President Ilham Aliyev gave interview to a group of local journalists on the results of the year VIDEO

Baku, December 23, AZERTAC

President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has given an interview to a group of local journalists on the results of the year.

AZERTAC presents the interview.

- Good day, Mr. President. Taking this opportunity, I want to thank you on behalf of each of us for creating such conditions and responding positively to our appeal in connection with the interview. Of course, this is an opportunity for us, and we have prepared questions related to various fields. We would like to hear your opinion in connection with the steps Azerbaijan has taken in the system of international relations on a regional and global scale, as well as the diplomatic results achieved. In general, what will 2019 be remembered for from this point of view?

- 2019 is drawing to a close and, of course, the work done during the year, the events that took place in our country and the region require a very serious analysis. I can say one thing with full confidence: this year was successful for our country. All the goals we set at the beginning of the year have been achieved. Azerbaijan successfully developed in 2019. This development allows us the opportunity to take the right steps in subsequent years, so that 2020 is also successful for our country.

As far as the issues related to foreign policy are concerned, I believe that great success has been achieved in this area too. Our relations with traditional partners have risen to an even higher level, many joint initiatives have been put forward with neighboring countries, many important agreements have been reached. I can say, as I have repeatedly expressed my opinions in connection with this topic, that relations with neighboring countries in general are of particular importance for every country, including Azerbaijan. I am very glad that our relations with neighboring countries have been developing in recent years. These ties are built on the basis of mutual understanding, mutual respect, mutual interests and principles of non-interference in each other's affairs. I had numerous meetings with the heads of state and government of neighboring countries, and each meeting was productive. Therefore, I believe that the steps taken in this direction and the steps of our partners have served the strengthening of these ties and, at the same time, have had a positive impact on regional cooperation. On the initiative of Azerbaijan, we already have a format for trilateral cooperation with neighboring countries. This format is very positive both in terms of its significance and in terms of the successes achieved. At the same time, our bilateral relations with other countries have developed. I can say that over 40 heads of state and government paid visits to Azerbaijan this year to participate both in international events and in a bilateral format. From this point of view, this year was a record.

This year, our country hosted important international events. Among them, we should note the Summit of the Cooperation Council of Turkic-speaking States. As you know, Azerbaijan plays a very active role in this organization and chairmanship of the organization has now been passed to Azerbaijan. We will chair this organization throughout the year. In addition, a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement was held in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, by a unanimous decision of 120 countries, will chair the second largest international institution after the United Nations for three years. As I noted, our chairmanship was approved by unanimous decision. This is very important because there are some disagreements, confrontations and misunderstandings among countries of the Non-Aligned Movement. Some countries, simply put, do not get along with each other. Under such circumstances, the support we received from all countries reflects our policy, of course, and shows that Azerbaijan is treated with great respect and sympathy. For three years, we will chair this organization and this chairmanship will not be of formality nature. We want to enhance the role of this organization in the world. During the chairmanship, Azerbaijan will come up with several important initiatives. The essence of these initiatives is that international cooperation in the world should rise to a new level and issues between countries, including inter-civilizational issues, should be resolved on a sound basis. We have a lot of experience in this field.

At the same time, I believe that our relations with the European Union have successfully developed this year. Several important events took place during the year, including the visit of the President of the Council of the European Union, Mr. Tusk, to Azerbaijan in July. Our relations with the European Union have developed in a positive direction this year. I should also note that a document on the priorities of partnership between the European Union and Azerbaijan was initialed in Brussels last year. This document expresses the European Union’s support for territorial integrity, sovereignty and the inviolability of the borders of our country. In addition, the Final Declaration of the Non-Aligned Movement openly speaks of the need to resolve the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict based on the principles of territorial integrity. Similar clauses were also incorporated in the Final Declaration of the Cooperation Council of Turkic-speaking States. Thus, 120 countries of the Non-Aligned Movement, 28 member countries of the European Union, as well as Turkic-speaking countries that are not members of the Non-Aligned Movement, i.e. the vast majority of the international community, support us, believe in us and, by supporting our position, see a solution Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict within the framework of territorial integrity. I believe that these are the key issues to be remembered in the foreign policy sphere. Of course, our foreign policy is very flexible and thoughtful. I believe that all other issues and results related to foreign policy deserve a high assessment.

- Mr. President, you have touched on relations with the European Union. It would be interesting to find out about the current stage of negotiations with the European Union in relation to the new agreement? In general, it would be interesting to know your opinion on this issue.

- I can say that we have been working on a new agreement for several years. Our previous agreement was signed many years ago and, of course, there is a need for a new one. We believe and have suggested that this agreement should ensure the interests of both parties, otherwise there will be no need for an agreement. At the same time, we successfully cooperate with the countries of the European Union in a bilateral format and documents on strategic partnership have been signed or adopted with nine out of 28 countries. So I believe that the foundations of the agreement to be signed with the European Union are enshrined in these nine documents. I believe that the future agreement should reflect both issues of strategic importance and issues of interest to Azerbaijan, those serving our interests. The agreement must be signed between equal parties, it must be free from all the nuances that contradict equal cooperation. Under such circumstances, the signing of the agreement will be possible, of course. I can say that the vast majority of the clauses of the agreement have been agreed, approximately 90 percent of the issues have been resolved on the basis of agreement. I believe that other issues should be resolved within the framework of an atmosphere of goodwill. You know, the opinions expressed in the media in connection with the agreement are sometimes wide of the mark. In particular, one of the opinions is that the European Union does not sign this agreement with us because we do not meet certain criteria. This is an absolutely unfounded assumption. There is no such issue on the agenda. I must also openly say that the reason the agreement has not been signed to this day is us. Why? I will explain this because I believe that society should have absolutely accurate information on this issue. Several matters of the agreement are still being discussed. We did not give our consent to the proposed issues and there are reasons for that. One of them is related to trade. As you know, Azerbaijan is not a member of the World Trade Organization. Although we have already completed discussions with several countries in a bilateral format, I believe that the time has not yet come. The reason for this is that the bulk of our exports are still oil and gas products, and there is no need to be a member of the World Trade Organization to export these products. On the other hand, our main goal is to develop the non-oil sector, increase local production. This being the case, we must protect our domestic market. If we join the World Trade Organization now, then our producers, including those in the industrial and agricultural sectors, may face big problems. It is possible that Azerbaijan will receive large volumes of low-quality imported products in order to capture our market, and this will cause serious damage to local production. I should also note that a crisis is also being experienced within the World Trade Organization at the present time. As you know, the United States of America is reviewing its membership in this organization. We can say that some countries – member-countries of the organization and allied countries – are in a trade war, and they are expanding. Under such circumstances, of course, our cautious approach to this issue is very logical and justified. Therefore, we are not satisfied with issues related to trade in this agreement and have expressed our opinion to the opposite side. We hope they treat this with understanding.

Another important issue is related to the energy sector. Here too, despite our successful cooperation with the European Union in the energy sector and the implementation of joint projects, one of the issues proposed in the agreement – I want the public to know about this as well – is related to the price of energy. A clause is being proposed that domestic price of natural gas in Azerbaijan should be equal to its export price. What this means in reality is not too difficult to understand. Currently, about 85 percent of Azerbaijani consumers buy natural gas at a very cheap price, i.e. based on a subsidy provided by the state, the price is 100 manats per 1,000 cubic meters. The export price is several times higher. If we sell our natural gas at domestic prices, we will inflict serious damage on our economy. Because in this case, the export price should be $58. The domestic price, or the price paid by consumers in world markets, including European markets, is approximately $300, 400, 500 today. This will be approximately 1,000 manats. In this case, we will have to raise domestic prices at least 10 times. Then the people of Azerbaijan will have to pay not 100 manats for natural gas, but 500 or 700 manats, which is absolutely impossible. Or, having made huge effort, experienced great difficulties made large investments, and having practically completed the Southern Gas Corridor, we will have to supply our gas to foreign markets for $58. This is completely unacceptable, and I am surprised that our partners cannot agree with this simple logic, these calculations. Therefore, these two main issues have not been agreed and our position is unequivocal. This agreement must be in our interests. In principle, I have asked our European partners: “Tell me why we should sign this agreement.” We have lived without this agreement to this day, we are developing well, we are not expecting anything from anyone, we have not asked for any privileges. We want to sign an agreement that would take our relations to a new stage and secure our interests. Otherwise, of course, this agreement will not be signed.

- Mr. President, I would like to ask a question related to the Eastern Partnership. Several post-Soviet countries participate in the Eastern Partnership program. Some of them have signed relevant agreements with the European Union. You mentioned earlier that a document on partnership priorities between Azerbaijan and this organization has been initialed. What can you say about the prospects for cooperation within the framework of the Eastern Partnership program?

- You know, we joined the Eastern Partnership program together with other countries. At that time, we had no idea what this program would be like. I can say that many processes have taken place in the European Union over the past 10 years. Naturally, there are different opinions prevail about further activities and the program of enlargement of the European Union now. In other words, the situation that was 10 years ago contradicts the current situation. This is first.

Secondly, the Eastern Partnership member-countries are united by one factor – these countries are post-Soviet republics. I do not see any other unifying factor because countries have different foreign policies, there are major differences in the domestic situation and, of course, economic development is different. Therefore, I believe that uniting these countries into one program may have been an acceptable option for that time. But it is no longer the case now. Several of these countries, more precisely three countries, have signed an associative agreement with the European Union. One country has entered into an agreement on enhanced cooperation. Azerbaijan did not conclude an associative agreement and work is currently under way on a bilateral agreement. I have already expressed my opinion about this. Therefore, it is difficult to say anything about the future of this program. When this program was introduced to us, we expressed our opinion that we prefer a bilateral format. Azerbaijan does not expect any privileges from the European Union and, unlike some countries participating in the program, we are a country that provides for itself. According to a report of the International Development Association, we have already become a donor country. So we are already a lending country. As for Western technologies, we buy Western technologies, no-one gives them to us for free. Therefore, we are present in the program but, frankly, we do not attach so much importance to this because precise goals of this program are not clear to us. If it is about European integration, it is obvious to everyone that this goal is unattainable for post-Soviet republics. If we are talking about cooperation between other countries, we have close ties with some of these countries, our relations are generally at a very low level with others and we are at war with Armenia. Therefore, I believe that attempts to unite these countries in this program and orient them in any direction should be undertaken by authors of this program. Therefore, we are not dropping out of this program but do not intend to actively participate in it either.

- Mr. President, we would like to touch upon one issue. In general, we think that one of the most memorable events of the year was your speech at the ceremony dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Baku State University. That speech was received by our people with great approval. In fact, addressing the faculty and students, you touched upon the key factors and strategic tasks that determine the current successes of Azerbaijan, and one of your thoughts was discussed by the public particularly broadly. It was the issue of Azerbaijan’s integration into Europe. You unequivocally noted that Azerbaijan has no intention of integrating anywhere, we have our own national and spiritual values, national principles. In general, what are the main reasons, the main sources for this specific position you demonstrated in connection with Azerbaijan’s integration into Europe?

- You know, there is already a lot of talk about European integration in some circles. However, the main question is what they mean by European integration. I believe we have already taken steps towards European integration, and there is no need for further steps, as they will not produce results. For example, we are a member of the OSCE. The OSCE is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. We joined the Council of Europe in 2001 and have been active in this organization for about 20 years. This is one of the types of European integration. At the same time, Azerbaijan is represented in the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly. This being the case, I believe that possible steps have been taken in this direction. There is no need for further steps as they will not produce results. If European integration implies membership in the European Union, then this is absolutely impossible. This is demonstrated both by history and by the processes taking place in Europe, as well as Brexit. Now, in fact, as they say, centrifugal tendencies are evident in Europe. At the same time, suffice it to pay attention to the speeches of the heads of leading countries of Europe in connection with the enlargement of the European Union to see that there are no longer any prospects associated with enlargement. I think that even the candidate countries, the Balkan states, are also in a somewhat difficult situation now because they were once promised that they could become members of the European Union after resolving these issues. They have taken these steps. Some even had to take very painful steps. I do not want to name these countries now, but we all know what they are. For some countries, these steps were very dearly, as they led to internal confrontation and major protests. This caused a split in their societies. Why did they take that step? They were promised that they had a future – if you do this, this and this, we will accept you. However, the leaders of European countries are now saying that they would not accept anyone. I believe that there is no such possibility for European countries even in the longer term.

Another example is related to our fraternal Turkey. Notice how long ago Turkey entered into an associative agreement with the European Union. Perhaps decades ago. However, did further steps produce any results? Of course not, and this is a great injustice. Since 2000, many countries belonging to the socialist bloc have joined the European Union. Are they more developed than Turkey now? They are not! Are they more prepared for membership in the European Union? They are not! Why were they accepted and Turkey wasn’t? The question is clear, it is rhetorical. Because of one factor – Turkey is a Muslim country. This is already being openly discussed. In the past, in order to cover up this straightforward thesis, some other opinions were expressed and various reasons provided: that this country is not ready or some processes have occurred. Today, however, this is not being concealed and Turkey is not being admitted to the European Union because it is a Muslim country. This being the case, will Azerbaijan be admitted? Of course not! If this is so, we must build our work in such a way as not to make unrealistic promises and take unnecessary steps. This is first.

Secondly, even if they tell us tomorrow, look, Azerbaijan is a country we will admit at a certain time. Do we need this? Everyone looking at the developments unfolding in Europe can see what is happening, including the events on religious grounds, on the grounds of ethnic and spiritual values. Are these processes right for us? Of course not, and we must say this openly. Therefore, representatives of the so-called opposition who sometimes want to take to the streets with the flags of the European Union should know what they want. Do they want the fate of Azerbaijan to be decided in Brussels? Do they want our values preserved over the centuries to be destroyed? We have maintained these values for centuries, even at a time when we were not independent. Although we were an integral part of other countries and empires, we preserved our language, religion, values, traditions and lifestyle. This being the case, can we entrust our fate to someone else now, in the period of independence? Absolutely not, and we will never go for it! We have our own history, our own culture, our own values. Therefore, even if they offer us, it is absolutely impossible to go for it.

The situation with migrants is obvious in Europe now. Some do not want to talk about this, but I think we should say that. Why shouldn't we tell the truth, why should we go around it? Political forces are already coming to power with “Stop Islam” and “No to Islamic Migrants” slogans. Populist promises today are based on Islamophobic principles. Therefore, a political force that wants to collect more votes always exploits this topic. Under such circumstances, how can a Muslim country like Azerbaijan be represented there? As a secondary country? Or as a country asking for some privileges? Absolutely not! We are a proud country, we are going our own way, we don’t need anyone and don’t depend on anyone!

Therefore, I want to share the thoughts I expressed in connection with integration into Europe at Baku State University even more widely today. I think that this is the only right way. We are now a member of some European structures, as I mentioned. We are establishing relations with the European Union on the basis of cooperation and must build our work both in a bilateral format and with the European Union on these foundations in the future.

- Mr. President, my next question will be associated with the most painful problem of our people – the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. What stage are the negotiations to resolve the conflict at now?

- You know, I can say that 2019 was a lost year for the negotiating process. The only reason for this is that the Armenian leadership demonstrates an unconstructive position in these negotiations, and international mediators do not exert the necessary influence and pressure on the occupying country. This is why I can say that no progress was achieved in the negotiations in 2019.

At the same time, the conflicting and contradictory statements of the Armenian leadership are causing both surprise and regret, of course. We all remember the new Armenian leadership raising the question at the initial stage that Azerbaijan should negotiate with Nagorno-Karabakh, that Nagorno-Karabakh is an “independent state” and Armenia cannot interfere in the affairs of this “independent state”. All these are absurd thoughts because 90 percent of the military units located in Nagorno-Karabakh today are composed of Armenian citizens. Every year, large funds are transferred from the Armenian budget into the budget of Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, it is an absolute lie to describe it as an “independent state”. Such expressions are used simply to drag out the talks or throw off responsibility.

We categorically deny these expressions. We have expressed our opinion. At the same time, the Ambassadors of the Minsk Group co-chairing countries also made similar statements. Negotiations are ongoing between Armenia and Azerbaijan. One of the important events is that the format of the negotiations remains unchanged. I believe that this is our diplomatic success. In other words, the attempts and proposals of the Armenian leadership were not accepted. This is also confirmed by the fact that I had meetings with the Prime Minister of Armenia. The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan are holding meetings and negotiations. The last meeting took place earlier this month.

On the other hand, after the failure of the idea that Azerbaijan should negotiate with the so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh republic”, another absurd thesis was put forward – everyone has already heard about it. The Prime Minister of Armenia said that Karabakh is Armenia – period. So this completely refutes the previous thesis, and this is yet another lie. Karabakh is not an independent country, no-one recognizes it, no country recognizes it, and the issues I noted earlier, the decisions and final resolutions adopted by major international organizations demonstrate that the international community recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as an integral part of Azerbaijan. Karabakh is not Armenia, and no efforts are needed to prove this.

Therefore, a lie was told both the first and the second time. However, the truth is – as I said in a live broadcast – that Karabakh is Azerbaijan, an exclamation mark. The whole world recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as an integral part of Azerbaijan, and there are no and cannot be any changes in our position in the negotiation process. The historical truth is on our side. We have been able to prove to the world that Nagorno-Karabakh is original and historical Azerbaijani land. The people of Azerbaijan have lived and worked on these lands for centuries. We all know perfectly well and thanks to our policies the world community also knows today that the Armenians are an alien people in the South Caucasus. They were resettled in our region by tsarist Russia after the Russian-Iranian war in the 19th century. After the Caucasus became an integral part of the Russian Empire, the Armenians were massively resettled from Eastern Anatolia and Iran to Nagorno-Karabakh in order to increase the Christian population in our region. There are many historical documents and facts confirming this. This is not a very distant history. So the Armenians were relocated to our historical lands because it was necessary to increase the Christian population here. Therefore, it is our historical land, and the whole world knows about it now. This is first.

Secondly, Nagorno-Karabakh is an integral part of Azerbaijan, and when we joined the UN as an independent country, the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan was already approved, supported and confirmed. Therefore, both in terms of historical justice and international law, Nagorno-Karabakh is an integral part of Azerbaijan, and the settlement of the conflict is possible on the basis of these principles. The territorial integrity of Azerbaijan must be restored.

As far as the principle of the self-determination of peoples is concerned – Armenia always refers to it – this principle doesn’t work in relation to this conflict because the Armenian people have already determined themselves. They have an independent Armenian state which is located on ancient Azerbaijani lands, and we will never allow the creation of a second Armenian state on Azerbaijani soil.

Therefore, our principled position is that the principle of territorial integrity must take precedence, our territory must be restored and the conflict must be resolved only on the basis of these principles. In addition, there are decisions and resolutions of international organizations – four resolutions of the UN Security Council, similar decisions and resolutions of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the OSCE, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe. As I noted, the European Union signed a document with us last year supporting the territorial integrity, sovereignty and inviolability of the borders of Azerbaijan.

- Mr. President, as a continuation of the topic, we would like to touch upon one important point. From various international platforms and at important events, you have been using specific facts and quoting foreign sources to expose the occupying essence of Armenia, the fact that it is a terrorist state, as well as the true face of terrorist Nzhdeh. We saw this at the Summit of the CIS Heads of State held in Ashgabat this year. You once again brought these facts to the attention of the leaders participating in that event and the international community. We saw how confused and helpless Pashinyan looked when faced with these facts. We are grateful to you for this. Unfortunately, there are people today who, like Pashinyan, support the occupying policy and the terrorist nature of Armenia. Why do you think this happens?

- You know, the Azerbaijani public raised this issue some time ago. The Azerbaijani public, including veterans, sent letters to the heads of CIS states in connection with the erection of a monument to fascist Nzhdeh in Armenia. At the same time, similar letters were sent to the parliaments of the CIS countries, and today there is a fundamentally unanimous opinion about World War II in the CIS. There are no differences of opinion in official statements as to the historical results of the war and the key role of the Soviet Union in achieving Victory. At the same time, there is unanimity on the unacceptability of the glorification of the Nazis. This being the case, how can a six-meter monument to fascist executioner Nzhdeh be erected in Yerevan, in the center of the city, and the president and the entire leadership of Armenia participate in its opening? What does that mean?

Therefore, this is not a new issue on our agenda. One of the issues on the agenda of the CIS Summit was preparations for the 75th anniversary of the Victory. I spoke out on this issue openly and reasonably and exposed the true face of fascist and executioner Nzhdeh quoting historical documents. His crimes are not limited to those committed during World War II. He committed atrocities and genocide against the peaceful Azerbaijani population, killed thousands of innocent Azerbaijanis. All these are historical facts.

If you remember, I noted in that speech that this was done by the previous leadership of Armenia. In other words, I somewhat gave Prime Minister Pashinyan an opportunity not to assume responsibility for this dirty act because he did not participate in the erection of this monument. But, unfortunately, instead of demonstrating the right approach, he tried to justify Nzhdeh with very inadequate statements. One of the arguments was that I said that he was arrested by SMERSH, an abbreviation meaning “Death to Spies”, was sentenced to 25 years and ended his life in a Vladimir prison. And his argument was that Solzhenitsyn was also arrested by the Soviet regime. Then I took the floor again and said that an executioner and fascist can’t be identified with Solzhenitsyn. This is totally unacceptable.

I expected that after this Armenia would quietly begin to look for ways out with the help of advisers and refute this in some acceptable form. But we saw the exact opposite of this. At a meeting with Russian journalists, he went even further and said: so what if Nzhdeh met with Hitler, Molotov also met with Hitler. You know, I can't find words to comment on this. It is an assumption of such a low level that it is impossible to comment on it. Molotov was the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was concluded in 1939 because the Soviet Union was not ready for war and it was signed to postpone a possible war. Molotov did not serve Hitler like Nzhdeh. Molotov did not voice fascist slogans like Nzhdeh. The famous slogan of Nzhdeh was “Who dies for Germany dies for Armenia”. So he is a fascist and he said this during World War II. Therefore, one cannot take such absurd words of the Armenian leadership seriously, of course.

However, despite this, I believe that my speech in Ashgabat played the key role here - the plaque installed in memory of this executioner in the Russian city of Armavir was dismantled, smashed and destroyed. This was done by the Armenians themselves. They were made to do this by the authorities of Armavir. I am sure that the day will come when the Armenians themselves destroy this disgusting monument to the fascist in Yerevan.

- Mr. President, I would like to find out your opinion about the work carried out in the economic sphere in the country. In 2019, very important and serious steps were taken in Azerbaijan to further develop the economy. What can you say about the economic results of the year?

- Yes, economic indicators are good this year. You know that after a sharp drop in the oil price our national currency also devalued and economic activity declined. Of course, it was unexpected for us. Just imagine the cost of your main source of income becoming four times cheaper. Of course, this can affect the economy very negatively. However, despite this, we have not reduced a single social project and fulfilled all our social obligations. Of course, we were forced to take very serious steps in the economic sphere. However, I believe that after stabilization, the first signs of development started manifesting themselves last year. This year, development already became more widespread, as evidenced by all economic parameters. Overall economic growth exceeds 2 percent, and this is not a very large figure perhaps. But the reason for this is that oil production has slightly declined. Oil volume plays an important role in our gross domestic product. However, our non-oil economy grew by about 3.5 percent. I believe that this is a good result, but growth should and will be greater.

It is gratifying that growth in the non-oil industry is about 14 percent. This suggests that our plans for the development of the non-oil industry are already seen in real numbers. As you know, major investments have been made in agriculture in recent years, a large reform package is being implemented and growth there exceeds 7 percent.

Other economic indicators are also positive. Over 11 months, inflation was at about 2.6 percent. Foreign trade has increased. Our non-oil exports have increased by about 14-15 percent despite the fact that domestic consumption is also growing. The reason that our non-oil exports are not growing in larger numbers is that the population is growing, domestic consumption is increasing and thus the volume of goods offered for export does not particularly increase. Despite this, non-oil exports have increased by 14 percent.

Our external debt has decreased accounting for 17 percent of the gross domestic product. This is the ninth indicator in the world. The budget for next year has already been approved, and it provides funds for servicing the external debt. Thus, our external debt will be at 16 percent at least at the end of next year. I have told the government to reduce the external debt to about 10-12 percent of the gross domestic product in a short time, and this is quite possible. I should also note another factor: our foreign exchange reserves are five times higher than our state external debt. I can say that this is a rare result in world practice. In terms of foreign exchange reserves per capita, we are in first place in the CIS. This year, our foreign exchange reserves increased by $4.5 billion. This suggests that we spend our money very economically – only on social projects and projects of strategic importance.

In general, by the end of the year, Azerbaijan’s foreign exchange reserves rose to $50 billion. And this is a record figure. Of course, this is a major achievement in the economic sphere. At the same time, it fully ensures our economic independence. Economic independence is a fundamental condition for political independence. We are now independent of loans. True, the number of people interested in giving us loans is increasing. Leading international financial institutions are making numerous offers. However, my opinion is that we can only take loans for important projects in the technological field. Why should we take a foreign loan to build some kind of road or for some of construction? We have our own funds. For us, only loans related to the export of technology may be of interest.

Therefore, 2019 was a successful year in the economic sphere in general, and I must note that ongoing reforms, including those in the field of transparency, have brought us additional income. Thus, tax and customs authorities have transferred 1 billion manats to the treasury in excess of the plan this year. In other words, exclusively thanks to transparency, accuracy, correct reporting and reforms carried out in the field of administration, we received a billion in additional revenues. Of course, we spent these funds on social projects.

- Mr. President, you spoke about economic indicators. I would like to touch upon the social sphere as well. In 2019, very serious steps were taken in the social sphere and consistent measures were taken to enable social protection of the population. How do you assess 2019 in this respect?

- I have a high assessment. I have mentioned that we did not reduce the funds provided for the social sphere even in the years of crisis. I always said that economic reforms should be carried out in parallel with social protection. These are the main directions of our policy. In many cases – we know this from history and from the experience of some countries – serious economic reforms create social problems, and we categorically cannot allow this because the goal of all our work is to secure the interests of Azerbaijani citizens, and citizens of Azerbaijan should live better every year. To do this, we need to implement projects related to social infrastructure. It is also necessary to improve the social security of our citizens. Therefore, I believe that we have taken very serious steps in this direction this year. First of all, the issue of problem loans was resolved. This issue was constantly in the spotlight, and we understood quite well that it was necessary to assist those of our citizens who found themselves in a difficult situation due to devaluation. But the question was when this had to be done. I thought we could do that when we had the opportunity, and as turned up, we did it. You also know that devaluation affected not only Azerbaijan. Similar situations occurred in several post-Soviet republics, including the ones with exports dominated by energy. However, nowhere else was the issue of problem loans resolved like in Azerbaijan. We chose the most acceptable option for the citizens and resolved the issue.

After that, the increase of salaries, pensions, social benefits, student scholarships, i.e. all issues of the social sphere, were comprehensively resolved. Benefits were increased by on average of 50 percent, or twice, the minimum wage twice, the minimum pension by more than 70 percent. Today, Azerbaijan ranks first in the CIS for the purchasing power of the minimum pension. But this does not mean that we should be complacent with that – no! We want an even greater increase, and I am sure that it will take place. This simply requires even greater growth in the economic sphere. After all, we cut our coat according to our cloth. We get no support from anywhere and do not see a need for it. Therefore, we must plan our budget in such a way that the tasks facing the country are fulfilled, the projects that precondition the development of the non-oil economy are realized and we implement social projects at the expense of the income received. Therefore, our foreign exchange reserves are growing every year. Even in the most critical years of 2015 and 2016, when our incomes fell sharply, we initiated a major package of savings and did not allow foreign exchange reserves to decline. Because this has a positive effect on the rate of the manat and is also our main reserve.

Therefore, the implementation of future social projects is connected exclusively with economic development, and we will channel economic development and the vast majority of additional income into social projects. I am sure that next year will also be important in this regard. It should also be noted that we provided a major social housing package for internally displaced persons, families of martyrs, war veterans and disabled people. This year alone, over 5,000 houses and apartments were built for internally displaced persons. Imagine that there is an average of four to five people in a family, i.e. we have implemented a project equal to one city. About 25,000-30,000 people are using it. About 800 families of martyrs and those handicapped in the war are provided with houses. This is not the case in any other country. There are many countries now that have experienced war. What country or state allocates houses and apartments to the families of martyrs killed in the war? The government has provided apartments not just to one not two people, but to more than 7,000 martyr families. Thousands, approximately 6,000 people with disabilities have been provided with cars. So this is our policy which we apply without copying anyone. We are putting forward these initiatives ourselves because I think they are fair. There must be justice everywhere, including social justice. Therefore, I believe that the social sphere was memorable this year, and these positive trends will be continued next year, if possible.

- Mr. President, this year has been full of very important and significant events in the energy sector. How would you characterize the implementation and completion of the TANAP strategic project and the importance of the Southern Gas Corridor?

- The commissioning of the TANAP project is a major event, a historic event, of course. We can say that this project, which makes up most of the Southern Gas Corridor, was successfully completed at a lower cost than previously planned. In other words, more funds were initially envisaged for this project. However, during construction the project was implemented with great savings, and Azerbaijani gas has already reached the borders of the European Union. Therefore, the ceremony on the Turkish-Greek border held in November this year was of particular importance.

The TANAP project is our strategic asset. We have made great efforts to implement this project. Because we all remember well that several projects were put forward to transport larger volumes of Azerbaijani gas to the European continent. One of them was Nabucco and there were other projects as well. Numerous discussions were held around these projects and conferences were organized. In fact, we lost a few years because this project lacked the key factor: who will pay for it? Who will be responsible for the coordination work among countries? At the initial stage, the European Union took on this mission and tried to liaise among countries. The symposia, conferences and presentations I mentioned were held for this purpose. We also participated. I have repeatedly participated myself. Every time I saw that we were not talking about specific issues. There were good slogans and good presentations, but how should we go about doing it, who will be doing it and who will assume responsibility – these questions remained unanswered. When we raised this issue, we received very abstract answers and could not understand what the matter was. Therefore, we saw that this issue was not being resolved. And in order to sanction the Shah Deniz-2 project, this issue had to be resolved because otherwise who would spend so much money on drilling if there is no market? On the gas market you have to conclude a contract in advance, after which you will be able to carry out the drilling work. This is not oil which you can sell anywhere. This is a market-related product. Therefore, when we saw that this issue was stuck, we put forward the initiative and presented it to the Turkish side. We suggested that this project should be called TANAP – the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline. The Turkish side reacted positively. Thus, in 2012, distinguished President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and I signed this historic agreement in Istanbul. After about a year, the Shah Deniz consortium sanctioned the development of the Shah Deniz-2 project. In other words, these were issues closely related to each other. If TANAP had not been signed, Shah Deniz-2 would have hung in the air and we could not have implemented this project today. This is why TANAP is very important. It has enabled us to begin full-field development of the Shah Deniz gas condensate field, so that more than a trillion cubic meters of gas lying there could be extracted and transported. The second question is why we need this. If TANAP had not been signed, then the Absheron field, where they are already preparing for production, would not have been involved. No-one would have invested there. We expect at least 300 billion cubic meters of gas from the Absheron field as well. A foreign investor also invests fixed assets there. If there was no gas pipeline, who would have invested in this? Our other fields produce natural gas, including associated gas. We now receive associated gas. At the same time, the Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli field has large reserves of the so-called “deep gas”. We are approaching its operation. That is why TANAP has played a crucial role here. It is not just a pipeline through Turkey. It will provide and is already providing Turkey, Georgia and Europe. At the same time, this will allow us the opportunity to use all our gas resources and attract foreign investors, so billions of dollars will be invested again. Thus, Azerbaijan will earn money from gas exports in the future because our oil fields are already known. True, new projects are now being developed with foreign companies. I am sure that they will be signed. We expect good results from the already signed projects. But in the longer term, our main source of income will be natural gas. Therefore, TANAP is very important.

At the same time, TANAP has created opportunities for the construction of a European gas pipeline – the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, or a pipeline called TAP. The implementation progress of this project already exceeds 90 percent.

It should also be noted that all these projects were initiated by Azerbaijan. The initiator and main organizer of the Southern Gas Corridor is Azerbaijan. The Southern Gas Corridor consists of four projects: Shah Deniz-2, the South Caucasus Pipeline, TANAP and TAP. Azerbaijan participates in each of them. With a 58 percent stake in TANAP, we are the main shareholders of the project. We have a 20 percent stake in TAP and other projects. Therefore, it has a great historic significance. I am sure that the Southern Gas Corridor, the official opening of which we celebrated last year, will be fully commissioned next year.

- Mr. President, we have heard your opinion about energy projects. My next question will be related to the transport sector. It is known that Azerbaijan has made great strides in this area. How would you evaluate the work carried out in 2019 in relation to regional cooperation in this direction?

- I view it positively. I believe that we used the existing transport infrastructure very efficiently in 2019. The transport infrastructure created in the previous period allowed us the opportunity to expand the scale of cooperation.

As far as transport issues are concerned, I have always divided these issues into two parts. The first is domestic transport projects and the second is projects requiring international cooperation. True, these projects are closely interconnected. However, we had to take our steps systematically. Success could have been achieved only under such circumstances, and so it happened. Therefore, the implementation of domestic transport projects enabled us to create a modern transport infrastructure within the country, and we have achieved this. For example, even though the territory of the country is not very large, we have seven international airports, all of which are in operation. Six of them operate international flights. On the other hand, our maritime transport is rapidly developing. We have the largest fleet in the Caspian.

At present, we are able to produce all types of vessels at the shipyard commissioned in 2003. A ferry boat was commissioned in Azerbaijan for the first time in history recently. It is called “Azerbaijan”. The “Lachin” oil tanker has also been built and commissioned. In the coming years, other ships will be built at the Baku Shipyard.

With regard to air transport, the latest report of the Davos World Economic Forum states that Azerbaijan ranks 12th in the world in terms of air transport efficiency. There are opportunities for cargo transportation. Azerbaijan is currently using its airspace as a transit hub.

At the same time, the country's railway infrastructure has been renewed. Of course, the commissioning of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway two years ago led to major changes. In terms of the efficiency of railways – I go back to the Davos forum again – Azerbaijan is in 11th place. This is a very high indicator. At the same time, over the past 16 years, 16,000 kilometers of automobile roads have been built – trunk, intercity and rural. According to this indicator, in terms of the road quality, we are in 27th place in the world. In general, in terms of the transport infrastructure, Azerbaijan occupies 34th place in the world, which is a very high indicator. Therefore, all segments of transport in Azerbaijan fully meet modern standards. At the same time, the Alat Trade Seaport commissioned last year is also a very large infrastructure object. The cargo handling capacity of this port is currently 15 million tons, and this volume can easily be increased to 25 million tons. Thus, this strategic infrastructure project allows us the opportunity to increase the volume of cargo transportation through the territory of Azerbaijan.

Among all these projects, I want to emphasize the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway because this is truly a strategic facility for a number of reasons. First, we did not have a railway link with Turkey. Thus, our exports, the final destination of exports carried out on the territory of Azerbaijan was Black Sea ports. There too, it was necessary to transship and transport goods – which was again fraught with loss of time and money. The possibilities of the ports are limited and depend on weather conditions in many cases – first of all, the port of Novorossiysk. During the year, perhaps about 20 percent of the days do not allow for cargo transportation due to weather conditions. Therefore, this was a priority issue. The second question was that we understood perfectly well that if the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway was built, then we would be able to attract cargo not only from the east, but also from the south and north, and we achieved this. Therefore, it was a strategic project for us. When I started working as president, I immediately began to deal with this issue and studied ways of implementing it. We had no money then. International financial institutions did not show interest in this project. We turned to some countries but there was no answer. Therefore, we realized that we had to do it ourselves and, of course, together with neighboring countries. First of all, we held talks with the Turkish side and reached agreement. After that, negotiations began with Georgia. Its biggest component is the railway passing through the territory of Georgia. Georgia had no opportunities, so we took this issue upon ourselves and a loan agreement was signed with Georgia. According to this loan agreement, funds were envisaged in the amount of about $800 million, provided that construction would be carried out by Azerbaijani companies. So we will use these funds ourselves and then the loan would be repaid.

After organizing all these issues, we saw that we were facing some international pressure. It was a little unexpected, because we knew quite well and everyone looking at the map can see that this road is necessary. But some Western countries opposed it even though we were not going to take a loan from them. However, pressure started being put on Georgia to prevent it from agreeing to this project because if this project is implemented, Armenia will be in a transport dead-end. Pro-Armenian forces in the world, the Armenian lobby, the diaspora and pro-Armenian politicians openly opposed this project. If Georgia had not agreed to this, then, of course, this project would not have been implemented. We were able to convince the Georgian leadership that this project was beneficial for them. Thousands of jobs will be created, Georgia will be granted a loan of approximately $800 million on good terms and the volume of cargo transportation through Georgia will increase sharply. After reaching agreement, I also had a frank conversation with leaders of some Western countries and said: do not impede us. If you don’t help, that’s fine but do not impede us because we can also impede you in some matters. I believe that after these words they were convinced that it was better not to interfere in this matter. Thus, documents on the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars project were signed in Tbilisi. The construction was completed two years ago, and today we are receiving and transporting cargo along this road not only from expected places, but also from new locations.

This, of course, is the China-Kazakhstan-Caspian-Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey road. At the same time, cargo also comes from Turkmenistan. During my visit to Turkmenistan, eight documents were signed relating only to the transport sector. The Afghanistan-Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan-Europe railway lines have already been connected. We managed to connect the Lapis-Lazuli project in Afghanistan with Baku-Tbilisi-Kars. Thus, new cargoes were received. The transportation of cargo from Russia to Turkey through Azerbaijan has already begun. I am sure that the volume of cargo will increase even more along this railway. In addition, we expect cargo from Iran to Europe through Azerbaijan. As you know, Azerbaijan is also heavily involved in the North-South transport corridor. On our territory, we have completed all the work related to this corridor. Therefore, as a result of all these steps, Azerbaijan, a country that does not have access to the world ocean, has become one of the international, or Eurasian transport centers. I am sure that thanks to already completed projects and the implementation of new projects, the volume of cargo transportation through Azerbaijan will increase in subsequent years.

I want to emphasize one more issue. Of course, this will bring us long-term income and in large volumes. But at the same time, it also strengthens international cooperation, countries get more connected with each other and interdependence emerges. In order to be a transit country, it is necessary to establish good relations with neighbors because you cannot become a transit country without the neighbors. The words I said about our foreign policy once again confirm this. If mutually beneficial relations had not been established with neighboring countries, it would be impossible to implement energy or transport projects today.

- Mr. President, allow me to touch upon the steps Azerbaijan has taken to promote religious and spiritual values. Our country, along with political, economic and even military platforms, has also created an important platform in terms of promoting inter-religious dialogue. This year, as you noted, the Summit of World Religious Leaders was held in Baku. You addressed this forum and touched upon important issues. What do these calls coming from Azerbaijan, specifically from Baku, give to the region and countries of the world as a whole? What is the benefit of this? I would like to hear your opinion about this.

- You are absolutely right, Azerbaijan pursues a consistent policy in this direction, and this policy has very simple reasons. First of all, this policy and the work carried out in this area, the policy we are pursuing serves to stabilize the domestic situation and maintain stability. Azerbaijan is a multiethnic and multi-confessional country. In Azerbaijan, representatives of all peoples and religions live like one family. This unique experience is already being studied by many countries. It really is. It is both our state policy and the order of society. We have lived in such an atmosphere for centuries, representatives of all religions living in Azerbaijan have never felt any discrimination. Never in the history in Azerbaijan have there been any clashes or any misunderstandings. Therefore, by pursuing this policy, we thought that if we established broad international cooperation in this direction, it would be good for us. In addition, we will have a positive impact on the situation in the region because we don’t live on an island and our security, stability, of course, are based on domestic factors. However, the situation in other countries is very important to us. This is first.

Secondly, we thought that Azerbaijan could take on this mission – not only because of its historical past but also because of the present-day's policies because our policy is aimed at cooperation. I am absolutely sure that only through cooperation can we achieve external goals. There are countries which, seeing a neighbor in trouble, want to complicate things even more and try to snatch something. This is a very wrong policy. Perhaps it can bring short-term benefits, but it will always remain in the memory of the people of these countries that a neighbor had the opportunity and took something from me, although he shouldn’t have done that. Our policy is that if a neighboring or some other country is in a difficult situation and there is an opportunity to help it, then we should help it. In the future, it will return to you and you will receive even greater dividends. Therefore, given this factor, we came up with this initiative. In addition, we saw – we saw it 10 years ago in fact – that global trends are developing in a negative direction. Everyone can see it now. Everyone can see that discriminatory tendencies are intensifying in the world, including Europe. However, we began to see manifestations of this about 10 years ago and put forward a project, a political initiative called the Baku Process. This has been spoken about enough and there is no need for a detailed commentary. Today, the Baku Process is recognized by the UN as a very significant, perhaps the most important platform. As part of this process, cooperation has risen to a new level. I can’t say that this process has created some kind of a turnaround in this area, but at the same time, the second Summit of Religious Leaders of the World held in Baku once again showed that this is of great benefit. In addition, the work carried out within the framework of the Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, the Baku Humanitarian Forum, the Global Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations of the United Nations and the Baku Forum serves to reduce differences on religious and national grounds. Today, the role of Azerbaijan is clearly recognized and welcomed.

I can say that it is difficult to find another country on a global scale that would pay as much attention to this issue and achieve results as Azerbaijan. It is not only me saying this, it is also acknowledged by well-known and leading politicians and religious leaders who recognize the successes Azerbaijan has achieved in the field of national and spiritual values, intercultural dialogue. For example, the leadership of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has repeatedly praised the respect shown in Azerbaijan for the Muslim religion and the work we are doing to present the Muslim religion in the world as a religion of peace and mercy. Leaders of leading Muslim countries have openly expressed this. We were the first and only Muslim country to hold an exhibition on Muslim history and culture in the Vatican. We play a huge role in promoting Muslim values in Europe. It is no coincidence that leaders of Muslim countries praise our activities in this area.

At the same time, in his speeches and official statements Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, who participated in this Summit, praised the work carried out in Azerbaijan in this field. Pope Francis, who was on an official visit to Baku several years ago, also praised the work carried out in Azerbaijan in this direction. This is confirmed by religious leaders. Those saying have millions of people behind them. All these leaders evaluate our activities in this area. It is impossible to find another country that would be as highly valued by leaders of all traditional religions as Azerbaijan. Of course, this is a great achievement.

I believe that the platform we have created is highly appreciated and necessary. After all these forums, I was convinced during my bilateral meetings that all participants say to us with great appreciation that it is good that you took on this work. Therefore, let me say again that this is, first of all, necessary for the region, for the world.

- Mr. President, I would like to touch upon the issue of reforms. Personnel and structural reforms play a particularly important part in the overall reforms covering all areas of life in Azerbaijan. This area has recently become one of the key issues that is in the spotlight. What do you think about the role of personnel and structural reforms in the overall development of our country?

- Of course, this year will be remembered for work in this area. In fact, personnel and structural reforms complement each other. This is a manifestation of an overall policy of reforms. Reforms were carried out at different periods, at a different pace and with different degree of effectiveness. After last year’s presidential election, a new stage of reforms was announced in my speech at the inauguration, and we began to consistently implement these reforms, including the issue related to personnel reforms. Young people with a modern worldview and at the same time experienced personnel were represented in the new government, and we are already seeing good results of reforms in the areas they lead. The growth of this year's socioeconomic indicators demonstrates that the instructions given by the president are being implemented.

Therefore, these reforms were continued this year. As for structural reforms, of course, very serious structural and personnel reforms were carried out in the Presidential Administration, the Cabinet of Ministers was reorganized. New people were appointed to the posts and structural changes were carried out. Personnel changes are under way and will be continued in local executive bodies. This process will be continued. This is inevitable because in order to ensure the sustainable development of our country, the structure must be flexible and not cumbersome. At the same time, personnel must meet modern challenges. In the 21st century, it is impossible to succeed with old baggage. The key objective of the reforms is to ensure that the atmosphere in the country is sound and that negative phenomena are not allowed. New people bring a new approach, a new way of thinking, and I appreciate their work. At the same time, we respectfully bid farewell to those going into retirement as they have made their contributions earlier. This also corresponds to our national traditions. In addition, I believe that everyone should receive an assessment for their work, including from the leadership. Therefore, I believe that this process goes very smoothly in our country.

In general, I can say that our policy is conceptual in nature and is carried out in a consistent manner. If you look at the history of the past 16 years, you can see that not a single step was accidental. Every step is based on in-depth and ambitious goals. Thus, personnel reforms are carried out in a timely manner. Maybe five years ago it would have been wrong to carry out such personnel reforms and two years later it would be too late. Therefore, I believe that personnel reforms and structural transformations are carried out in a timely manner. In general, the approach to work is changing. Azerbaijan is renewing, a new face of Azerbaijan is emerging, a new face of the government – aligned with the modern times, public expectations and our development strategy. Everything is connected with this. First of all, our national interests, statehood, comfortable life of our citizens, social well-being and people should serve these goals. Those failing to realize their responsibility, of course, will be removed from office at best. Or, more serious measures are being taken and will be taken in relation to such people.

- Mr. President, as a continuation of the issue of reforms, I want to ask a question related to the most discussed topic of recent days. A few days ago, a number of senior officials were arrested. In your speeches you always emphasize the importance of clean and conscientious work of officials. You have noted that a serious fight will be waged against any violations of laws by government officials. The decisive steps you have taken in this direction are met with great approval by the population. Can these steps be considered an integral part of the country's wide-ranging reforms?

- This is an integral part of large-scale reforms, of course. Some of my recent internal meetings have been disclosed to the public, and I think there is a need for this. I must also note that I have a very busy schedule. It is possible to say that there are no breaks in my schedule. I am always available even on a Sunday – although I do not go to work. Perhaps I am the only person in Azerbaijan who has no off-days because every day is a working day for me. Every day you need to address issues. There are many questions that require agility. Therefore, some internal meetings shown to the public account for 5-10 percent of my schedule perhaps. But there is still a need for that. In addition, this is also some kind of a report to the public, clarification of the key directions of our policy. Besides, these are the goals we set before officials and the public should know this. For example, when the head of the executive authority is appointed to a certain district, the words I say to him, the recommendations I provide are also heard by the public of the district, of course. They require, as they should, this person to meet these criteria. I have repeatedly said that public oversight should become even stronger. I am not saying this for the sake of words. In many cases I repeat this. Why? Because we don’t have it. You know, it is either not there at all or is still incipient. This is wrong, there should be public oversight. If there is no public oversight, where will we get the information? For example, I said this before and I want to say it again: in some cases I learn many things from the media. Because some issues are not reported to me. Because it is not in these people’s interests to report them to me. Therefore, I try to learn about a situation from people when visiting the regions and hear about the issues of concern, to monitor the situation myself or to have the public share this information.

Government officials in all countries are accustomed to reporting only good things. If you ask them, they will say that everything is fine, everything is great, there are no problems. When I speak to the heads of executive authority during my visits to the districts and ask them what problems there are, they always answer that everything is fine. But this is impossible. Either they don’t know this themselves or want to hide – I don’t know what goal they may be pursuing. Therefore, the words I said to the newly-appointed heads of executive authority in front of the camera are the most serious order for them and they must fulfill it. There should be conceit in relation to citizens, they should not act arrogantly, look down at people. They should serve citizens, should not offend them, should not illegally extort money from entrepreneurs for some kind of landscaping work. I know that money is being raised from entrepreneurs under the pretext of landscaping. This is completely unacceptable. We do not need such landscaping. They should not take bribes. On the contrary, they should try to attract investors. In some cases, if someone wants to do something, instead of creating conditions for them, they start extorting money from him. Measures taken in recent days have shown this. I warned and told certain people so that everyone could hear. If you act dishonestly, the easiest punishment for you will be administrative. And things will not be limited to administrative punishment alone. But perhaps some people thought that this did not apply to them. Therefore, they took such unacceptable steps. This is actually a betrayal of the state, of the state policy. In addition, some horrific facts have emerged you don’t even know what to think. After the manat rate dropped, we were faced with increased unemployment trends. I felt and saw it. Some people were left without work. Why? Because they were once involved in projects implemented by the state. Investment has sharply declined. We reduced investment. These projects were not implemented either and people found themselves on the street. What did we do? True, this doesn’t correspond to a market economy but it was the right step. On my initiative, we created paid public jobs in each district where people were paid the minimum wage. Thus, there are about 40,000 public jobs in the country. Public in the sense that people are engaged in public work, cleaning and restoration. Some work as gardeners. Paid because they get paid for it. They pocketed even these wages for these poor people. They took cards, withdrew money and filled their pockets. What do you describe this? This is shamelessness. If you are not afraid of the people, then fear Allah. How can you do that? This indicates the moral degradation of the official. It is the spiritual degradation of man. Such officials disgrace us, they disgrace our country, disgrace the government. Let everyone know and hear that the fight against such facts will be waged even more seriously. Let this be an instructive lesson for everyone, let everyone learn the lesson. If you want to be a government official, then serve the state in good faith. And if you look at a public position as a source of profit, then it is better not to take it at all. Because you will become unhappy. I think that those who don’t realize this should understand that it cannot be otherwise in a new period, in a country facing new challenges. We must further improve the situation in our country, and the fight against unpleasant facts will be continued in the future. At the same time, I feel the support of both the media and the public. They help me a lot in this.

- Mr. President, my question is related to the opposition. At present, the opposition in Azerbaijan is in a very deep crisis. We can say that it has no popular support. How would you describe the reasons for all this?

- You know, there are several reasons for that. I believe that the first reason is that those who monopolized the opposition today were in power at one time. Our people remember their unsightly deeds. We all remember the government of the PFPA-Musavat tandem, it was a shameful period for us. I believe that this was a period of national shame because illiterate and incompetent people who came to power did not realize their responsibility. As I said, as degraded officials they viewed power only a source of profit. Their main goal was to enrich themselves, rob, steal, sell, and they seemed to compete with each other – who would steal more, who would do more harm to the country. The country's problems were put on the backburner, the Karabakh problem was put on the backburner, as were the social problems, the major social problems faced by Azerbaijani citizens. Inflation exceeded 1,000 percent. This did not bother them. They were engaged only in the appropriation of state property. I have repeatedly said this and there is evidence. They plundered the Jewelry Fund in such a way that not a single precious thing remained there. People brought their last jewelry, so that it could be used for the common cause, but they embezzled it. Therefore, it went down in people’s memory. At the same time, civil war is the most brutal war, because fraternal blood is shed. The Armenians occupied our lands, but they were bombing Ganja, committing crimes against their own people, and then fled and hid like deserters. These are the very people who have monopolized the opposition today. In fact, they have no moral right, experience or knowledge. They just have one thing to maintain this monopoly – foreign support. Because they are managed from abroad. This, I think, is the second reason why they have no respect in society.

It is no secret that they are financed from abroad. How does someone who has not worked anywhere for 20 years have such wealth, such opportunities to send close relatives to the most developed countries and live there well? Do they report on this somehow or not? Of course not! But we know this, we know a lot. Perhaps there is no need to talk about everything now. Therefore, on the one hand, their crimes and the fact that they brought our country to the edge of the abyss and then cowardly escaped as deserters, and on the other hand their activity as a “fifth column”, which is contrary to the interests of our country. I believe that these two factors completely deprived them of all domestic support. There is also their behavior both in politics and in life, i.e. the shameful images Azerbaijani viewers saw.

How can a person succumbing to hysteria and panic consider himself a leader? How can a man clutching an elderly woman’s hand in fear and looking for a loophole to hide – excuse my language – take on the leadership function? And then say to the public that he was abused in the bathroom? First of all, this is a lie. Secondly, what self-respecting person would uses such expressions in front of the whole people? Therefore, they have absolutely no moral right to make any claims. Their only support is the outer circles. Those circles who want to bring their henchmen to power. They want to return to 1992, when some ambassadors kicked the door to the president’s office. But it will not work because the people of Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani state will never allow corrupt and treacherous elements to raise their head again and take any position. The Azerbaijani people will not allow this to happen. Therefore, no-one comes to their pseudo rallies, no-one joins them. Their “political struggle” takes place in virtual life. They have already lost all their support there. They want to come to power by putting fake likes to each other, and their disgusting behavior, anti-national and treacherous actions cause a feeling of indignation in society. If the opposition wants to achieve something, then first of all these parties should be cleansed of elements that reek of naphthalene and a sound and modern opposition should be formed, the opposition that will criticize us, but criticize reasonably, the opposition that takes nation-wide issues above all. I hope that we will see that one day.

- Mr. President, it is known that our country is preparing for early parliamentary elections. We would like to know what such an important public and political decision is associated with and what the expectations are?

- You know, parliamentary elections are a very important event and an important process. As I already mentioned, our country has entered a period of reforms, the Presidential Administration, the Cabinet of Ministers, some central executive authorities, local executive bodies have already completed structural reforms or are still going through them. This being the case, the parliament cannot stand aside either, and the main goal of the early parliamentary elections is the urgent formation of the legislative framework aligned with new challenges, so that steps in the legislative sphere complement the overall course of reforms. On the other hand, I would like to note that our parliament is on vacation for four months and does not work in June, July, August and September. Therefore, we have simply moved the elections four to five months forward. The goal of this is to waste no time. I believe that early parliamentary elections are received well in society, including political parties. All conditions have been created. I am sure that the parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan will be held transparently. The Azerbaijani people will demonstrate their will and the results will reflect the will of the Azerbaijani people. The people of Azerbaijan will choose worthy representatives who, through their legislative activities, will contribute to our common cause, those who will work hard in their constituencies.

I do not want to evaluate the activities of parliament members because this is a different branch of power. But my advice to the future MPs is to be more active in their constituencies so that people know them and turn to them, so that they raise questions with local and central authorities. In this case, as I said, there will be some kind of public oversight. In some cases, as far as I know, an MP is elected and then never visits his constituency, is not interested. And when the next election approaches, he asks people to support him. Of course, the New Azerbaijan Party as the leading political force will defend its candidates. And this is natural. We have a majority system, I think that this is a very fair system. This system pins an elected deputy to his constituency. I say this from my own experience. I was first elected a member of parliament on the basis of a majority system in 1995. At that time, I had my own district and was very active there. In 2000, I was already registered as the number one candidate for the New Azerbaijan Party, and after the election it seemed to me that I did not have a district, and this did not allow me to focus on any district. Therefore, based on my experience, I can say that a majority system is most suitable for voters – if an elected deputy is active and is in close contact with the people. The Azerbaijani people know everything perfectly well. There is a saying: The people’s eyes are like scales. By choosing worthy representatives, the people of Azerbaijan will ensure that they voice their concerns and make suggestions. In this case, of course, questions and problems can be resolved in an acceptable form.

- Mr. President, thank you for the interview. Today’s interview and the meeting with you has become one of the most important events in our lives. Thank you again for this. On behalf of each of us, let me wish you a happy upcoming birthday. We wish you continued success in all your endeavors on the path of development of our independent Azerbaijan and good health.

- Thank you very much. I also want to say sincere words to you. I wish you success. I follow your activities and see them on television. You are making a great contribution to our common cause. As young and modern people, I think you personify and should personify the Azerbaijani media. Taking this opportunity, I wish you and the entire Azerbaijani people continued success. The Day of Solidarity of World Azerbaijanis is approaching. Congratulations to all the people of Azerbaijan on this occasion and on the occasion of the New Year. I am convinced that our country will continue to follow the path of independence and development and no-one can force us to turn away this path. Thank you!

- Journalists: Thank you.

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