President Ilham Aliyev was interviewed by Italian “Il Sole 24 Ore” newspaper

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On 15 December, during his working visit to Brussels, President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev was interviewed by the Italian “Il Sole 24 Ore” newspaper in Brussels.

Correspondent: Thank you first of all for giving us the opportunity to meet you. I have been to Azerbaijan many times and many times for many elections.

President Ilham Aliyev: When was the last time?

-Last time was a year and a half ago. But it was more than ten times. It’s a very interesting country, and I have to admit that you have made some very good progress from some point of view. I am a middle-east correspondent for “Il Sole 24 Ore, ” the biggest financial-political newspaper in Italy.

-I know.

I will shift to the strong relations between Italy and your country during the interview if you don’t mind.

-Yes, with pleasure.

-About the process of diversification of the economy, that is a very interesting subject and has not been reported on enough as it deserves by the international media.

-I agree with you.

-If you don’t mind, I will start, and my first question is regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Yesterday you had a very interesting meeting. If I’m not wrong, it was face-to-face with Prime Minister Charles Michel. So, Mr. President, can you tell me how the meeting was? And is there something new we should know?

-Well, first of all, I had a meeting with President of the European Council Charles Michel. For one hour, we discussed a broad range of issues, and of course, concentrated mainly on the post-conflict situation, the situation which is now emerged after the war of the last year. Of course, the efforts of the European Commission are aimed at facilitating the normalization process between Azerbaijan and Armenia. And we highly value the efforts of the Commission and President Michel in particular. He visited Azerbaijan and Armenia this summer. We are in permanent contact after his visits. So, he seems aware of the details. You know the situation, and of course, we highly value his personal involvement. Later in the evening, we had a trilateral meeting, which lasted more than four hours. I think it was very productive. So, both sides clarified their positions once again, mainly about the new realities which emerged after the second Karabakh war. How to adjust to these realities? How to learn to live as neighbors? And of course, we discussed the practical elements of the post-war situation, particularly the opening of communications. It is an important part of the trilateral statement signed by the President of Russia, Prime Minister of Armenia and myself last November. But implementation of this important part of the statement is going very slow. So, yesterday the important decisions were made about the immediate activity by Armenia to start practical implementation of the railroad project. As far as we are concerned, we have already started. The railroad from liberated territories to Armenia’s border must be ready by the end of 2023. Of course, we hope that Armenia will complete their part of the homework by that time. And of course, we raised other issues, matters with respect to demining. President Michel expressed his willingness to help Azerbaijan cope with this situation because after the war ended, we had almost 200 people killed or seriously injured because of the landmines. Also, we discussed humanitarian issues and many others. So, it was a very productive discussion, and I am very satisfied.

-I improvise a question because you suggested me. European Union just announced a package of almost 2 billion dollars to Armenia, close to 2 billion to Ukraine, but only if I am not wrong, 140 million euros to Azerbaijan. I mean, it’s a very big difference and why? What do you think is at the basis of this decision?

-Well, it’s difficult to say why, because to answer this question, I must have enough facts. I can only have my opinion about that. You are absolutely right. This is a matter that surprised many observers, and of course, was a very unpleasant surprise for the Azerbaijani population. I just want to clarify that the package to Armenia announced by the European Commission is 2.6 billion dollars and to Azerbaijan, 140 million. So the difference is almost 20 times. Is this fair? No. Is it based on the real demands of both countries? Of course, no. Even if we put aside the terrible devastation which Armenia created and committed on the liberated territories, just if you take the number of people who live in both countries, you will see that its difference is five times – ten million against two in Armenia. Plus, during the years of occupation, the territory equal to the territory of Lebanon was totally destroyed, demolished and now foreigners and journalists, and visitors visit those areas and see with their own eyes the level of demolishes. Plus, according to our estimations, there are close to one million mines planted, and the demining is very costly and takes much time. In Armenia, nothing is destroyed. This country was not occupied. It was a country which occupied. The economy of Armenia physically cannot absorb this huge package. So, it’s very surprising. After it was announced, starting from this summer when President Michel visited Azerbaijan, we permanently discussed this issue, and we want a single standard approach. We want justice, and of course, we ask for the same terms and conditions and the same amount to Azerbaijan.

-Yes, President. You are definitely right. Because demining is a very sensitive and important and strategic activity, if you want to let people – Azerbaijanis, come back to the liberated territories, live, and settle, you have to guarantee the safety of these places.

-Of course.

-So, I was surprised, but why are you not surprised that such delicate issues of demining have not pushed the European Union to act urgently?

-I don’t know, and I raised these issues many times. Yesterday, during the meeting with Mr. President Michel, I even suggested the European Commission look at the opportunity to finance demining in Azerbaijan from EU funds.

I said, okay, don’t give the money to us. Provide financial support to European companies involved in demining and let them come to Azerbaijan to start this work because physically, Azerbaijan cannot do it in a short period of time. Plus, it is very costly. You are absolutely right; without demining, we cannot bring people back. They have been waiting for that for almost thirty years. Now the vast reconstruction started, and the areas under reconstruction are demined. Yet, the remaining part is not. So, people who will go back will face serious problems and threats to their lives. So, I hope that there will be more clarity after this communication, but of course, our needs are not limited only by demining. Everything is destroyed. There are no cities, no villages – nothing – they are destroyed totally. Our position is that the level of support, whether financial donations or loans to Armenia and Azerbaijan, must be at the same level.

But don’t you think that this is my suggestion, that European Union is more prudent because according to some reports, there are still some problems of human rights or press freedom in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has improved by far since it started. Everybody knows that this process takes time, but maybe this can be slowing things down.

-No, I don’t think so. First of all, because now there is more understanding in European institutions, this perception about the problems with human rights and media freedom is exaggerated because in Azerbaijan, there are no restrictions on media. We have free internet, no censorship, and now more than 80 percent of Azerbaijan’s population are internet users. You cannot restrict media and have free internet. The same goes for human rights issues. Also, human rights are protected, and Azerbaijan is not facing the criticism it faced many years ago. Because first, we managed to persuade our European partners that the information was mainly based on the wrong scenario, and second, we implemented large-scale political and economic reforms. And second, if you look at the substance, you will see that human rights and political freedoms are brutally violated in Armenia. As an example, many political representatives of political parties are in prison. There are criminal cases against prominent politicians and leaders of political parties. There is a huge public discontent with respect to repressions in Armenia. And these are all absolutely clear facts, but Armenia has a kind of a permanent umbrella; no matter what happened there, this is considered a democracy. So, a kind of double standard again.

-Another question, can I be very direct?

-Yes, of course

-But in a few months, you have retaken the districts. The same districts that were taken by Armenian forces in the first war. You didn’t receive that result in 15 years, almost 15 years of negotiations. So, my question is, the Minsk Group seemed to be oriented, not officially, to work out a status quo. Just to keep the peace, this is used maybe for Russia to play a role, until things are in this way. So, what is your opinion about the role of the Minsk Group? But you have been somewhat skeptical, if not disappointed, toward this.

-Yes, first of all, I’d like to say that the Minsk Group was obliged to resolve the conflict by mandate from OSCE since 1992. So, they were functioning for 28 years until last November, when we, in 44 days, liberated the territories. My opinion about the Minsk Group activity does not differ from the opinion of the Azerbaijani people. It’s a failure. We must tell the truth, and we should not pretend to be politically correct when it’s clear as daylight. If the Minsk Group co-chairs who are the leading countries of the world, three out five permanent members of Security Council, three nuclear powers, the most powerful countries of the world, could not or did not want to put an end to Armenian occupation, that means that their activity was failed. They worked for 28 years. Can you imagine?

-I was so sorry to interrupt you. Just start from the Madrid principles. But okay, and it’s a long time.

-The Madrid principles were more than ten years ago. They started in 1992, and the three leading countries I mentioned became the co-chairs several years later. But it’s more than 20 years. But without zero results, and why? Probably because, as you said, the status quo was acceptable to them. However, I can tell you that at certain stages, even on the level of the heads of state for the co-chairs of the Minsk Group, there have been positive statements that the status quo is unacceptable and must be changed. And we were very encouraged by that. Unfortunately, there were no actions. It was very simple, and I raised this issue many times to persuade Armenia or force Armenia to leave Azerbaijan’s territories and comply with the United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding that the only way to do this was to enforce sanctions on Armenia. We know that these sanctions are being imposed on other countries in certain cases. But not on Armenia – again double standards and unjust approach. Azerbaijani people were tired of these permanent visits of this Minsk Group “troika.” Several times a year, they were coming and going without any result. Their activity was paralyzed after 2019 when Armenia’s Prime Minister declared that “Karabakh was Armenia.” And that meant the end of the negotiations. Because if Armenia said that Karabakh is Armenia, what to negotiate about? Another thing is that later Armenian leadership said that Karabakh was an independent country, which was contradictory to the previous statement. But Minsk Group did not react. They did not even condemn this statement. Of course, this kind of behavior only encouraged Armenia to strengthen its position at the table and to make occupation endless. That was a target of Armenia, and unfortunately, the Minsk group helped them in that.

-Thank you, President.

Let’s shift to the region, especially the problem between Europe and Russia. It’s no business, but Azerbaijan could help Europe. Because I mean European Union fear that the possible Russian invasion of Ukraine could create tension so high that some projects could be delayed or Russia could use natural gas as a weapon. I mean, European Union is desperately looking to diversify the supplying groups. As a matter of fact, the Southern Corridor happens to be one of the most interesting channels in the future. You have much gas, with your interesting program to implement green energy. You have even more gas to export, you can even double the line, which finishes with the TAP, but you can also from the Balkans. So, should European Union ask you to help and provide more natural gas? Will you be ready to satisfy this request as soon as you can?

-Well, of course, our gas strategy was very clear and open. And for many years, we did a lot in Azerbaijan and worked with the partners to build this vital project which is considered one of the most significant infrastructure projects in the 21st century. The Southern Gas Corridor – 3.500 km from Baku to Italy – goes through the Adriatic Sea and the high mountains.

It is a very complicated project from a technical point of view and, of course, very costly. Azerbaijan took the main financial burden in all four segments of the Southern Gas Corridor. And before the full completion of the project last December, we had already signed contracts with consumers, and our gas was contracted. During this so-called gas crisis, a problem with the price, our consumers didn’t feel any changes. If we talk about our plans, of course, there is a possibility of increasing the output and export. But that will depend, of course, on demand from the European consumers. The European Commission was assisting us in that process. We regularly convene in Baku the Advisory Council of the Southern Gas Corridor, chaired by representatives of the European Union and Azerbaijan. And the next session will take place next February, where we address all the issues and plan our future steps. It is a big group of companies, banks and countries. Now the team is growing because we became already a supplier to Europe.

Starting from 1 January we supplied 7.2 billion cubic meters of gas to Italy, Greece and Bulgaria, next year it will be 9, in 2023 it will be at least 11. So, it is a serious increase. But to increase the production we need, of course, to invest and in order to do that we need to have contracts with consumers. So the contracts first, investments second and gas third. This is the consequence of the stages of the process. But we are ready, as you said. We have future deposits, brand new modern infrastructure, with potential interconnectors to other destinations in Europe. You mentioned the Balkans, and I also would add Central Europe. And that will be the diversification of supplies for us and diversification for consumers.

-Yes. Let’s suppose that everything is going in the right direction, and you will increase the production. Don’t you fear the reaction of Russia? Because Russia is a very important economic partner of yours, it is also a massive power in the region, and it is a fact that it exports much, much more gas than yours. But it will be a symbolic move. Don’t you fear the reaction of Russia?

-No, not at all. First of all, this issue has never been discussed on a high level between the leaders of the countries. All our energy projects starting from oil pipeline to gas pipeline, were completed in a very friendly environment in the region. This is the first thing, and second, Russia fully respects our policy, foreign policy, and energy policy, and we are not rivals. As I said many times, this issue is sometimes artificially exaggerated. We are in no way competitors to Russia because Russia is supplying hundreds of billions of cubic meters to Europe, and demand for Russian gas is growing. Azerbaijan just started. As I said, our supply to Europe will be 11 billion in 2023, and it can stay like that if we don’t have a new contract and don’t invest in new production. Therefore, in no way could this play any negative role in our relations with Russia, which are very positive and well-balanced.

-Let’s move on with your economy. Your country essentially suffers from dependence on energy export, oil and natural gas. The process of economic diversification, I think, is a priority for you today. Up to now, this process appears to be slow, to be honest. But how do you intend to accelerate and implement it? What are you aiming for to carry it forward?

-With respect to the structure of our economy, I think we have managed already significantly to reduce the volume of oil and gas in our GDP, which many years ago was the absolute majority and now is less than half. So, the structure of Azerbaijan’s economy became more balanced. But with respect to our exports, of course, more than 90 percent of our export is oil, natural gas, oil products and electric energy. For the country, it is an advantage because we managed to enter the market where exporting oil, natural gas, electric energy, petrochemicals, and oil products now brings much cash to our economy. And the more gas we export, and the growing number of gas is obvious, the less is the ratio in our export of non-oil products. We don’t need to look for markets for gas and oil. Oil is on the world market; gas already has markets. But for our other products, like agricultural products, we are limited to regional markets. And it is very difficult to enter the European market because the countries are competing between themselves in the European market. So, our main exports are Turkey, Russia and some other countries. I would say that this year was very remarkable from that point of view. Our export of non-energy projects grew 45 percent, and our non-energy-related industry grew 20 percent. So, this is really a remarkable result. Still, in the volume of export, the ratio of the non-oil segment is low, but I think it will grow. We are especially considering the new opportunities in the liberated territories and this vast potential of agriculture, tourism, renewable energy and industry. So, we plan to reduce dependence on oil and gas in the future. But at the same time, we should understand that oil and gas will play an important role in our economy for many decades ahead.

– So, let’s move to Italy. Italy is very interested in Azerbaijan. Italy was Azerbaijan’s first trading partner. Rome and Baku are in very good relations. In addition to natural gas, Azerbaijan is also a leading oil supplier. Are there opportunities for Italian companies in Azerbaijan diversifying its economy? For instance, you said that maybe you intend to reveal the liberated areas. So, there are many projects to do, even on green resources.

– Definitely, Italy is one of our closest partners in the European continent and globally. I think our relations are now on a very high level, and an indicator of that is that we signed the document on strategic partnership. Italy is one of the nine members of the EU with whom Azerbaijan signed a strategic partnership document. And there have been high-level visits of the presidents and other officials. As you said, Italy is one of the main trade partners. After the Trans-Adriatic pipeline was in operation, Azerbaijan became an important supplier to Italy. The volume of Azerbaijan’s gas in Italian consumption is growing and will grow year after year. At the same time, as a friendly country, Italy was among the first countries which we invited to work on liberated territories. The first was Turkey; the second was Italy. And I can tell you that now there are many projects which Italian companies are implementing there. We invited the Italian architects to renovate our historical monuments and mosques in Shusha, which is a very symbolic gesture. Because Shusha is a sacred place for us, it is the cultural capital of Azerbaijan, and the religious site is sacred for everyone. So, it is a very high level of trust. Just recently, when I was visiting Shusha, I met Italian representatives who demonstrated to me how they are planning to continue. An Italian company is now in the active process of constructing the Victory Museum in Baku. It is another symbolic gesture because we can imagine this historic victory. It means a lot to us. We invited Italian companies deliberately to demonstrate our partnership and knowing the high level of performance, high-level of taste and friendly relations between us. I can name you many other construction projects in liberated territories and other parts of Azerbaijan where Italian companies are very active. I can tell you that during the visit of President Mattarella to Azerbaijan, we together inaugurated the petrochemical plant, which was built by an Italian company. Now the same companies are actively working on the reconstruction of our refinery. It is a multi-billion project. It is industry, petrochemicals, construction, architecture, renovation, a broad range of issues. So, once again, this demonstrates our friendship and our partnership.

-May I allow myself the last question?

– Yes, of course.

-It is about the economic issue in Azerbaijan. So, Azerbaijan occupies a strategic, critical position in the world, in Asia. It could become an energy hub and a sort of a commercial hub, a transportation hub between West and East, from China to Europe. But this could also be a way of diversifying the economy. At the same time, it could help stabilize and reach peace. Can you just tell me something? What do you think?

– I fully agree with your assessment, and this is actually what we are doing in Azerbaijan, at least, actively doing for the last decade, transforming Azerbaijan into Eurasia’s transportation hub. It is not an easy task because we don’t have access to open seas. We need to have good relations first of all with our neighbors because without having these relations, no country can become a transit country. Therefore, a good regional cooperation environment and transportation infrastructure investments created this opportunity. But it was not easy because we had to invest a lot. And today, for instance, in Azerbaijan, we have six international airports and three international airports on the liberated territories. One has already been inaugurated, two more to come. We have diversified the railroad system, connecting us to all the neighbors. We have more than highways. By the way, Davos Forum ranked Azerbaijan number 27 with respect to the quality of the roads and number 11 and 12 with respect to air services and railroad services. So, this is already happening. We have already become a transit country for goods from Central Asia. China is also transporting its goods to European destinations. Another advantage is that Azerbaijan is situated on the North-South Transportation Corridor, from Northern Europe, Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran and further down to the Persian Gulf. And all the construction work, whether its railroad or highway on Azerbaijan’s segment of the North-South, has been already completed. Of course, after the second Karabakh war, the opportunity to open a new corridor which is already called everywhere as Zangazur Corridor, which goes from Azerbaijan to Armenia, and then to Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic further down to Turkey and Europe, which will be an alternative route for transportation. Plus, we are actively working on creating the free zone close to Baku in the Alat district, which will be in operation next year. And we hope that this geographic location, already diversified transportation network will help us attract investors who would prefer to work there. So, the transportation sector will become one of the leading after the energy sector and investment in this component, of course, brings many benefits. Plus, I would add the inauguration of the biggest on the Caspian shore Trade Sea Port the capacity of which can go up to 25 million tons and construction of the shipyard. We already supply ourselves with all kinds of cargoes, tankers and ferryboats. So, this is a significant asset. As you mentioned, stability in Azerbaijan means reliability because we never disrupt any contract and violate even a word in any contract, so our partners trust us. And good relations with all our neighbors. We hope that relations with Armenia will also be normalized, as discussed yesterday with Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Michel. And then Armenia also will have a chance to become part of the regional transportation network because now it is a deadlock. It doesn’t have a railroad connection with Russia; it will have, it doesn’t have a connection with Iran railroad, it will have, through Azerbaijan. And Azerbaijan, through Armenia, will go to its Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. It is a win-win situation. I think an understanding of this golden opportunity really must come to Armenia so that they behave more actively and do not hesitate to engage with us on these future plans.

-Thank you so much, Mr. President.

-Thank you.