The recent presidential elections in Azerbaijan caused a complex reaction in the West. The Azerbaijani Ambassador to U.S. Elin Suleymanov explained the essence of what is happening in the country and around it in an interview to Voice of Russia.
– Azerbaijan’s president Ilkham Aliyev easily won an election for the third term taking around 86 percent of the vote, his main opposition challenger Jamil Hasanli took second with less than 5 percent of the votes. Now I know the internal politics isn’t necessarily your role- so much, but I think you have some inside. 85-86 percent of the votes, it’s a pretty big win. There’s some scepticism about it, including Mr. Hasanli saying it was a real election. it was fairly corrupt, Mr. Hasanli says he didn’t get enough air time, a lot of stations and so forth in Azerbaijan are mostly government-controlled. Is it a fair criticism, what he is saying?
– Not really, let me touch upon a couple of points. First of all, indeed 85 percent is high figure. I would say it’s a convincing win, but it’s not surprising. Every poll, every survey conducted in Azerbaijan has shown a very clear advantage of the incumbent president Ilkham Aliyev. The difference was minor, this is not a surprising outcome.
– So basically, we saw it was coming?
– Yes. I think, as one of my friends here said, we would be surprised to see any different outcome. Everybody knew that president Aliyev is popular, he conduct policy which brings prosperity to our people. In a way election is of course electing a particular person, in this case an incumbent president, but it’s also in a way a referendum on the direction of the country and I think that is even more important that the people have more or less endorsed Azerbaijan’s successes over the recent years. Now when we come to the criticism, and one more thing before that 85 percent of the 72 percent of those who showed up actually, so we are talking about quite an adequate figure. Mr. Hassanli was not a very well-known politician before, he is a professor of history. He has rallied actively and, it’s for me to say, but think he had a significant air time on the public TV, the public watched it. We had ten candidates and the majority of them were present at the debates. Mr. Hassanli had his 6 minutes of a free time on a daily basis, that’s quite a lot actually. If you think about it, it’s much more than I can ever get on American TV to explain the significance of my country. But the question is what you do with this free time. So I think you shouldn’t blame the messenger, the problem is that there was no message. I have watched the debates, I haven’t seen any message. There was criticism, there were attacks, personal attacks, accusations. I haven’t seen new ideas, but as I said before it’s not for me to decide, not for a particular individual to decide who will be the next president of Azerbaijan. It’s a decision made by all people. Many people in Azerbaijan, an overwhelming majority, have watched the debates so they have a chance to make up their mind, to see the candidates and to cast their votes. And this is the result.
– Apparently the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe tend to agree with Mr. Hassanli. They call the vote seriously fraud. Where do you think this is coming from?
– Well, first of all, not the entire Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but the particular group and the particular individuals within this group. The OSCE mission in Baku fully endorsed the elections, they are very positive about the election, the head of the mission stated that they were open and transparent, the current chairman of the OSCE, Ukrainian foreign minister has been very positive about the election, the Council of Europe’s delegation, which is the main watchdog, came out with a positive statement, the European Union’s observation mission in Azerbaijan and the European Unionm just came up with a very reasonable statement, so there are many other observers. Perhaps there was some valid criticism in the terms that there were some shortcomings and so on, but there is no question that the elections went well. Why criticism is coming in such a biased manner from some of the OSCE observers, I don’t know exactly. I think there is a political bias inability to go beyond one’s stereotypes.
– Does the US also have this political bias, because the State Department has released a statement saying that they were quite disturbed by the election?
– The US State Department’s approach is based on the reports by the OSCE, but as you said they seem to be biased here as well because I have discussed it with my colleagues on the American side and the Azerbaijani foreign ministry issued a statement saying that this is an unacceptable form of present one’s views. I’d tell you that I’m very disappointed by what I heard from the State Department. Some criticism, if there were some shortcoming should appear, no one argues with that, but the way it is presented the way we communicate with each other should be respectful. This kind of statements are clearly biased and by the way in full contradiction with the statements by the European Union, by the Council of Europe, or in fact many many American observers who were on the ground, including former members of the Congress, governors, individuals. It’s kind of strange.
– Have you reached to the State Department or the White House?
– We have an ongoing dialogue with the State Department. We expressed our surprise and disappointment of course.
– Despite all of these things, despite what the US Department of State have said about the elections, there is still a very strong relationship, the two countries have a bilateral trade agreement, a bilateral investment treaty, US companies are involved in offshore development projects in Azerbaijan, why do think US and Azerbaijan do have such a good relationship just now? Is it just oil or is it more than that?
– Of course it’s much more than that. Azerbaijan and the United States since Azerbaijan became independent over two decades ago have been working very close together in a number of strategic fields, one of them is energy security in Europe and development of oil and gas reserves, you know one of the most important US-backed project in the region is the Baku-Tbilisi-Jeyhan pipeline, currently supported by the US government Trans-Adriatic pipeline and the Southern corridor. Of course there is a cooperation in defense. Azerbaijan is an active member of the counter-terrorism coalition, our peacekeepers served in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Kosovo. Azerbaijan is an important part of peacekeeping in Afghanistan, providing logistical support to the operation in Afghanistan and Azerbaijan has committed itself to post-2014 Afghanistan, it is one of the few countries that have done so. So we share global views, there are many other matters of course, because Azerbaijan is a very tolerant country. We have an excellent example of inter-cultural dialogue, we have a strong Jewish community. We are very proud of our Muslim identity, yet we work very close with our friend in non-Muslim countries. We promote dialogue. So I think these values, the shared values are very important for us. So I think our relations with the United States are quite strong. So when we hear criticism which goes beyond friendly advice and constructive criticism that is of course a disappointment.
– Azerbaijan seems also in an enviable position in a sense that you have good relations with the United States and also good relations with Russia. Can you talk about how you managed to established such relations while the US and Russia are often, particularly right no, at odds on many topics.
– It’s a very good question actually and it’s the question which is very important for Azerbaijan too, and it”s important for us to explain that. We do not see our relations with any country as opposed to any other country. For example, our relations with the Russian Federation are not directly linked to our relations with the United States. Both are our good friends and partners and we are trying to base our relationships on pour bilateral partnerships. The key to it is very simple. The republic of Azerbaijan is an independent country, we are going to mark the 23 anniversary of our independence on October 18. At the center of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy stands the national interest of the republic of Azerbaijan and our people. And we believe that this national interest requires that we build strong and friendly relationships with our neighbours and also with our partners beyond such as the United States. With Russia we have a long-standing relationship, we have been neighbours for centuries, we will remain neighbours, we have many common interests, we share the region, we share the sea, we share mountains, we share rivers, it is not a relationship which is going anywhere away, which is accidental, temporary, it is a long-term partnership with two independent and respectful neighbours. I have a special attitude to it myself. I am a graduate of the Moscow State University, it was a basis of my education, I am very grateful to my professors, my classmates and I am grateful to Russia for being able to be a part of Moscow’s academic community for a while and I think that thousands of Azerbaijanis share this feeling, including president Ilkham Aliyev who went to school in Moscow.
– Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a visit to Baku. Can you talk about anything that was established, was there any significant progress, what kind of topics were main for that meeting?
– I don’t have the exact specification of agreements which were signed, there was a number of agreements signed. The discussion was very positive. But let us talk a little bit and look at the most important facts of the atmosphere of the visit which I think is the most important. This symbolism of our neighbor, good friend Putin visiting Azerbaijan and demonstrating his commitment to the partnership with the Republic of Azerbaijan. You could see both in the communications between the two leaders and also in the way the visit went, in the conversations with people from Azerbaijan, seeing the Old City, the atmosphere was just very warm and hospitable. And it reflects the fact that we are neighbors, we are partners, we have a lot in common. I think it was a very good sign. Symbolically I think it mattered a lot – that Putin made that step.
– Did you ever get any pressure as Azerbaijan representative here in the US in regard of your country’s relationship to Russia?
– No. Actually I think our American friends appreciate Azerbaijan’s constructive relations with Russia and pragmatic relations with Russia. They understand it is in the interest of the region as a whole and, in fact, in the interest of the United States to have Azerbaijan and Russia working as partners on issues in the region. They also understand, I think it is important, we talked about it, that at the root of our politics and of our foreign policy once again stands up our understanding of national interest. And they understand that Azerbaijan’s position would always be based on that. And Baku will always perceive and view relations with anybody else through the prism of the national interest of our people. So they understand that Azerbaijan’s relations with Russia are both based on that and is also very pragmatic, just as with anybody else
– But some issues often threaten to divide relationships. For example, I have to imagine there is a lot of pressure in regards to Syria. This is the place where Russia and the US are far apart. And you are closer to the region.
– Well, Azerbaijan now is the President of the UN Security Council. We have endorsed the US-Russia agreement on Syria, voted on the resolution. On the issues of that global scale… Being a part of the UN Security Council is a great achievement for a country like Azerbaijan. Few nations of our age, let’s say… It is the recognition of Azerbaijan’s significance but it is also a good learning experience for us. I think, Azerbaijan has studied very carefully. It takes its global responsibilities very seriously. We work both with the American and the Russian side and, most importantly, with the nations in the region. It matters for the Middle East to see what happens.
I think we take a very long-term view that the people of Syria should have a peaceful future which would provide for reconciliation and the territorial integrity and stability of Syria. I think it is very important. Of course, in this particular case we share the concerns that many people have about the potential extremism in Syria. And we wish everybody to be mindful of the benefits of short-term motivations and the support of the radical groups that could actually have long-term consequences.
– After the information that Bashar Assad commits chemical weapon attack on the rebel forces?
– I cannot judge that. The UN observations said that there was an attack but they did not say who committed the attack. We know that the attack occurred. It is not up to me to make that assessment. But I think that the international committee has seen … Let me put it that way. Whatever was the origin of the attack, it is clear that there should be no chemical weapons in Syria. They should not be used.
– I am wondering if Azerbaijan because of the nature of its geography and also because of the nature of its role in the UN plays kind of a mediator.
– I don’t know if you could call Azerbaijan a mediator. Let me put it that way. Azerbaijan plays a role as constructive as possible being a member of an international community. If this contributes to mitigating the existing problems, then we will be happy.
– How much of Azerbaijan’s economy rests of oil production?
– I don’t have the figure right here, but it is a very high number because it is a high-value commodity. Actually, it sounds more dramatic than it is. Any high-value commodity would be dominant in terms of economic value to the country. At the same time I haven’t told you two things that are very significant. The government is spending a lot of effort and resources to promote the non-oil and non-energy sector of the economy. Azerbaijan’s Investment Oil Fund is using its money quite significantly in that direction. The other thing is that the growth in the non-oil sector is significant and increasing every year. In fact, the most significant growth has been in the non-oil sector
– Besides the current type of oil production, I understand that there is a question about developing some hydraulic fracturing in the country.
– At this point this might be the case. But we are mostly looking at the offshore gas resources. Azerbaijan’s gas resources are enormous, especially the offshore field Shah-Deniz, one of the largest in the world. Shah-Deniz is the basis for the southern corridor to Europe which will be expanded to the Transadriatic pipeline.
– I understand that there is a huge, huge development project going on right now in Baku turning what was called the Black City into the White City. It strikes me that maybe Azerbaijan is following another very oil-rich country of Qatar in kind of these massive infrastructural projects. What is the plan? What is the intention?
– Oh, it is the first time somebody compares Baku to Qatar because mostly when people come to Baku they compare it to Paris.
– Really? Now I definitely have to visit.
– You should definitely visit. The White City is a very ambitious and very successful project. There are several infrastructural projects in Azerbaijan – highways, railways, a great expansion of the port to be the largest port on the Caspian, the expansion of the airport, Azerbaijan diplomatic academy, the greenest campus in Eurasia now built in Baku. I think, going back to when you asked me why is Aliyev so popular… I think it is because Azerbaijan’s resources are used for the benefit of our people. The city of Baku has always been a beautiful city. But today Baku is unbelievable. If you go there, you will be amazed by how clean it is, how new it is. It also combines new and old. And here, I think, there is a bit of a difference with Qatar. The construction of the city began already in the 1900s and Baku remains a historic place in addition to being a new place. A combination of history and modernity is what makes Baku so special.
The Black City that I referred to was actually the old center of the oil industry right from the nineteenth century. The area you referred to as “Black City” is not really historical. It is more industrial part. So the clean-up operation, building new facilities there, building a new city there is a part of the Azerbaijani government’s commitment not only to the development but also to the ecological improvement of the conditions. When I refer to historical part, I refer to the Old City of Baku, building of different areas of Azerbaijan and Baku in particular which represent our historic heritage and are of historic value. The area of the White City is going to be a very good project. For instance, if you go along the Caspian Sea promenade, we call it Boulevard… It used to be short, now it is much longer, it includes the venue where the Eurovision song contest was held. Chrystal Hall is now one of the best facilities for music performances in Europe, which speaks for itself. Baku plans to host the European Olympics in 2015. There is one of the tallest flags in the world, it used to be the tallest. The city has changed a lot. You should visit.
– When it comes to the US-Azerbaijan relations or Russia-Azerbaijan relations, what is the next step? What does Azerbaijan and you as the Ambassador here want to achieve in the future, near future perhaps? What you hope can be achieved?
– First of all, it is the ongoing dialogue. And I think we should continue that dialogue, both with the US and Russia. One area where both Russia and the US are engaged along with France is the OSCE mediating mission in the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. So I think the most important contribution and the most important issue which could be addressed both by the American and the Russian side is to help resolve this conflict.
– Can you tell more about the conflict a little bit? It is definitely not well-known to an average American.
– I hope it will not get too well-known because of the hostility. We don’t want to see it… You know that as a result of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan a significant part of Azerbaijan’s territory is now occupied by Armenia, people have been displaced, it led to the humanitarian tragedy on Azerbaijani side and illegal occupation. But it also led to the self-isolation and economic hardship on Armenian side. We hope that with the renewed push on both sides by America and Russia that are both co-chairs of this process we will see some movement towards peace. Our people need to return to their native lands. Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity should be restored. We want to see communication in the region, we want to see development. And we want Armenia to be a part of the region. But first it has to move towards peace. Without that it would be impossible.
– Was this a topic when President Putin visited Baku?
– I wasn’t present at the conversation. But once again – Russia is a co-chair. It has voluntarily taken some responsibility for mediating the conflict. Just as the USA and France.
Voice of Russia