Ilham Aliyev: "Beginning of de-occupation of Azerbaijani territory - first step towards gradual settlement of conflict"

Ilham Aliyev: "Beginning of de-occupation of Azerbaijani territory - first step towards gradual settlement of conflict"

Russia closely monitors preparations for presidential elections in Azerbaijan, which will be held on the upcoming Wednesday. On the eve of this event, TASS Deputy Director-General Mikhail Gusman asked current head of state Ilham Aliyev about economic development of Azerbaijan, its relations with Russia and key issues of the international agenda.

- Mr. President, Ilham Heydarovich, thank you very much for the opportunity to meet you. It's just a few days before presidential elections in Azerbaijan. These five years have passed very quickly - perhaps they seemed like one moment to you. Can you tell what was the most important for you during this time?

- I think that the most important thing is that Azerbaijan has continued to develop successfully over these years. A lot of programs related to social and economic development of our country have been implemented.

Everything we have planned has been successfully accomplished. Our achievements were also highlighted by international structures. According to the latest assessment of the World Economic Forum, Azerbaijan is on 35th place in terms of global competitiveness. And according to index of inclusive development, also evaluated by the Davos forum, we're third among developing countries. Only 30 developed countries and two developing ones are ahead of us. In other words, this assessment truly demonstrates what we managed to achieve.

We managed to achieve economic diversification. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were created. Unemployment rate in Azerbaijan is around 5%. We also managed to significantly reduce poverty rate, which is around 5.4% today. All of this is the result of social and economic policy that we have been implementing in recent years and which brought significant results.

- By historical standards, Azerbaijan is a pretty young country. In fact, it hasn't been 30 years since its formation yet. What political reforms, carried out by Azerbaijan under your leadership, do you consider successful and what must be done for political development and reformation of the country?

- Of course, this topic is always on our agenda. And I have repeatedly publicly stated that it will be impossible to achieve sustainable development in economic sphere without reformation of political system. A lot has been done in this direction lately.

Azerbaijan is a country open to the world. All democratic institutions are functioning in our country and freedom of the press is fully guaranteed. Azerbaijan is a country where the Internet is free. The number of Internet users is increasing and nearing about 80 per cent of the population. Freedom of assembly and freedom of political activity are also fully ensured. As an already experienced member of the Council of Europe, we have undertaken commitments to further democratize our society and, in my opinion, we do fulfill them with confidence and successfully. However, there are, of course, some issues requiring additional efforts, and we continue working in that direction.

We took a common sense approach to assessment of the level of political reforms and achievements. All the possible work has been done over the 26 years of independence, taking into account our history, establishment of Azerbaijan as a young independent state, geographical location of our country as well as the existing and potential risks in our region.

Regarding those areas that we still need to develop, I would like to highlight strengthening of public control. I have repeatedly mentioned this topic and called on citizens to take more active steps to control implementation of reforms. Because a lot of reforms in terms of social and economic development, infrastructure development are being carried out in Azerbaijan. Insufficient public control sometimes leads to violations and delays of planned initiations.

Of course, we will continue our efforts to democratize Azerbaijan, we're an open country. We consciously chose this path, and we will continue to adopt both political and economic reforms.

- Experts praise Azerbaijani economy primarily bacause of economic independence of your country. Its foundations were laid by Heydar Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan, its national leader. However, it will be fair to say that complete economic independence has been achieved over the past five years, maybe a little more. What are priorities of social and economic development? Where has Azerbaijan achieved the greatest success, and which spheres require further development?

- You're completely right, one of the main activities of the government was to ensure full economic independence, which is the basis for political independence. If a country is economically dependent, it may experience – and it often does – great difficulty in implementing its independent policy. 

Today Azerbaijan has no such problems. I can provide some figures. Over the past 15 years, the economy has grown by 3.2 times in Azerbaijan, which, I think, is a world record. Meanwhile, despite huge investment projects, we have been working to stabilize the external debt, which today makes about 20 percent of GDP. And I gave instructions to significantly reduce it in the coming years.

Currency reserves of Azerbaijan make up the same volume as the gross domestic product. In other words, if needed, we can pay off all debts within a few days or months. The financial position of Azerbaijan is quite stable, and the investment projects that we are implementing will naturally bring additional profits. I should also note that over the past 15 years, more than $230 billion have been invested in the Azerbaijani economy.

- Those are foreign investments?

- Half of them - foreign, the other half - domestic. It's a great evidence of active investment policy of both our state and Azerbaijani private sector.

When it comes to significant achievements of recent years, I would like to highlight our progress in the energy sector. We became an exporter of electricity, even though previously we were an importer. We export gas, although we imported gas in recent past. We have implemented major oil and gas projects that allow us to accumulate large financial resources. We have actively invested in transport infrastructure both inside the country and in the regional scale. That's how we laid foundation for sustainable development in the future.

As for what remains to be done, we will continue diversification of our economy. We will be less dependant on oil and gas factor. We will improve non-oil exports. We're actively working on this and results of the past two or three years are very impressive. We have increased non-oil exports by 20-30%, and in the future this issue will be one of the highest priorities.

Unlike some countries, we must constantly work to create new jobs. 1.4 million jobs have been created over the past 15 years, but population of Azerbaijan has grown by 1.5 million people in the same period. Therefore, our economy must constantly be ahead of demography. Our government carries out this taks at my instruction, and we're working in this direction. Creation of new industries, social infrastructure, designed for a larger population, will be the hightest priority in the coming years.

- Azerbaijan is located in not-so-quiet region of the world. And this, of course, raises some concerns, requires strengthening of the country's defense capabilities. I know, and you talked about this a lot, how much is being done to strengthen your army. Today Azerbaijan has a modern army, armed with modern weapons. What steps must be taken to ensure security of the country?

- Yes, you're right. This topic is always in the focus of our work. Strengthening military potential of our country is one of the main priorities. A lot has been done in this direction.

Today the Azerbaijani army, according to international experts and organizations that make up various ratings, is among the world's 50 most equipped and combat-capable armies. We have almost completed the rearmament process, our army is equipped with the most modern, high-precision, offensive, and defensive character. We purchase weapons from the best manufacturers. And this armament allows us to feel confident enough.

Naturally, it's impossible to create a strong army with one weapon, so much has been done to increase the fighting efficiency of our army, to strengthen discipline. And of course - numerous exercises and trainings. They show us where we still have shortcomings.

We have significantly strengthened material and technical base of the armed forces. More than 80% of all our military bases and military camps, in fact, rebuilt anew. In the coming years, we will completely complete the process associated with the material and technical base. And for the coming years, of course, we will be engaged in military construction.

As for the acquisition of weapons, it will be more selective, more specific - for the solution of the respective tasks. Parallel to this, in Azerbaijan, about a decade ago, the Ministry of Defense Industry was established, on my initiative, because before that time we did not produce military products. Today we not only produce, but also export. In Azerbaijan, more than a thousand items of military products are manufactured, which meets international standards and reduces our dependence on imports in many respects. It also creates a good export potential for Azerbaijan to become an exporting country.

- Historically, Azerbaijan is a multinational country. There are at least ten large national diasporas in Azerbaijan. As for small diasporas, there are dozens of them. What is being done to maintain interethnic harmony between them?

- You know that historically Azerbaijan has always been a country known for high level of intercultural, interreligious dialogue. There were no terms like multiculturalism in the past, it was always our way of life.

During the years of our independence we managed not only to maintain these positive trends, but also to strengthen them. Today representatives of all peoples, all faiths are living in our country, they feel comfortable, they feel life normal citizens of our country. And they are.

I have repeatedly said that diversity is extremely important for us. Ethnic and religious diversity of Azerbaijan is our greatest asset, which we really value. And we do everything to ensure that these positive trends are strengthened. There are no potential problems in the sphere of interethnic, interconfessional relations in Azerbaijan. We're implementing state policy in this direction. It's also very important for society to fully support this policy.

We're actively working to spread these positive trends both in the region and in the world. Because we don't live in vacuum. Naturally, processes associated with tensions and difficulties in interethnic relations that occur anywhere in the world are a potential threat. That's why a lot of international events were held on our initiative: the Baku Humanitarian Forum, the Intercultural Dialogue International Forum, the UN Alliance of Civilizations Global Forum.

This year we celebrate 10th anniversary of the "Baku process", which was initiated by Azerbaijan. Its purpose is to coordinate efforts between members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and member states of the Council of Europe on intercultural, interreligious, civilized dialogue. We do this not only to demonstrate our achievements in this direction, but also to ensure that these positive trends are strengthened.

How did we manage to achieve such a high level of interethnic, interreligious harmony? It's thanks to the fact that we not only talk about this, but also believe in this. And we're working in this direction. If such approach prevails in the world, then there will be no problems.

- Azerbaijan is a secular and Muslim country at the same time. Is there a danger of radical Islamic groups reaching your country? How important is it to combat this and how can it be done?

- This threat potentially exists in all Muslim countries. The most important thing is how government and society treats this issue, as well as the state of society. How it perceives these ideas. That's why we understood long time ago that it's not enough to fight against export of radicalism through only administrative or any other measures. We had to - and we achieved this - prevent dangerous ideas from spreading.

First of all, education is the main guarantor of progressive, successful development of Azerbaijan as a secular state. Today literacy rate in Azerbaijan is close to 100%, and education receives a lot of attention. Our budget has two leading items of expenditure - defense and education. Defense - for obvious reasons, education - for future generation of Azerbaijani citizens, so that they would be educated and vaccinated against radicalism.

Another important factor is social and economic development. We can see how ideas of radicalism and extremism find support where there are many social and economic problems: poverty, unemployment, despair. Illiterate people think that there's salvation in this (radical Islam - TASS). Therefore, education and social and economic development are important factors that must be considered if you want to fight against such propaganda. Unemployment and poverty rates in Azerbaijan are among the lowest in the world.

Of course, active state policy and propaganda of ideas of national self-awareness, ideas associated with our past, our plans for future - all of this also helps us to actively fight against potential threats. I must say that there are no potential risks associated with radicalization of society in our country. We should simply protect ourselves from negative and dangerous influence from the outside through both administrative, social and economic, and ideological measures.

- Baku pursues multi-vector foreign policy, and Azerbaijan's foreign policy positions are getting stronger with each passing year. One of the best examples of this is that a few years ago Azerbaijan became non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Which foreign policy directions require further development? Are there any flaws that must be fixed? How does Azerbaijan feel today in political family of nations?

- Very comfortably and confidently. I think that when it comes to foreign policy we achieved everything we possibly could. As you noted, a few years ago we were became nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council with support of 155 countries. This is absolute majority of the members of the United Nations, which means that we have been able to demonstrate to the world that we're a reliable country that enjoys great respect in a short period of independence.

We have always made and make decision based on our national interests in our foreign policy. Foreign policy is a continuation of domestic policy. It helps to resolve internal problems. Naturally, our position has always been that we must strengthen our ties with our partners through mutually beneficial cooperation. We can achieve closer ties and mutual understanding through cooperation. I think that we have succeeded in this.

We didn't plan to carry out our foreign policy this way, we didn't plan for it to be multi-vector policy, acceptable by everyone. We have many differences with our traditional partners on many important issues, but this doesn't prevent us from seeing the most important things: strategic nature of relations, their importance for us and for our partners, as well as focus on results.

I must say that we enjoy great trust in the international arena. Some states may not agree with us, but I think we're respected and trusted. It's in our national interests to have good relations with all countries. Not at the expense of any one-sided concessions, but as a result of effectively policy of cooperation, aimed at concrete result. And I think as the result of this Azerbaijan has very strong position in the Muslim world and actively participates in and defends its interests in European structures.

We have very close, good relations with our neighbors, who also treat us kindly. That's why we have no directions that must be improved or fixed in our foreign policy. I think that the most important thing is to preserve positive vector of development. It will help to strengthen regional stability.

- You have often mentioned strategic nature of Azerbaijan's relations with the Russian Federation. President of Russia Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin have repeatedly said the same. After elections in Russia ended, you were among the first to congratulate Putin on his victory. Numerous experts talk about trusting relations you have with Russian President, or your personal chemistry. How do you assess current state of Russian-Azerbaijani relations? What should be done to further improve them? How important are personal contacts between two leaders for development of these relations?

- Undoubtedly, personal contact of leaders always plays an important role in any interstate relations, especially in relations between neighboring countries, between countries that are connected by a centuries-old history.

Our personal relations with President Vladimir Putin are one of the important factors in the successful development of our bilateral relations. Our frequent meetings, contacts in bilateral format, multilateral format contribute to the strengthening of mutual understanding.

We have very trusting relations. If there are any issues that require our participation, we call up or meet and regulate them.

This is the most important factor of bilateral relations that have played and plays an important role in interstate cooperation. Largely thanks to our personal, confidential relations and common understanding of the importance of our countries for each other, we managed to bring our cooperation to the level of strategic partnership. 

We cooperate very closely on many issues. We have a growing trade turnover in the economic sphere, we implement joint projects in the transport and energy sectors. There are more than 300 schools with education in Russian in Azerbaijan, and there is a faculty in Russian in all higher state educational institutions. “Meanwhile, two branches of leading Russian universities were recently opened: these are the Moscow State University and the Sechenov Medical University, which is also an important factor of our humanitarian cooperation. 

In other words, the relations are full-fledged. They are how they should be between neighbors and friends.

- I have another question about the international agenda - regarding the Caspian issue. Azerbaijan has its own interests there, just like other Caspian countries: Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Iran. I know that negotiations on status of the Caspian Sea are underway. At what stage are they now and how will this situation develop?

- It is important in determining the final status of the Caspian Sea that we are moving in the right direction. In all issues that require evaluation and analysis, it is necessary to look at the trend. Now we are moving towards finding mutual understanding on this issue, and I must say that most of the work that was needed to be carried out has already been implemented.

I think that the good will, which will continue to be manifested by all the Caspian countries, will allow us to regulate this issue and settle the status of the Caspian Sea. Along with this, I should note that the issue of the unsettled status of the Caspian Sea in no way affects either the multilateral format of cooperation between the Caspian states, nor the bilateral one. In any case, for Azerbaijan. We have very close, friendly relations with all the Caspian countries. The relationship is filled with real content, and the level of trust is very high.

The approach shared by all the Caspian countries is that we should not put the status of the Caspian Sea in the first place in relations with our neighbors, but should concentrate on those issues that can and should be solved today. And thus we will prepare the ground for the settlement of this issue. I believe that, like all other issues related to international matters, the principles of international law, international practice existing in the settlement of such issues should prevail here.

What has already been done deserves approval. We can see progress in some areas of this issue. I think that we will see good results in the near future.

- Ilham Heydarovich, I must ask you about situation around Nagorno-Karabakh. I understand that this topic is always on your mind, you always think about it in your professional presidential activity. The Minsk group is working on this problem, ministers meet. Occasionally there are meetings at the highest level in different formats. And yet I get the impression that situation is running in circles, it's frozen. Does Azerbaijan accept this situation? Can there be any breakthrough in this deriction? What steps must be taken to resolve this painful situation?

- Of course, the current situation is not acceptable either for Azerbaijan or for the international community. All the more so, the countries that have the mandate for the mediation mission, the OSCE Minsk Group co-charing countries - Russia, France and the US - have repeatedly declared at the level of the heads of state that the status quo is unacceptable and should be changed. We fully share these positions and consider such statements to be very correct. But we are waiting for concrete actions. Statements are, of course, important, but we need a settlement of the issue.

There are all legal mechanisms to settle the issue. More than twenty years ago the UN Security Council adopted four resolutions demanding the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops from the occupied territory. These resolutions remain valid and must be implemented. But Armenia refuses to fulfill them. And unfortunately, no sanctions were imposed on Armenia for this refusal. Other international organizations also adopted a similar decision and resolutions. OSCE, Organization of Islamic Cooperation, European Parliament, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Non-Aligned Movement and other organizations adopted similar resolutions - Armenia does not fulfill them.

The occupation of Azerbaijani lands continues. As a result of the occupation, more than a million Azerbaijanis became IDPs and refugees on their own land. Our cities were destroyed, people were expelled. Ethnic cleansing was carried out against us. All this was proved by facts and materials.

The main problem is that Armenia does not want to change the status quo. Armenia in words declares a desire to negotiate, but in fact is engaged in their imitation. It makes every effort to ensure that everything goes in circles and to create a process without an end. It is not acceptable for us and for the international community. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure speedy fulfillment of the UN Security Council resolutions by Armenia and start of de-occupation of the Azerbaijani territory. Not only Nagorno-Karabakh, but also Azerbaijan’s seven districts, which don’t have and didn’t have anything to do with the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Azerbaijani SSR, are under occupation. 

The beginning of de-occupation of the Azerbaijani territory is the first step in the phased settlement of the conflict, which should be carried out on the basis of norms and principles of international law.

- Chiefs of the General Staffs of Russia and the United States met in Baku twice. Do you think it's important that Azerbaijan and its capital continue to be a platform for multilateral or bilateral meetings on topical issues?

- Azerbaijan is becoming a platform of not only regional, but also global cooperation. And we perceive the fact that Baku was chosen and proposal to hold a meeting of chiefs of General Staffs of Russia and the United States here as a sign of respect and trust in us. We also perceive this as another element of properly structured foreign policy of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is perceived as a very serious partner, as a friendly country by the world community. Azerbaijan is a country that not only declares something, but also takes concrete steps regarding regional and global cooperation.

We are a country that has already organized a big number of major international events, including sports: the First European Games, the fourth Islamic Solidarity Games – with an interval of two years. This is a demonstration of our capabilities, as well as a demonstration of the world's attitude towards us. Because the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Council of Europe unite more than 100 countries – more than half of the world community. We achieved this with our work, our policy and the fact that Baku became a very recognizable city on the world map. I must also say that a lot of tourists have been visiting us recently.

Azerbaijan is a stable country. Azerbaijani people are famous for their hospitality. Our country has all the conditions for both work and and rest. For our part, we always strive to ensure that the countries, with which we have close cooperation, also have good working relations among themselves. We live in this region. Everything happening in the region has a certain impact on us. Therefore, we must strive to minimize risks for ourselves through international cooperation. If we are able to make some small contribution to reducing tensions among the world’s leading countries, we will, of course, continue doing this in the future.

- On the eve of elections, what do you consider the most difficult moment in the past five years of your presidential term? Were there any situations that gave you sleepless nights?

- Honestly, I can't remember something that would bother me so much. I can't remember difficulties like that. Of course, there are working issues. Disappointing things happen when instructions and orders aren't carried out properly. But overall, everything went according to plan over the past years. I always believed that sustainable development of the country is possible only if all steps and priorities are planned correctly from the start. We should always aim at the best result.

We were always far from populism. Sometimes we even tried now to demonstrate our achievements and just do what's necessary for the country's successful development. There were no and I think there will be no problems with our internal development. The only concern is regional situation and how aggravation of regional situation can affect our citizens, our country, as well as what must be done in order to protect our citizens and the country from risks.

- Let me clarify my question. You visit different part of the republic almost every week. You actively meet with people, and, as you said, you're far from populism. But at the same time, people ask you for something, ask some questions. What troubles people the most? What do they ask you?

- You know, dynamics of these appeals is also the main indicator of our social and economic development. During first years when I was elected as president, there were a lot of appeals on infrastructure issues, poor condition of schools, hospitals, lack of electricity, gas supply, water supply, lack of roads and so on. But as these issues were resolved, appeals have become completely different.

Today, looking back at the path we walked, we see that almost all infrastructure issues have been resolved. Over the past 15 years, we have commissioned over 30 power plants and turned into exporter of electricity. The level of gasification in Azerbaijan will reach 95% by the end of this year. We put into circulation over 100 thousand hectares of irrigated land annually, which helps the development of agriculture. Over the past 15 years, taking into account this year, 15 thousand kilometers of roads have been built, as well as over 3100 schools - this is about 80% of all schools. Over 600 medical institutions have been built from scratch or repaired.

I visit regions very often, and at first local authorities though: "So he came, gave instructions... when will he come here again?" And I returned in six months. Then once again in six months. And they understood that it's necessary to carry out my instructions and do what they have to not just when I visit, but every day. Live communication allows me to keep my hand on the pulse, know what bothers people, and, of course, monitor implementation of my decisions. I think that in the coming years the main direction of our activity will be improvement of management system. I'm talking about issue concerning social justice, bureaucratic lawlessness. That's why we need public control, which I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation. That's why I travel so much.

By the way, I must say that this year we're completing third program of social and economic development of the regions of Azerbaijan. The first was adopted in 2004. All these programs, most of them are based on requests from the regions. In other words, these programs aren't just about slogans. There are specifics, which city, which village, when this or that will be done. It's a document that demonstrates our activity. We're completing the third program, it's already clear that we have significantly exceeded expectations. That's why improvement of management and improvement of efficiency of our activity, creation of even better conditions for entrepreneurs, for diversification of the economy will be our priorities in the future.

- We're talking about modern Azerbaijan as a democratic developing state. 100 years ago, the country already had experience - unfortunately, short-term experience - of building a democratic republic. You signed a decree on celebration of this event. What must be learned from that experience and how useful was it?

- 2018 has been declared the Year of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) in the country - we celebrate its 100th anniversary, and this is the main event of this year. You know, looking back, it's not by chance that the first democratic republic in the Muslim world was established by Azerbaijanis. This originates from the past of our people, from its freedom loving, proud character. If we read the classics of Azerbaijani literature, there are a lot of philosophical topics, connected to issues that are relevant today.

Creation of Azerbaijani Democratic Republic 100 years ago was a historic event for Azerbaijani people. The traditions of the democratic republic are alive today, and modern Azerbaijan is its successor. A lot has been done for political reforms, in a short time. It's enough to note that women were granted the right to vote much earlier than in many European countries.

Today, by looking back, we of course with gratitude recall the founders of the first republic. But we must also learn the lessons from what happened to it. It existed for less than two years, and we shouldn't forget these lessons. Thus, today we are doing everything to strengthen the independence, sovereignty, economic potential, international authority of Azerbaijan - so that the country would always be independent. I think that if the founders of the first democratic republic could see today's Azerbaijan, they would've been proud.

- Azerbaijan has always been a cultural center of not only the East, but of the entire world. Music of Gara Garayev and Fikret Amirov, paintings of Sattar Bahlulzade and Tahir Salakhov, works of Magsud Ibrahimbeyov are all part of world culture. These names are known to any cultural person. What is currently being done to preserve this cultural heritage?

- Of course, our cultural heritage is very important for us. And we're proud of our outstanding representatives. For centuries, Azerbaijan has given the world outstanding thinkers, poets, scientists, public figures. And these traditions continue today. Coryphaeuses of Azerbaijani culture are people who promote Azerbaijan. They are cultural heritage of our nation. And when it comes to our cultural heritage we're very careful, we protect it.

The most important task is to educate younger generation of Azerbaijanis on the example of our outstanding representatives, in the spirit of patriotism, in the spirit of attachment to their culture. Of course, young people should be open to the world, but at the same time they should stay close to their historical, cultural roots. This will guarantee progressive development of Azerbaijan and our society. We can't be successful without foundation, without roots, even if we have strong economy or strong army, strong foreign policy positions. That's why modern Azerbaijan has very deep cultural, national, moral roots, values, which we, of course, cherish. And we're proud that we gave the world so many outstanding cultural figures.

- Azerbaijan also shows great achievements in sport. Your athletes return from Olympics with medals not only in traditional sports, such as wrestling, but also in most unexpected sports for Azerbaijan. How important is development of sport component in the life of Azerbaijan? What's being done to raise a health nation?

- You know, as a head of the National Olympic Committee of Azerbaijan with more than 20 years of experience, I must say that we have done a lot in this direction. Progressive development of sport and our achievements are the main indicator of that.

We developed in several directions. The first and the most important one is popularity of sport. This is foundation of public health - both physical and moral. Since our athletes make us happy with their victories, they are a great example of good behavior in society. They are very good people and behave with dignity, they are a good example for children.

We decided to build Olympic sports centers all over the country. Today there are already 43 of them. Four are still under construction. Sports infrastructure of Baku is able to host any competition, which we demonstrated during the European Games.

Of course, there's also professional sports. We pay a lot of attention to it. Athletes make us happy and will continue to do so. During the last Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro Azerbaijan was on the 14th place by the number of medals. It's a historic achievement, we couldn't even dream about it 20 years ago. We dreamed of one, two, three medals, and today we have dozens of them. This is an indicator of development of sport. The life of an athlete is short-lived. It's not that just one athlete won so much. Every year we have a new team almost in all sports.

We have special programs, very strong state support. All structures involved in development of sport work in coordination. The Olympic Committee, the Ministry of Youth and Sports, all federations, clubs - they all work as a team to ensure that there are more achievements. Because it's not just about national pride, it's a very important factor in public life.

Victories in sports lift the mood, create a sense of patriotism, pride in their country. But most importantly, our champions are a great example for younger generation. They don't smoke, don't drink, they work and achieve results. Our country will generously reward them for that.

- I think if there's one area where Azerbaijan is an absolute champion of the world it's cuisine. I know that you're not too fastidious about what to eat, but anyway: what dish of Azerbaijani cuisine do you like the most?

- Cuisine of each nation is an indicator of its culture, traditions, and opportunities. Of course, Azerbaijani cuisine is very diverse, very tasty, but very dangerous. That's why...

- Why is it dangerous?

- It's dangerous because of uncontrolled weight gain.

- You know, I even tell my friends and colleagues who are in charge of tourism industry that there's a great slogan: Azerbaijan - a paradise for those who don't want to lose weight!

- Yes, I think you're right. That's why I try not to eat too much in everyday life. I think the best dishes are those cooked by my wife Mehriban. Of course, I think that there's nothing more tasty than Azerbaijani cuisine. I think every representative of each nation thinks that their kitchen is the best, and I'm no exception. But in everyday life, I try to stay away from it, at least a little bit. As for my favorite dishes of Azerbaijani cuisine, I like them all. But above all, I love those dishes that my wife Mehriban cooked. She is a great specialist. Of course, it brings a lot of joy to me and all members of our family when she makes us happy with her culinary creations.

- It's especially valuable now, because she is also the first vice-president and has many other duties and responsibilities.

- Of course, we appreciate it. We appreciate it and are very grateful that she takes care of her family members.

- I know you for many years and I know that you don't have any specific hobby. How do you relax, how do you cope with presidential stress?

- Yes, I don't have a hobby. But I think that hobby is something that brings you joy and pleasure. For me, the greatest pleasure comes from seeing the results of my work. Believe me, these are not just words for camera, it's actually true. When I see that what was planned is being done, I see that there's progress in this or that sphere of development of Azerbaijan, it gives huge moral satisfaction, and it's better than any hobby. So I think that's how I compensate for absence of any special hobby. In addition, I spend my free time with my family. Perhaps that's where I get energy for life. I'm a kind of person who happily goes to work and returns home with joy.

- Last question. Recently you talk with young people more and more. You attend youth events, hold meetings with young people. And now the first political generation of the 21st century is gaining momentum and growing. What would you like to see in youth of modern Azerbaijan, which will replace current political generation?

- Yes, you're absolutely right, this is the most important line of activity for any leader of the country, because young people are future leaders, they will determine the future of our country. That's why the future must be in safe hands. I'm glad that Azerbaijani youth meets highest demands. I think that in the future, we will pursue an even more active policy in this direction. And of course, I would like for all Azerbaijani young people to be very devoted to their homeland, because main indicator of independence and main guarantee of success is to love your homeland and serve it proudly. I hope Azerbaijani youth will be devoted to homeland.

Of course, it's important to raise youth in the spirit of traditional values that are characteristic for Azerbaijani people. And we're doing everything to achieve this. Our national culture, art, music, national ideology - all of this promotes our values, and we must always be close to our spiritual roots. Young people should be protected, but they also have to protect themselves from outside influences. During first years of independence, there was some sense of dependency in the air. It seemed that many people thought that someone would come and show us how to live. But then we realized that our destiny is in our own hands, and today, when someone obsessively wants to give us some help, we always treat this with a little bit of doubt.

Young people must understand that the future of Azerbaijan is in their hands. They must be selective in assessing certain ideological actions. In other words, protecting young people from influence, negative influence from outside is, I think, one of the main directions of our ideological work.

At the same time, of course, our youth should be open to the world. It must be open to everything modern, progressive. Our formula is that the state has very strong traditional roots, traditional values, with which Azerbaijani people lived, live and must live. We must stay close to our traditions, to our culture, to our language, to our perception of the world. At the same time, we must adopt all the best, all the progressive in order to modernize our country, strengthen its potential. We must strengthen secular nature of our society, thereby ensuring progressive development.

Ideally, this is the picture that we would like to see. We have succeeded to an extent. And youth should follow this direction.

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