Davos, January 22, AZERTAC
On January 21, President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev was interviewed by China's CGTN (China Global Television Network) TV channel in Davos. AZERTAC presents the interview.
- Mr. President, we are very pleased to see you in Davos.
- Thank you very much, I am glad to see you.
- The development of the oil and gas sector in your country has allowed you the opportunity to raise the economy to a high level, which was made possible thanks to your approach. My question is this: will this be permanent?
- You are quite right that the oil and gas sector is the driving force of our economy. Thanks to attracting major energy companies to investment in Azerbaijan, we have achieved great progress. However, our main objective today is to diversify the economy, of course, and reduce dependence on oil and gas. This will not be easy because at the moment we are in the active phase of developing our oil and gas resources. At the same time, in recent years we have heavily invested in infrastructure. We have attracted major investments – about $250 billion in the past 15 years. We are ranked in 25th place in the world in the World Bank’s Doing Business report. Therefore, I believe that attracting investors to sectors other than oil and gas will not be too difficult.
- Mr. President, I understand that the sphere of infrastructure has significant potential in your country. For example, you can work on several important infrastructure projects. I mean the projects being implemented in your country and those being implemented by other Caspian littoral countries and even outside the region. What is the short- and long-term impact of this on your development?
- You are absolutely right. We have invested in Azerbaijan and beyond. The initial priority, of course, was to create a modern infrastructure. This infrastructure, in turn, will create great potential for investors and business circles and provide comfort to our citizens. Therefore, we have invested mainly in the production of electricity, have turned from a country importing electricity into an exporter of it and have received large profits from that. We have raised the level of gasification within the country to 95 percent. I think this is also a very good result. We have invested mainly in road construction, and, according to the assessments of the Davos World Economic Forum, our roads are ranked 34th in the world for quality.
A lot has also been done in the areas of water treatment and irrigation. At the same time, we have invested in our transport infrastructure, which will afford us the opportunity to attract large volumes of cargo and create a transport hub. We have railways, six international airports, the Alat trade seaport which will enable us to transport cargo from 15 million to 25 million tons of cargo. There is a new shipyard which will enable us to produce all types of vessels and increase freight traffic in the Caspian Sea and establish communication with Central Asian and European countries. In 2017, we celebrated the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. This railway was the missing link between Azerbaijan and Europe and between Europe and Asia. This railway is currently in operation, and we see an increase in the volumes of cargo. This infrastructure helps us to attract large volumes of cargo and establish a new important communication with many countries.
- As President, you have always said that you are proud of your achievements. However, the question is how you can take advantage of these achievements in the short and long term? It is impossible to see results immediately. There is such a problem, isn't it?
- Yes, you are absolutely right. We have invested state budget funds in infrastructure projects and we understand that we will see benefits of these funds many years later. However, as I have already noted, first of all we want to create good conditions for our people. We wanted to upgrade the infrastructure and create conditions for business circles to benefit from. At the same time, the creation of a transport hub in Azerbaijan will allow us the opportunity to become an important transit country from East to West and from North to South. These investments are for the future. We don’t expect this investment to pay off in the next 10 years. However, our plan is to create new opportunities and sources of income in addition to the oil and gas sector. Someday oil and gas will run out, but given our geography, the transport infrastructure will always remain.
- Mr. President, your colleagues in many countries may see long-term investments as an undesirable phenomenon. They may say their focus is on today and at maximum on tomorrow. As a head of state, what is your view on maintaining a balance between this short- and long-term benefit?
- With regard to short-term benefits, I can say that we have implemented many projects that brought a large income in a relatively short time. We are creating a mechanism to attract investments. At the same time, we provide low-interest loans to the private sector, so that it can also invest in sectors that generate income in a short time – for example, sectors such as agriculture, small and medium-sized enterprise. We are doing that to make a profit in a short time. However, with regard to long-term investment, the main goal is to create an infrastructure that would function for a long time, change the country and change the attitude of the world towards the country. After all, without these infrastructure projects the geographical location of Azerbaijan does not matter much. We have united countries and people. I can tell you that infrastructure projects related to transport create a completely new political situation in our region. There are countries that are dependent on each other: one depends on a transit country, another becomes a transit country. Of course, there are closer relations between them. They share the benefits and end up in a win-win situation for all parties. And not only in a bilateral, but also in a multilateral format. Linking the continents through the Caspian Sea, building a seaport in Baku, connecting our railway system with the European one creates a new format of cooperation. And I think that this interdependence is one of the important tools for an active political dialogue, for reducing certain challenges and difficulties and focusing on the positive agenda. Our goal is to create modern infrastructure in Azerbaijan and modernize the country. At the same time, we want to achieve our goals – political, economic and financial – through active cooperation and mutual support.
- Mr. President, I know that even today, along with other challenges, your country is faced with a certain territorial dispute. Will this interconnectivity, infrastructure, a better environment and an alliance of economy with people allow you the opportunity to solve this problem?
- I am sure that this is one of the most effective ways of liberating our lands, which have been under occupation for more than 20 years. In the early years of independence, we were subjected to aggression and occupation from Armenia. As a result, more than a million Azerbaijanis became refugees and internally displaced persons, 20 percent of our land is under occupation. Despite the four resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council 25 years ago, demanding an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops from our lands, they are not being implemented. Therefore, we need to be stronger, more successful and more effective in order to restore our territorial integrity and return over a million people to their homes. Therefore, the policy of self-sufficiency, reliance on our own resources and reserves leads us to success. We are currently improving the standard of living and have a good international authority. As I have already noted, we have attracted investments of almost $250 billion. We have invested heavily in military capacity and created a very successful format of cooperation with our neighbors. Therefore, the country that keeps on occupying our lands should appreciate all this. It should understand that it could become a party to this large format of cooperation, i.e. regardless of energy, oil and gas, and transport projects. All these projects bypass them for one reason: the reason is occupation. If the occupation is ended, then, of course, there will be greater international cooperation and sustainable peace in our region.
- So, Mr. President, do you believe that the economic power and your country's growing authority in the international arena will help you solve this problem?
- Absolutely. We see results and we see positive dynamics. Frankly, we see that resolutions of international organizations are not being implemented and there is no punishment for this. The leading international organization in the world – the UN Security Council – adopts resolutions related to the conflict, but the conflict remains unresolved and the resolutions are not enforced. Therefore, we certainly should rely on international law, but at the same time we should become stronger. If we are strong economically, we will be strong politically too. We will be able to pursue an independent foreign policy based on national interests.
We also worked hard on reducing our external debt. Today, this debt accounts for 19 percent of the gross domestic product. This is a good indicator. But even better is the ratio between the external debt and our reserves. From this point of view, our freely convertible foreign exchange reserves exceed the foreign debt 4.5 times. In other words, we can pay off all foreign debt within a few months and are not dependent on one country economically.
- I can see that you are very proud of your achievements. But our world is diverse, because, according to the strategic judgments you mentioned, you need to make certain choices on a daily basis. What is your view of globalization? It is not a joke and is a manifestation of many factors. Mr. President, where do you see your country on this big map of changes? How can your country secure the right place for itself?
- I think that the experience of Azerbaijan and the results we have achieved demonstrate the correctness of our policy. We live in a not very stable region. In an area close to our borders, tensions run high. We see new sources of conflict and new sources of risk. Therefore, our main goal is to protect Azerbaijan from potential risks. This is why, as I have already noted, we must be strong inside the country. To do this, we must have good relations with our neighbors, and we do have such relations. Good relations with leading centers of the world are also necessary.
- What exactly do you mean?
- I mean the leading countries, the leading economies, the countries that define the global agenda, the countries that pursue policies on which international peace and security depend. I believe that we have managed to find the right balance between strong protection of national interests, national identity, independence and good relations with the countries I have mentioned. Relations with our neighbors are a priority for us because we live in this region. At the same time, we need a broader agenda because Azerbaijan is a small country geographically, but from the point of view of what we can do in the region and what contribution we can make, we go beyond our geography.
- What is required of you to find this balance? We have seen positive and negative aspects of this for decades. But what does your country need to find the best balance? In fact, it is not so easy to find it. How are you achieving this balance?
- From the point of view of domestic and economic policy, I believe that one of our biggest achievements, of course, is proper management of oil and gas revenues. Oil has become a great support for our economy, our people, infrastructure, and the solution of social problems. It was very relevant to do all this work. From the point of view of interaction with business circles and investors, we have created an excellent investment environment. We have attracted investments in the amount of almost $250 billion.
- But what about a geopolitical point of view? This is very important. Your economy is perfectly functioning, you are receiving good returns which are then wisely invested. We understand all that. But is there a more difficult question?
- I am getting to your question. I wanted to start with the work carried out within the country. I think that one of the reasons for a successful policy, sometimes a balanced policy in terms of interaction with countries, neighbors and partners, is that we have always been faithful to our cause. Sometimes our partners and neighbors may disagree with us. Sometimes we do what they may not like. But they know that our words never diverge from our deeds. They know that we keep our word. We have never disappointed anyone. Therefore, this is a matter of trust, and Azerbaijan is a country that has earned great confidence. As I have already noted, our policy on interaction with other countries is based on a positive scenario. We want to be good a partner and friend. We want to help whenever possible. Through this assistance, we quite possibly achieve even more than what we learn from certain difficulties. Therefore, I believe that Azerbaijan is already recognized as a country pursuing an independent foreign policy, and we derive this strength from domestic stability and economic development. At the same time, we do not harm any other country. We simply want to establish better relations, do more and create better conditions for our citizens. We want to live in peace and harmony.
- Mr. President, as you mentioned, your country has a strategically important geographical location. You have serious neighbors: Russia, China and other countries. Europe is also a neighbor with powerful potential. At the same time, in recent days and years, you are witnessing a different position of the United States. Mr. President, the time has come when everyone thinks about their place in this environment. What high ideas need to be supported? To what extent should attention be paid to the situation inside the country? How much open should you be to the world? To what extent do our interests coincide with those of others? What is my benefit? All these questions are interrelated. As a leader, you probably think about it every day. What do you see as the most important qualities of a political leader today? What advice would you give to a future generation of leaders?
- Of course, the world is changing, our region is changing, and various events are taking place. About five years ago, we could not even imagine that this would be possible. Therefore, I believe that every leader should keep track of events and always be attentive to what is happening. We do not know what will happen in the world in a year or two. However, with regard to the present-day geopolitical environment, I believe that we have occupied a place in this environment, and this position suits us. From the point of view of international politics, our main goal is to pursue a foreign policy that would positively influence the situation inside the country and reduce all risks. I think we have achieved this because people in Azerbaijan live in a peaceful environment and the country is stable. We do not know what will happen in the future.
- Are you afraid of uncertainty? Or maybe are you inspired? These phenomena mean both challenges and opportunities.
- From the point of view of the influence of foreign policy and the environment on us, I believe that what we have today is enough. You can always think about the best. You can always believe that the international situation is the best for you, but you must try your best to achieve this. If you take a wait-and-see position, then this will not lead you anywhere. At present, I hope that the international situation around us does not deteriorate. This worries me. If it improves and we further improve it and make our contribution to it, that would be great. But if this does not happen, it is better to stay in the current situation because I think that the current international situation is the most suitable and good for Azerbaijan. It gives us the opportunity to pay attention to domestic issues, the still existing internal problems and to calmly focus on their solution. If you have difficulties, misunderstandings, clashes and confrontations with different countries, it distracts your attention to other areas and does not allow you to deal with internal issues more. For me as President, the most important thing is the daily life of our people, our economy, industry and the solution of social problems. Foreign policy protects and guarantees this. So far, our policy has been successful, and the future will tell what will happen next.
- Mr. President, President of China Xi Jinping sent you a congratulatory message on the occasion of your birthday at the end of last year. I am sure that you received this letter in due order.
- Yes, of course!
- This, of course, is a manifestation of the efforts you and your partners are making in various fields. For example, the "One Belt, One Way" initiative. This initiative also has various details and approaches. This project, which is perceived as China’s initiative, was essentially a regional one. It is a platform put forward by a large number of partners. As President of Azerbaijan, what do you think this platform can give you? What can you achieve by that?
- You are right, President Xi Jinping kindly wished me a happy birthday. I also always wish him a happy birthday.
I remember my very successful official visit to China a few years ago and our conversation with the President. In fact, we signed several important documents that laid the groundwork for our cooperation. Of course, during that visit and other meetings we discussed the “One Belt, One Way” initiative. Azerbaijan fully supports it and we intend to do everything possible to ensure that Azerbaijan becomes a very active participant in this initiative and project. We believe that we have extended the transport network to Europe and by building the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, we have connected lines. However, cargo transportation from China to Europe has numerous directions. Therefore, we intend to take a more active part in this process. To this end, we, of course, work with our partners in Central Asia, Georgia, Turkey and Europe. Of course, our main goal is to receive goods from China and ensure their further transportation. Inside Azerbaijan everything is ready. At present, Azerbaijan has the largest fleet in the Caspian Sea. These are mainly tankers and other cargo vessels. They transport goods from the East to the West and back. Of course, we would like more Chinese companies to work in Azerbaijan, to invest in our country and to find new opportunities. Thus, the “One Belt, One Way” project is indeed a very important project for us. We fully support it and have contributed to the creation of its missing part.
- What do you mean by the missing part?
- I mean the railway line which starts in Baku and goes to Turkey. This link was not available before and cargo from Asia was transported through Azerbaijan to the Black Sea ports of Georgia. After the railway was built to Turkey, goods are being delivered to the Mediterranean coast and also by rail directly to Europe. This means cost savings, quick delivery and greater cargo handling capacity.
- You are pay more attention ...
- To what?
- You are paying attention to the mentioned infrastructure opportunities.
- Definitely! The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway line was opened at the end of 2017. A big ceremony was organized at the Baku Seaport as we dispatched the first cargo. In fact, we have already started receiving goods from China.
- Great! Mr. President, I have a question. Usually, when a new idea is put forward, and especially if it comes from a recently established and developing country, it is not treated with great confidence. Researches and debates are initiated in this regard. But there are numerous stimulating ways. This is an interesting balance, isn't it? In other words, a skeptical approach can be replaced with creative thoughts. As president of a developing country, what do you feel about this?
- Of course, it depends on the initiatives and projects that generate a skeptical approach. I can say that we have completed all the projects Azerbaijan started or joined. When we started thinking about building a pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean, there was a very skeptical approach around us. There were numerous speculations, analytical calculations and articles saying that this was impossible and would never happen. However, it happened.
- How do you feel about these comments?
- You know, some of them were simply due to a lack of information about our determination to implement a project that seemed impossible. In early 2000, when we embarked on this project, Azerbaijan was not as strong as it is today. At that time, we were largely dependent on external financial support. Much of the skepticism was associated with unfair competition. I am saying this in a diplomatic way. We did not respond. We said that we would respond with our work. We had to respond with results. After building the 2,000-kilometer pipeline from Baku to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, everyone saw that we smashed all skepticism to smithereens. The same approach was observed in the implementation of an even larger project – the Southern Gas Corridor. This project covers seven countries. About 10 international banks and numerous companies are involved in it. It costs $40 billion. This project was started by us. There were many skeptical views about the volume of resources, pipeline construction, technical difficulties, financial challenges and other issues. But we said: if we have started this, we will see it through. This project is in its final stages now. Therefore, we must respond to the skepticism not with word but with steps taken and with work done. We can be proud of that. We no longer hear the voices of those who were skeptical about this project.
- Mr. President, from this point of view, I see your great wisdom in the fact that you responded with concrete deeds.
- Thank you! Yes.
- Mr. President, China and your country have been working on bilateral trade. As of today, China still ranks 25th among countries of the world for the level of trade with Azerbaijan. I am aware that you and the leadership of China intend to establish better economic and trade relations. Mr. President, how can you develop this area and how can you expand contacts between people which eventually have a positive impact on their daily lives? What needs to be done to make your region more attractive? This question interests you and other leaders of the region.
- Yes, you are right. We are working on that. As for contacts between people, we have recently lifted visa restrictions for Chinese citizens. Today, anyone who wants to visit Azerbaijan can receive an electronic visa from a home computer in a maximum of three days, sometimes even in a matter of several hours. This has been done as a manifestation of our partnership, with the aim of creating more favorable opportunities for Chinese citizens to travel to our country. To develop our trade, we have sent several missions to various regions of China. There are already good results. We have opened Azerbaijani wine houses in China. One of them is in Shanghai and another one is in another Chinese city. We regularly participate in large exhibitions organized in China and show our agricultural produce there. We want to show our achievements to the people of China and intend to obtain access to a very large and attractive market for our products. At the same time, our doors are open to Chinese businessmen. As I have already said, we would like to see them as investors, as trading partners, as contractors. There are many areas we can cooperate in. Of course, there are Chinese companies operating in Azerbaijan, including the energy sector. But I think that this is not enough. This applies to contracting and trading projects. I think that we should do this together, and this issue is one of our main priorities. We have recently started to establish representative offices for trade. One of Azerbaijan’s first trade missions was opened in China. All this demonstrates our determination to establish a close partnership in trade and establish contacts between our peoples. This will automatically have a positive impact on all other areas of our life.
- Mr. President, great changes are taking place in the world. You have already mentioned that. What do you see as the most important quality of a leader, the leader of a country, at the global level? I am witnessing a pragmatic approach here. I am aware of your hard work. Mr. President, what is the most important quality of a leader?
- In my opinion, there are several very important issues. The first issue I recall is the planning of a long-term development strategy. In other words, you shouldn’t limit your efforts only to the political agenda. You need to understand how people want to see your country in 20 or 30 years and what you need to do today to achieve that goal. At the beginning, we talked about long-term infrastructure. A lot of time has passed but it is already producing results. I believe that this work comes in the first place. The second most important thing is never to tell lies to the people. You should never talk about unreal things or make promises that cannot be fulfilled. As for me, I am trying and think that I can meet these criteria. At the same time, you should respond to those criticizing you with work. If you respond to everyone who speaks and writes about you, criticizes and attacks you, then you will only lose time and descend to their level. But you should answer to them with your deeds. I think that we have achieved that and answered to all the skeptics, everyone who deliberately acted in this way, everyone who tried to question our efforts and create obstacles for us. We show this to everyone who comes to Baku, and they know that. They witness the beauty of our capital. They go out into the regions and see the results. I believe that these two issues are important both for the country and for the leader. If a leader wants people to trust and support him, then these two issues should always be on his agenda.
- Deeds speak louder than words. Mr. President, it was a pleasure to meet with you. I wish you great success in Davos!
- Thank you!
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President Ilham Aliyev then signed the CGTN TV channel's guest book.
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