Ilham Aliyev: "A reasonable compromise on Karabakh is possible"
In an interview with Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency’s Director General Dmitry Kiselev for Sputnik Azerbaijan and RIA Novosti, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has listed the conditions that could help to reach a compromise on Nagorno Karabakh: ensuring safety of the population and life in this region, establishing of a full-fledged government, implementation of Baku investment projects.
- Mr. President, I sincerely congratulate you on the anniversary of your great country. 25 years - just like in life of a person, first 25 years of life determine everything, it's the basis. So how Azerbaijan looks after these 25 years under the leadership of its founder Heydar Aliyev and yours, his successor?
- This is actually a landmark date, 25 years - it is a long time. This period allows us to talk about successes, failures, missed opportunities. But overall, during those years Azerbaijan followed the path of development and formation. Today it is an independent and self-sufficient state, which relies on its national roots, while still being secular, multi-ethnic, multi-confessional, successfully developing state. It relies only on its own strength, has good and friendly relations with its neighbors. It is a reliable and worthy member of the international community. In other words, our tasks of development, formation and strengthening of statehood are mainly completed. We have very good prospects for future development, because we have a lot of programs in the economic and social spheres, which are already implemented or will be implemented in the future.
I can tell a lot about our economic achievements. I can also cite one fact: according to the latest report of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Azerbaijani economy is thirty seventh in the world by its competitiveness. It is first among the CIS countries and it is pretty high among all countries of the world. So we have a lot of opportunities, we confidently move forward, and I'm confident that the next 25 years will also become the years of rapid development.
- I actually wanted to ask this question by the end, but I think you are missing a very important point, maybe knowingly or just out of modesty: Azerbaijan is also a beautiful country, Baku has become gorgeous, refined city over these years. It was reconstructed and restored with a very good taste. You can feel that there is an absolutely deliberate, consistent desire: present your country and its capital to its citizens and the world in a special light. And it's not just about money, there is something else. What is it?
- You know, it may seem trivial, but I think the main thing is love for your city. Because we, people who live in Baku and in any other part of Azerbaijan, love Baku very much. It is a historical city, historical architectural monument, but unfortunately, it wasn't developed for many years. Dilapidated houses, shabby urban infrastructure, so we had to resolve a very difficult task of making this city comfortable for citizens and more beautiful without damaging its historic appearance. I think we did it, because Baku harmoniously combines history and modernity. You can walk through the medieval old city, then literally just cross the street and find yourself in a modern metropolis with 16 kilometers long promenade, wide avenues and beautiful buildings.
It was pretty difficult to find this harmony between history, the past and the present. But I think we did it. I would like to thank you for such assessment of our city. It is always great to hear such reviews from those who visit Baku. It inspires us. On the other hand, we mainly did it for ourselves. Because as the classic said: environment forms the consciousness, and when everything around you is beautiful - it improves the mood, it forms the worldview, disciplines, so clean city is also the result of this transformation.
- Oil and hydrocarbons in general mean a lot for Azerbaijan. Does Azerbaijan suffer great losses right now? What is its strategy in the conditions of falling prices? What is the main characteristic of this strategy?
- We have tried to reduce the dependence on oil for many years and we managed to do it to some extent. We are exporters of food products, so we have invested a lot in the development of agriculture, regional infrastructure, tourism, and the dependence on oil has seriously decreased. Oil accounts for slightly more than 30% of our GDP, but it is still the main part of our export. The main task for today is to diversify export and to bring competitive products to the market in order to compensate for those losses that we suffer due to falling prices. It's easy to calculate those losses. If the oil price drops by three times, and it dropped by four times at the beginning of the year, our revenues obviously decrease by the same amount. We calculated the budget for this year under the price of 25 dollars per barrel after revising it, so we finish this year with proficit. Our financial plan envisions the price of 40 dollars per barrel next year. We think that the price won't drop below that, so there won't be any additional difficulties. The only thing that we had to cut are state investment projects. Perhaps it's for the better, because there was too much investments and too much needs. You know, when there are too much money there a lot of demands from various government agencies. That is why the crisis of oil prices even helped us, made us come to our senses and showed that it is necessary to spend money carefully. And that's what we do.
- Right now, before the expected decision of OPEC on November 30, what is better for Azerbaijan: to reduce oil production or freeze it at the current levels? Perhaps the introduction of quotas or something else?
- You know, it's hard to tell and predict what will provide greater effect. The most important thing is what will be the goal. Today, as far as we can tell, both producers and consumers seek stabilization - in other words, the increase. Because low oil prices have also damaged consumers. Especially large, developed countries, who began to order much less from countries that used to pay a lot for these orders - so their economy also suffered. Today, of course, it also affects the economies of oil-producing countries, which are heavily dependent on oil. An agreement on a single policy among OPEC and non-OPEC countries would serve as the main stabilizing factor in the oil market. The way we see events developing, I think we are close, and I think that this should take place, but all sides need to be most sincere, honest, and there needs to be an effective mechanism to monitor the implementation of the adopted decisions, if any.
The oil market is due to reach the price tag of $60-70 per barrel, which, I think, would be beneficial for everyone: for the companies - it would allow them to invest more, and for producing countries - they could obtain funds for various projects, and for the consumers, who would win from those orders they have lost right now.
- Does Azerbaijan want it?
- Azerbaijan wants this and we have repeatedly stated this. We unilaterally declare that we will not increase oil production, without even waiting for other decisions.
- So will you freeze your production?
- To a certain extent. We won't increase it.
- It is clear that this topic includes another issue for Azerbaijan - the Turkish Stream project, which has been agreed by Russia and Turkey recently. Azerbaijan has its own project, called TANAP. To what extent do you feel the competition or these projects are parallel? What is the current condition of TANAP?
- TANAP is the part of a major project - the Southern Gas Corridor, which consists of four parts. It is, in fact, the development of one of the largest gas condensate deposits in the world, Shah Deniz, the second stage of development. The construction of the South Caucasus gas pipeline, which runs from Azerbaijan to Georgia, its extension. Actually, TANAP, the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline from the eastern Turkey's border with Georgia to the western Turkey's border with Greece. And then the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) from the Turkish-Greek border through Greece, Albania and the Adriatic Sea to Italy. This is the Southern Gas Corridor project, TANAP is a part of it, which, of course, is integral with the rest of the project. Without the rest of projects it is incomplete. The volumes of gas that will be transported in the first stage along the entire length of the project, have already been contracted, they have already been sold. We have signed contracts for the increase in production, which will start in 2018 and should reach its peak in 2020-2021. Therefore, no other regional energy projects can compete with it, because we have already sold this gas. This is the first. Secondly, we believe that if there are projects carried out by our neighbors and friends, in this case the Turkish Stream, we are only pleased, because it strengthens cooperation, regional security, and allows countries to more fully meet their economic and energy interests in the region. Therefore, we have always supported the Turkish Stream project, and we are pleased that after some time the project was revived again. And recently Turkey and Russia signed a document on restoration of this project within the World Energy Congress in Istanbul, which I also attended, and I congratulate Russian and Turkish counterpart on this.
- And yet, the signing of this project is not just a business. It is a symbol of reconciliation between Turkey and Russia. What is the role played by Azerbaijan in this reconciliation? Now, you can probably mention some details.
- I think it would be immodest to talk about it. Probably it would be more correct if the countries, which are directly involved, assessed our role at this time.
- Tell us what it was, and they will assess ...
- Of course, we were very worried about recent Russian-Turkish relations. For many reasons. Firstly, Turkey and Russia are our neighbors. Secondly, they are close countries. One might say that they are our main political and economic partners. And we were very pleased to see the improving of relations between Russia and Turkey. I remember that during the inauguration of the First European Games in June 2015, President Putin and President Erdogan held a very good meeting in Baku, one of many. Unfortunately, the tragic incident that took place, threw these relations back. It was very disturbing, it was bad for both Turkey and Russia, and for their friends. Including us. Therefore, we, on our part, tried to make a contribution to the normalization of relations as best we could and to an extent which would be acceptable to Russia and Turkey. Very carefully, without intervening strongly in these matters, but offering our opportunities, because we believed and still believe that we have them.
I believe that the fact that there was normalization is the restoration of justice, the elimination of this tragic misunderstanding. Probably they will analyze the reasons. As far as I know, they have already analyzed them. To our knowledge, this has not been without the intervention of certain forces which were anxiously watching the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey.
- What are you hinting at?
- I just give the assessment that we have as a result of certain objective observations.
- Do you mean it was a foreign provocation?
- It is not excluded. In any case, when there was an incident with the aircraft, the first thing that came to our mind was that we cannot rule out that option. Because it was absolutely not in the interests of Turkey. And we could not suppose that someone would deliberately do such an unfriendly act.
It is clear that such a tragic event provoked emotions, which swept the situation to a certain extent, and it was hard to understand what really happened. They shifted from one emotion to the next, one word evoked response, and there was a spiral which must be stopped. It was stopped. Now we need to understand. I think, and I am almost certain that this has not been without provocations. Because the spirit and character of the Russian-Turkish relations is categorically not assume such reaction to the flights of the Russian military aircraft. But, again, being very cautious and careful, I would like to share these observations, without interfering in the bilateral relations of our closest friends. And at the same time, of course, to express satisfaction with the fact that it is in the past. At the World Energy Congress in Istanbul on October 10, we sat side by side: President Putin, me at his right and President Erdogan at his left. They had a very lively discussion, similar to those during formal events, and it was evident that all the misunderstandings are a thing of the past. We are very pleased with this.
- This example shows how beneficial and powerful Azerbaijan's role in the region is, without thrusting itself. The triangle of Azerbaijan - Iran - Russia is also noticeable. Now it is a very stable political structure. When we met last time, you said that you do a lot of work on it, now there are results. So, does this triangle work now?
- You have touched on a very important topic, which has a very good potential for development in the future and play a very important role in the strengthening of security and cooperation in our region. Earlier this year I was on an official visit to Iran, and with my Iranian counterpart President Rouhani put forward the idea of organizing a trilateral format of cooperation between Iran, Russia and Azerbaijan. It has been positively reviewed, after returning from Iran, I phoned to Vladimir Putin and he took the idea very positively. And we have started active work in this direction, just two months after these events Baku held a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of these three countries.
It was the first experience of this kind, the meeting was very successful, and preparations for the summit, which was held in early August in Baku with participation of President Putin, Rouhani and my participation, has begun. I believe it was a historic summit, firstly, because the leaders of the three countries met at the summit in such format for the first time, and secondly, because we go back to history. And the history of relations between the countries, empires in the region was not easy, we all know it. But today we see that if there is goodwill, no matter how complicated a historical memory is, it gives way to pragmatism and the desire to strengthen cooperation. Azerbaijan was part of the Persian Empire, the Russian Empire at different stages, therefore, the organization of the summit in Baku is of particular importance to us, we regard this as a sign of respect of our great neighbors to the thing that we do, and as a new format of cooperation. This is a serious geopolitical move. Of course, we discussed the issues of transport safety, energy, investment, economic issues, the agenda was fairly extensive, but the important thing is that we are creating a new format of regional cooperation, based on geography, because only Azerbaijan has borders with Russia and Iran, and on the basis of our interests. Our security, as an independent state, is provided in our region. And our security depends directly on the security around our borders. Therefore, a close cooperation between our neighbors, we have just talked about the Russian-Turkish relations, the Russian-Iranian relations is the same thing, is in our national interest. And we are happy and proud that we were able to organize such a meeting. We hope that it will be continued in the future.
- So, is this triangle as a fact of the international politics a sufficiently solid foothold?
- Of course. This is already the fact in the world and global politics. This is not a regional format or transport format, this is a serious foreign policy and geopolitical initiative, and it has already become a reality, and for our part we will do everything necessary to top up this format. We see exactly the same approach on the part of our Russian and Iranian colleagues.
- There are two trends in the world, confronting each other: one is destructive ‘divide and conquer’, and another that seeks to unite the countries and create a peaceful design. These trends are complementing one another. One of these constructions is the Eurasian Economic Union. Does Azerbaijan plan to join it?
- This subject has been being sought for a long time both in the expert community and among the political elites of various countries. I can say that, in principle, we feel confident enough in that capacity, in which we find ourselves now. And a result of a twenty-five year development of Azerbaijan, especially in the economic sphere and in the sphere of the political development is a vivid example of this. Over the past thirteen years we were able to triple the GDP, and to reduce poverty from 49% in 2003 to 5% this year. In fact, there is no poverty as a social phenomenon anymore. The same is true for unemployment, which amounts 5%, we have large foreign exchange reserves - we accumulate them, even this year, despite the fall in the oil prices, our foreign exchange reserves of the Oil Fund increase, because we spend sparingly and сash not on oil anymore. Therefore, we are satisfied with our condition: both the economic and political situation. Another thing is that the world is changing. There are new threats and new challenges, we see that ‘all is on fire’, the new hotbeds of destabilization and potential sources of risk are being created. In these circumstances, of course, very much depends on close cooperation with our traditional partners.
Today, a format of our economic and political cooperation with the member-states of the EurAsEC is strong enough. Of course, a motivation is needed to follow a course of integration. It can be economic, social, political, whatever. And we are now working in this direction. Of course, it is no secret that among the EurAsEC member-states a priority partner for us is Russia - our big neighbor. It is a country with which we have the largest turnover among the other member states of the EurAsEC, and a level of the mutual relations and trust is the highest. We have no problems with Russia both in the political and socio-economic terms. President Putin's last visit to Baku in August confirmed it once again- we did not find anything to fix. No, there is nothing like this neither on my side, nor on the Russian. There is a free-trade agreement between Russia and Azerbaijan, so, there are no such restrictions as well. But now we are in a search for an extra motivation. And we are watching with interest how the processes are ongoing in the Eurasian space, because there not everything goes smoothly. There are also some difficulties, and claims to some extent. Therefore, we have to analyze everything, we need to integrate. Azerbaijan’s political style is not to complain, by to solve own problems by ourselves, and to bring, so to speak, only positive emotions, to the foreign market.. Therefore, we must also understand the trends, and, of course, if the Union is more attractive, then many countries will seek to join it. So, nothing can be ruled out, but I would characterize a present stage exactly in this way.
- As you said ‘all is on fire’. You probably meant a threat of the radical Islam. To what extent does Azerbaijan feel this threat?
- I will tell you that in this regard we have no domestic threats. Our society is consolidated around a national idea. This idea lies in a priority of our values and promoting of multiculturalism. By the way, this year has been declared the year of multiculturalism in Azerbaijan . Our society is united by the idea of restoring the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, as well as the strengthening of our independence, and in solving all the economic and social issues. Therefore, there are neither economic, nor social niches for radicals - there is no such a base. Because there is almost no poverty. How do they recruit adherents? They recruit mainly poor people. Literacy in Azerbaijan amounts 100%. Again, where do they recruit radicals? Among the illiterate masses. Therefore, there is no such an environment. But it is different all around us. Therefore, the main thing for us is to protect ourselves from a negative external influence, including the religious extremism. Our society is deeply tied to its roots: the national, spiritual, and religious. We honor our holy places and treat them with due care. At the same time our society is secular and modern. I think, an example of a secular Muslim state in the face of modern Azerbaijan has not been studied well yet, so it could be a good example for many other countries. Therefore, in terms of fighting radicalism our main task is to protect ourselves from the external physical and information threats that exist. There are relevant authorities, ensuring the safety of our country, and therefore Azerbaijan remains a place of stability, development and peace on the background of all that we see around us today.
We and our citizens value this a lot. Every day they see what is going on in the hot spots, what is happening in the European countries, the CIS and the Middle East. There are wars, blood, and destruction. This consolidates our society even further, this is the greatest ‘inoculation’ against radicalism. But, despite all this, we should not reduce even for a moment the activities of our policy, aiming modernity, secularism, and the prevalence of good over evil. We are working in this direction on a regular basis.
- You've raised several topics that must be discussed, we will get to them later. But if we have already started with radical Islam, in your opinion, what is happening in Syria right now? What can you telll about dynamics there? Everyone say so many different things about it... France and Hollande almost want to bring Russia to the international tribunal, and everyone talk about the war crimes, allegedly committed there. At the same time, you said that it is necessary to be sincere and honest in the international politics. How all of this blends together?
- You know, it is difficult for us to tell what is happening in Syria, because we don't have enough sources in this country. We receive information, but mainly from international media, and each country presents its own interpretation of these events. But one thing is clear - Syria is essentially being destroyed for several years already. Cities are destroyed, civilians are killed. There is no end to these sufferings. That is why I have repeatedly stated about this at different platforms, and I want to say once again that it is possible to defeat the terrorism only by uniting the efforts of the entire international community and leading countries in the fight against terrorism. I consider Russia's approach when the country says that it is necessary to unite efforts against extremists, terrorists, radicals fully justified. We must not differentiate good and bad terrorists. Those who oppose you are bad, while those against your rival or opponent are good. Sooner or later this boomerang will return - the history has proved it many times before. But so far we can't see a consensus in this direction, which is very alarming. The situation follows the path of escalation. I hop that those negotiations on the settlement in Syria will succeed. But the most important things is that Syria must remain a single state, Syria's territorial integrity must be ensured. And secondly - Syrian people should determine their own fate. These are two simple theses that are close to your position, as far as I know. We completely agree with this. In this context, it is necessary to address this issue, although, unfortunately, we can see that the settlement gets harder and harder with each passing month.
- Speaking about the national idea of Azerbaijan, you mentioned the restoration of territorial integrity as a part of it. So it brings us to a very painful subject of Nagorno-Karabakh. Everyone dream of compromise. Is it possible? And if it is, on what conditions?
- It is necessary to clearly understand what is meant by a compromise and how this or that side interprets it. In order to decide what to do, you must know what happened: historically, Nagorno-Karabakh is an integral part of Azerbaijan. It has always been. We know the history of mass resettlement of Armenians from Persia and Eastern Anatolia to these lands. The entire history of this region, all the toponyms, including the word Karabakh itself are of Azeri origin. An autonomous region was established in Soviet times due to the fact that resettled Armenian population already existed there, but it wasn't a republic and it did not have administrative border with Armenia. And everything was fine, life went on as usual, there were no problems. In terms of socio-economic development, Nagorno-Karabakh was ahead of many other regions of Azerbaijan, so it would be unfair to say that we did not pay attention to it. Especially since such autonomies received special attention of central authorities. But separatist tendencies have prevailed there right before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It ended in a bloodshed, Azerbaijanis were exiled from Nagorno-Karabakh, they amounted to about 30% of the population, then seven regions of Azerbaijan, which weren't even related to Nagorno-Karabakh, were occupied. Only Azerbaijani population lived there, but everything was destroyed.
The OSCE sent its mission twice. Their report is just a nightmare: there is not a single undamaged building, including cemeteries, mosques, there is nothing. 750 thousand people were exiled from the territories outside of Nagorno-Karabakh, 40 thousand Azerbaijanis were exiled from Nagorno-Karabakh, over 200 thousand were exiled from Armenia, million refugees in a poor country in 1993. Almost all international organizations have adopted correct resolutions, the UN Security Council adopted 4 resolutions demanding immediate, unconditional and complete withdrawal of Armenian occupying forces. They are not fulfilled for more than 20 years.The European Parliament, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Non-Alignment Movement - they all did the same thing: the international law is on our side. No country of the world, including Armenia, does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh. This is true, but this issue is not resolved, and the main reason why it is not resolved is because Armenia does not want it. Because that means that a decision will be made, this decision will result in deoccupation of territories, illegally occupied by Armenia. They don't want it, they want to leave the status quo unchanged. Although co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, which deal with the settlement - Russia, America, France - and their presidents have repeatedly said that the status quo is not acceptable and must be changed, unfortunately, those are just statements. As we see the settlement of this conflict: territorial integrity of Azerbaijan is not and cannot be a subject of discussion. We will never agree to grant the independence to Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian side is aware of it. However, a reasonable compromise is possible by ensuring safety of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, implementing various investment projects of Azerbaijan and establishing a peaceful cooperation between the two nations under the condition of liberation of territories outside the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region. This corresponds to the proposals that we are currently working on, which have been proposed by the mediators. But the main reason behind the fact that this conflict remains unsettled is that for the past 24 years, since creation of the OSCE Minsk Group, Armenia has blocked any slightest progress in the negotiation process in every possible way.
Our position is that people should live where they lived. Because they lived there for a long time: Armenian population lived there just for 200 years, while the Azerbaijani people lived there for much more time, but that is not the main point. For example, 95% of the population of Shusha region were Azerbaijanis. They were exiled, their houses were either seized or destroyed, and other people live in their houses right now. It must end. The Armenian population of the Nagorno-Karabakh can live there, just like they lived before, we are not against it. But what did Armenia gain from this conflict? Millions of Azerbaijanis suffered, but did Armenians became happier, did this place become safer, more prosperous? Of course not. There can’t be any development in the region without normalization of relations with Azerbaijan. They will always live under certain pressure, thinking what should they do if something happens. We want peace in the region and our position is pretty constructive, but we want our territories back. Armenia wants peace, but it doesn’t want to give somebody else’s territories back. This is the difference.
- So this is a compromise and the path to peace?
- Undoubtedly, we can’t provide anything more than this compromise. As I have already stated, there can be no compromise on the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, but there can be a compromise on the issues of local self-government, self-government of the Nagorno-Karabakh, and in the future, if we agree on it, there can be an autonomous republic. The Armenian leadership is aware of this, but they manipulate public opinion, create an image of the enemy, distort the negotiation process and present it like Azerbaijan almost wants to annihilate the Armenian population or exile them. This is not true.