On October 7, President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev was interviewed by the Italian La Repubblica newspaper.
We present the full text of the interview.
President Ilham Aliyev: Good morning.
Correspondent: Good morning, how are you, Mr. President?
President Ilham Aliyev: Very good, thank you. I am glad to see you again.
- Me too. So, we start with the conflict with Armenia. Are you satisfied with the Russian peace mediation?
- Yes, in general, we are satisfied. It’s almost one year since the war ended and Russian peacekeepers have been deployed in Azerbaijan, in our region of Karabakh. During this period of time, with some exception of minor incidents, the situation is stable, and in general, we are satisfied. Of course, there are some issues which is still to be resolved, particularly, the permission of Azerbaijan to foreign citizens to visit our territory which is now in the zone of responsibility of Russian peacekeepers. Though the number of so-called foreign tourists to Karabakh was significantly decreased, still there are some foreigners who enter our territory illegally and enter the zone of Russian peacekeepers. We communicated with the Russian authorities and the Defense Ministry to put an end to that. I think this or maybe some other minor issues are still to be handled. But in general, yes. We are satisfied.
- Okay. Is Baku going to invest money in the freed territories?
- We are already investing. A special investment program for liberated territories has been adopted. For this year the total investments are close to actually exactly 1.3 bln US dollars. Investments are mainly in infrastructure. By the end of the year, all the electric power of the liberated territories which is 10 thousand square kilometres will be already totally completed. We are now building roads, railroads. The first airport in the liberated territories, in Fuzuli, is already ready and is already receiving the planes. We built it in eight months. Two more airports are now in the phase of construction. Also, we started already the housing projects. City planning of two cities has been already proved and we started. So, we started very actively, and the plan is to return the former refugees as soon as possible to their homelands.
- Will Italy be involved or is it already involved in this reconstruction?
- Italy was one of the first countries to be involved. Actually, the first country was Turkey and second Italy. This is not by chance, by coincidence. This is a deliberate choice. I said that we will invite only companies from friendly countries to be part of the great reconstruction works. Several Italian companies already are involved in different projects, including in the creation of memorial museums, museums of occupation, victory museums. One Italian company has already signed a contract with us on the issues related to energy supply to the whole region. Also, one Italian company has already started investing in manufacturing agriculture products. So, Italian companies are highly welcomed in Azerbaijan, and in this reconstruction work, there will be a lot more Italian companies to come.
- As you know the gas price in Europe has increased a lot. Here the Trans-Adriatic pipeline probably helped to keep it down. What are the new opportunities for this pipeline?
- Actually, we were concentrated mainly on the completion of the last portion of the Southern Gas Corridor, the Trans Adriatic Pipeline. The first gas to Europe started to be transported on the last day of the last year – on December 31. Italy has already started to receive gas from Azerbaijan. As you know, the Southern Gas Corridor will deliver to Italian markets 8, maybe even more, billion cubic meters. So, this task has been completed. Now, we need to look to the future, because we have discovered new gas deposits. From existing gas fields we plan to extract more. Plus, we highly invest now together with foreign investors in renewables.
- Let’s talk about Afghanistan. Are you ready to recognize the Taliban?
- We are not still in this stage to make some steps. In general, Azerbaijan is not in an area of immediate proximity to Afghanistan. Of course, I think the neighbors of Afghanistan should make their decision first. And we have never been closely linked neither politically, nor economically, nor from point of view of transportation to Afghanistan. Therefore, our involvement in Afghanistan was only limited to our peacekeepers. By the way, Azerbaijani military servicemen were among the last to leave Kabul airport. Our military servicemen left Kabul airport one day before that blast that took place there. So, until the end, we were implementing our mission with dignity and maximum efficiency. Therefore, now, in Afghanistan, it’s a period of the establishment of a new government, a period of the establishment of foreign policy priorities. If we see positive tendencies, if we see a positive attitude, if we see the signs of potential cooperation, of course, we will respond adequately. The main principle in Azerbaijan’s foreign policy is independence. Our foreign policy is absolutely free from any foreign dominance. The second is pragmatism. So, we will make our minds based on that.
- Would you think that a bigger presence of Europe in the South Caucasus could be a good mind?
- These issues are now broadly discussed. During the visit of President of the European Council Mr. Charles Michel to Azerbaijan this summer, we broadly discussed the very large agenda of EU-Azerbaijan. Of course, in traditional areas of cooperation like energy, we can only applaud our joint efforts in implementing such a huge project. Now European Union is very actively involved and shows a big interest in our transportation potential because we are transforming Azerbaijan into an important Eurasian transportation hub with modern infrastructure which has very diversified routes of communication with the neighborhood. European Union is planning to be part of that. We are also discussing the role of the European Union in post-war development in the Southern Caucasus.
- What’s up with Tehran, Iran? What was going on with Iran?
- You mean our bilateral relations or in general?
- Yes. I read about you had some frictions, right? You had some problems. How are you going to with that? Because I understand that they are not very happy that you are close to Israel. Is it right?
- This is a pretext, you know. The reason for what is happening is not because of our relations with some other country, because our foreign policy is very open, transparent, stable, and as I said independent. No other country can or should try to influence Azerbaijan’s decisions. Decisions are made here in Baku, by me, based on the national interests of Azerbaijan. Whoever tried to use artificial pretext and blame Azerbaijan for kind of relations with some other countries, failed. This is not the right path. It will lead to deadlock.
The reasons for what happened, are very simple. Azerbaijan wants respect for its borders. After the liberation of Karabakh, we came to our borders with Armenia. So, we came to our borders, and we sit on our borders. And it happened that the road between some Armenian cities is crossing Azerbaijani territory. But then we started to see that this road is used for illegal cargo transportation to Karabakh, to our territory. This is not acceptable. We demand respect to our borders. We do not violate any other country’s borders illegally. So, our message was very simple-stop it. We made very friendly communication, not public communication, but friendly communication to stop it because it is not right. We control that road. We see. There is no way to cheat, no way to say that it doesn’t happen. Unfortunately, this warning was not adequately responded to, then, we had to take the second step. We made diplomatic nota. We invited the ambassador and made it public, in order to stop it. But actually, it became even worse. The number of trucks from Iran to Karabakh increased and we considered it as an assault, as a deliberate disrespect. So, then we took other measures which are absolutely legitimate. It created big turbulence and unnecessary movements in the neighboring country-inappropriate statements, threats, military training on our border. Because it was strange that first it was said that these military trainings are planned, but then it was said that they were in order to demonstrate something. No one can impose its will on us. We want to have friendly relations with all the countries, in the first place, with our neighbors. On many occasions, I, talking about foreign policy priorities of Azerbaijan, and they are all published, said that our priority is the relations with the neighboring countries. We, with Iran and during the previous Iranian government with which we worked for eight years, managed to elevate our relations to actually highest possible level. I had more than ten meetings with my counterpart Mr. Hassan Rouhani. All of them were productive. We signed many agreements and we implemented them on energy, transportation, cultural development, security. Our relations were actually the symbol of friendship and a good neighborhood. When the new government of Iran, the new president was elected, what we’ve done? We send the big delegation to his inauguration led by the head of our parliament and deputy prime minister. They delivered my message of friendship to the Iranian President directly. At the same time, and the other message which was delivered particularly what I said before ‘please, pay attention to this illegal business activity in Karabakh by Iranian businessmen’. We were not in a position to accuse the Iranian government. We understood that it’s some private companies who do it. But we asked to stop it. What happened in return, everybody sees. And what we have in the end. Again, nothing good. Therefore, first, we reject all the accusations about Azerbaijan bringing Israel to the liberated territories. That is absolute nonsense. It is just a pretext aimed at the domestic audience in order to demonize Azerbaijan. Everybody can go and see that there is no life there. Everything is destroyed. Second, that we demand respect for ourselves, the same respect which we show to others.
- Thank you very much. Just the last question. I’m sorry, you know, but I cannot help but ask you about the Pandora papers. As you know, your name has appeared. So, what is your defense? What would you say to defend yourself about Pandora?
-You know, this kind of things accompany me for many years. From time to time depending on a political conjecture some forces in the West try to use this kind of insinuations or half-truth in order to discredit the image of Azerbaijan and undermine Azerbaijan’s position. It is clear that it is not a kind of a journalist investigation. It is clear who is behind, and it is clear why Azerbaijan appeared there. I don’t know about the others, maybe they also did something which some forces in the West do not like. But with respect to Azerbaijan, of course, the victory in the second Karabakh war was of surprise for many. And they did not like that. They wanted Azerbaijan to be weak, dependent, occupied, always asking for assistance in the resolution of the conflict. And now when Azerbaijan did it itself, when Azerbaijan defeated Armenia, also those circles in the West who are closely linked to Armenia became very angry. We were expecting that. Actually, we were saying that a new slander campaign is planned against Azerbaijan. Coming to the substance, I would like to say that, I am a president for 18 years. Before that, I was a businessman. My biography is known - a successful businessman. When I became a president, I was not a poor man. When I became a president, I stopped being directly involved in the business and transferred my business to my family. You will probably understand me, unlike some other people in the West who dedicate all their fortune to their cats and dogs, in Italy and Azerbaijan we value family values. Therefore, I transferred all my business to my children. They made efforts and continue their business. They have investments mainly in Azerbaijan. They have investments outside of Azerbaijan. All their business activity is transparent, internationally audited and there is nothing that anybody can claim wrong.
What was written in the papers, frankly speaking, I did not read it. I was informed, and it is maybe 5 percent is the truth. The rest is an exaggeration. But again, I have a legitimate right openly to say about that. It’s not a secret in Azerbaijan that my relatives, family members are involved in business, involved in charity, involved in a lot of things that are happening now in Karabakh. For instance, the Foundation which I created is now investing in the restoration of Karabakh, in all the mosques in Aghdam, Shusha, Zangilan are being financed by the money of the Foundation. We financed the construction of houses for refugees for, I think, 5,000 families. What we’ve done. We do a lot in Azerbaijan. Of course, some people do not like it in the West. They want to accuse us, they want to subordinate us, they want to impose their will on us. And I say: No! I will defend Azerbaijan, its sovereignty, its independence, its choice until the end of my life. And all these kinds of dirty stories mean nothing to me and to the people of Azerbaijan.
- Mr. President, I thank you very much. I hope to see you one day in Baku.