulated and the overall economic potential of Azerbaijan will allow us the opportunity to meet these objectives.
The third state program on the socioeconomic development of districts covering 2014-2018 was adopted last year. What have the first two programs achieved and what are the expectations from the third program?
When we adopted the first state program in 2004, our goal was to ensure all-round development of the regions and eliminate the gap in the level of development between the capital and the rest of the country. I said even before the 2003 election that if I was shown the confidence of the people, I would first of all tackle the development of Azerbaijani regions and a special program would be adopted to this end. And so it happened.
The adoption of two state programs covering 2003-2008 and 2009-2013 periods, the signing and implementation of around 250 resolutions in addition to the two programs created a watershed in the regions and changed the socioeconomic landscape of our districts beyond recognition.
As a result, the quality of public services and social infrastructure in the regions has substantially improved, the business environment has become more favorable, investment has increased, thousands of new enterprises have been commissioned and more than 1.2 million jobs have been created, including 900,000 permanent ones.
Over the last 10 years, production of goods in the districts has increased 3.2 times and industrial production 3.1 times. All Azerbaijani districts and residential settlements have been landscaped and modernized. I can say with full confidence that this program has contributed a great deal to the development of the country's regions and, in general, to Azerbaijan's economic potential.
Our strategic goal on our agenda is to further strengthen Azerbaijan's independence and make it one of the most developed and competitive countries of the world in all respects. Therefore, taking into consideration the challenges of the contemporary world, the work on the dynamic development of the regions will be continued.
I believe that the implementation of the newly-approved "State program on the socioeconomic development of districts of the Republic of Azerbaijan covering 2014-2018" will facilitate sustainable development of the non-oil sector, further improve the public services and the social infrastructure as a whole and elevate the country to the ranks of leading nations of the world.
As far as foreign policy is concerned, Azerbaijan has made important achievements in recent years. The country's activities in the UN Security Council, the determination and implementation of new foreign policy priorities, etc. are among them. What will be the main directions of the country's foreign policy in the years ahead?
The comprehensive development of Azerbaijan, the strengthening of its economic potential and an active foreign policy have enabled the country to strengthen its international reputation, facilitate its close integration into the international world and improve its relations with different countries in both bilateral and multilateral formats. Today, Azerbaijan is considered a country pursing an independent policy, possessing its own view on global political developments and the system of international relations and enjoying great international respect.
Our election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2011 in a trough competition with other countries is not only a historic achievement and a tremendous foreign political success, but also an indicator of great respect we enjoy in the world. As is evident, the world supports the position of our state and approves the steps we are taking. Azerbaijan acts with dignity in all international organizations and puts its national interests above everything else. In the two years of membership in the UN Security Council, especially at the times of its presidency in the organization, Azerbaijan made its contribution to global security, the establishment of peace in the world and development of a dialogue between cultures and civilizations.
Azerbaijan has also initiated a number of transnational and regional projects. The energy policy pursued by our country represents significant importance not only to us but also to the region and the world. As you may be aware, the final investment decision on the Shah Deniz-2 project to produce and deliver the ample gas reserves from the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian to world markets was signed in Baku on 17 December 2013. I believe that the Shah Deniz-2 project will contribute to the redrawing of the world's energy map and go down in history as the Contract of the 21st century.
Azerbaijan has become a political, economic and humanitarian center of the South Caucasus. Baku traditionally plays host to numerous international events. In 2013, the international conference on support for Palestine within the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Third Humanitarian Forum, the Second Forum on the Dialogue between Cultures, the Davos World Economic Forum and a number of other high-profile international events were held in Baku.
Our bilateral and multilateral relations with the world's leading international organizations and countries have also developed. Azerbaijan continued its effective operation within the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and other authoritative international organizations. Last year we signed an important agreement with the European Union on simplifying visa regulations. This is an indicator of our relations with the European Union. I am confident that we will succeed in creating a format of strategic partnership with the European Union to further expand our cooperation.
In addition to developing our relations with regional countries and leading states of the world on the basis of mutual trust, we are also reaching out to non-traditional partners.
In parallel to expanding our relations of cooperation with the traditional countries of Europe and Asia, we also seek to establish political, economic and humanitarian cooperation with countries of the Non-Aligned Movement, Latin America and Africa. We have identified this as another foreign political priority. It is no coincidence that a number of Latin American countries have recently expressed their support for Azerbaijan's fair cause in the settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. A total of 10 countries have already recognized the massacre perpetrated by the Armenian armed forces in the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly in 1992 as an act of genocide. The parliaments of these countries have passed relevant decisions to this effect.
In the coming years we intend to further strengthen the political and economic potential of our country, enhance our international reputation and expand our cooperation with international organizations and countries. Our foreign policy is underpinned by the protection of national interests, and all the necessary steps will continue to be taken in this direction.
I regret to say that there is no progress in the settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is our top foreign political priority. The Armenian side continues to use different pretexts to delay the process of negotiations and tries to maintain the status-quo. There was some revitalization in the talks at the end of last year, which gives us grounds to expect some progress in the settlement of the issue in 2014.
The Armenian leadership has got to understand that Azerbaijan will never tolerate the establishment of a second Armenian state on its soil. The conflict should and will be resolved on the basis of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. As long as the conflict remains unresolved, the Armenian state will remain sidelined from all transnational and regional projects, the plight of the Armenian people will continue to deteriorate and the already frugal potential of the country will be completely exhausted.
How are the preparations for the much-anticipated European Olympic Games advancing?
We have entered into a crucial year in the preparations for the inaugural European Olympic Games. As is known, preparations for a competition of such proportions usually take seven to eight years. We have only two and a half years to stage the European Summer Olympic Games. I am sure that we will succeed in meeting all our objectives in this respect. The Organizing Committee is already in place and is working very hard. The construction of most of the sport facilities which will host the Games is scheduled for completion this year.
The Olympic stadium, the gymnastic center, the aquatic palace and the trap shooting complex are now under construction. The Heydar Aliyev Sports Center and the Hand Games Palace are being refurbished and other sport facilities are being set up. However, preparations for the Games are not limited to the construction of various facilities. Issues relating to security and transportation, the establishment of an Olympic village, accommodation of visitors and athletes, organization of training camps and other issues require a great deal of attention and effort.
If we take into consideration the potential already available in Azerbaijan, the presence of a sophisticated sports infrastructure and our extensive experience in hosting prestigious international competitions, I have no doubt whatsoever that we will conduct the Games at a high level. I believe that the standards applied to the Games in Azerbaijan will lay the foundation for all future European Olympic Games.