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#Azerbaijan president back in power with landslide

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Azerbaijan’s incumbent president Ilham Aliyev has been swept back into power with the overwhelming backing of 86% of the electorate, writes Tony Mallett in Baku.

Exit polls after the vote closed on 11 April estimated totals of between 83-86% in the incumbent’s favour and these were effectively confirmed this morning (12 April) by the country’s Central Election Commission.

While these are officially preliminary results, they represent some 92% of votes cast.

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Countrywide turnout was around 75% of the more than five million citizens eligible to vote, with Aliyev’s nearest rivals polling around 3% each.

The winner will now begin his fourth consecutive term as the nation’s head of state.

Some 800 observers were invited by the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan, including a delegation from the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), the third-largest grouping in the European Parliament.

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Speaking to journalists today, ECR delegation leader and Polish MEP Kosma Zlotowski said: “It is our evaluation that the elections themselves were conducted in accordance with the national legislation.

“Eight candidates ran for the office of president, ensuring a politically diverse and competitive environment.”

ECR member David Campbell Bannerman said: “We didn’t see anything that concerned us.”

The British MEP also praised the measures used to identify voters and guard against inaccuracies, saying: “I was impressed with the security measures – ID cards, left-thumb prints and the fact that they had to sign after voting. There were no postal or proxy votes like in some European elections, which can pose security problems.”

Asked whether the UK had anything to learn from the system in Azerbaijan, Campbell Bannerman said that this was a two-way learning process but that security methods were “better than in the UK in terms of identifying actual voters”.

He also said that the enthusiasm to vote among Azerbaijanis was noticeable.

The ECR group pointed out that some political parties boycotted the elections which the delegation felt had “affected the inclusive nature of the process, as voters were encouraged to refrain from participating”.

The election took place several months ahead of schedule due to a presidential decree made public on 5 February. The declaration drew criticism from opponents who claimed it gave them little time to prepare for a ballot.

The original election date was set for 17 October, 2018.

Another group of observers, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA) and the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States (Turkic Council) said in a joint statement: “The mission did not find any evidence of intervention of administrative or law enforcement authorities in the work at the polling stations.”

It added: “All necessary administrative measures were taken to ensure the free will of the people during the voting day.”

The statement continued: "We affirm that the election of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan was open, transparent and competitive, and complied with the national legislation of the Republic of Azerbaijan and generally accepted international election standards."

Azerbaijan is predominantly Muslim but secular under its constitution. A survey  conducted before the election, undertaken by pollsters Arthur J. Finkelstein and Associates, indicated that the primary concern of voters is national security and that Aliyev is seen as particularly strong in a country surrounded by the powerhouses of Russia, Iran, and Turkey and partially occupied by Armenia.

The Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories – which has resulted in more than a million displaced Azerbaijanis – was a key topic for voters with the majority believing that Aliyev is “keeping the country safe” and “representing the nation well internationally”.

The occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh has been roundly condemned by the international community and the UN, which passed four resolutions calling for the unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops from the Azerbaijani territories. The conflict between the two countries began when Armenia made territorial claims in 1988.

George Birnbaum, who is executive director of the Arthur J Finkelstein & Associates polling company, said last week that the “positive recognition for the job the president is doing is the reason he has the electoral support of the nation”.

Independent of the USSR since 1991, the Republic of Azerbaijan has been ruled by Aliyev since 2003. He was preceded in the role by his father, Heydar, who was president for a decade.

In recent years the Republic has worked hard to sell its ‘European’ credentials. Despite some human-rights concerns, this effort has been largely supported by Europe and has seen the country host various events such as the Eurovision song contest and major European sports tournaments.

Azerbaijan will also see its capital, Baku, act as a key football venue for the Euro 2020 football tournament and will host the Formula One Grand Prix on the city’s streets at the end of April.

Azerbaijan

Cultural dialogue is the key to sustain the peace

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Dating back to the early 1990s the armed aggression by Armenia against Azerbaijan has resulted in occupation of almost one fifth of the territory of Azerbaijan. The occupation was accompanied by massive ethnic cleansing of approximately 1 million Azerbaijanis from these territories and commission of other serious crimes – writes writes Mezahir Efendiyev, a Member of Millli Majlis of the Republic of Azerbaijan

On November 10, all news heads wrote: “After six weeks of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia, a cease-fire agreement was signed between the two conflicting sides. Azerbaijan won a huge victory”.

However, the real victory was to end the 30-year-long occupation of Armenia and liberated Azerbaijan's territory. The Republic of Azerbaijan finally steadily and inexorably liberated its homeland from foreign occupation and restored sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

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The cease-fire agreement came shortly after the liberation of Shusha, the historical, second-largest city in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, by the Azerbaijani armed forces, and the deal took effect on Tuesday at 1 p.m. local time. There was no way out for Armenia but to accept the defeat, as Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian pointed out. The Armenian government, therefore, admitted to defeat and officially ended the conflict.

In 1993 the UN Security Council adopted resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884, condemning the use of force against Azerbaijan and occupation of its territories and reaffirming the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and the inviolability of its internationally recognized borders. In those resolutions, the Security Council reaffirmed that the Nagorno-Karabakh region is inalienable part of Azerbaijan and called for immediate, full and unconditional withdrawal of the occupying forces from all occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Other international organizations adopted a similar position however for many years Armenia has been ignoring this position of the international community.

Instead, in 2019 the Minister of Defense of Armenia had promulgated a new aggressive military doctrine “new war for new territories”.

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Moreover, the Minsk Group, the activities of which have become known as the Minsk Process, spearheaded the OSCE's efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It was co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation, and the United States. However, the OSCE’s peace effort in Nagorno-Karabakh was outdated and unhelpful. The way for real reconciliation and reconstruction is dead. For 30 years, the Minsk Group failed to produce results; the recent victory by Azerbaijani military forces—ending Armenia’s occupation—leaves it with nothing left to do.

This definitely allows to us to claim the victory as another historic importance of Azerbaijan, realizing 4 resolution on Karabakh Conflict all alone. That is, the 30-year occupation of the Azerbaijani lands and wait for justice ended by the first day of December 2020.

The peace deal, which was declared by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has historic importance and amounts to the capitulation of Armenia.

During 44 days of active military operations, the armed forces of Armenia committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, such as deliberate targeting of densely populated residential areas, including those located far away from the conflict zone with ballistic missiles, use of prohibited weapons, like cluster munitions and phosphorus bombs, which constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. As a result of direct and indiscriminate attacks carried out by the armed forces of Armenia between 27 September and 9 November 2020, 101 Azerbaijani civilians, including 12 children were killed, 423 civilians were wounded. Serious damage was inflicted upon civilian infrastructure, public and private property.

The 27 years illegal occupation of the territories of Azerbaijan by Armenian has also resulted in destruction of religious objects, museums, theatres, churches, schools, ancient caves, and even private homes which we have preserved for centuries. Cities, such as Agdam, Gubadli, Fizuli, Zangelan, Jabrail have been turned into Hiroshima-style ruins. Agricultural lands have been turned into mine fields now. Massive looting to the forests by Armenians is also taking place which results with “eco-terrorism”. Azerbaijani historical caves and excavation cites have been ruined.

 After all, the dirty claim by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan “Artsakh is Armenia, and that’s it,” finally showed up as a dirty lie. After the victory, not only Azerbaijani army, but all world has witnessed how the rich and most prosperous regions of Karabakh, territory claimed by Armenia, were destroyed by Armenia. By together Azerbaijani government representatives, international press and diplomats from more than 40 embassies, located in Baku have revealed evidence of this horrible “war crime”.

Armenian occupation was not only in the territory of Karabakh, but all neighborhoud regions of Azerbaijan, in which full environment and people suffered for years. Thus, after Suqovuşan was liberated from the Azerbaijani army on Oct. 3, 2020, the Terter River, which had been without water for nearly 30 years, started to flow once again, giving life to the region.

Despite all efforts of Azerbaijan towards strengthening peace and stability in the South Caucasus to establish a new format of regional cooperation beneficial for all countries in the region, Armenia has not fulfilled its obligations arising from the international humanitarian law and the trilateral statement.

Of particular concern is Armenia’s refusal to submit the maps of mined areas (formularies) in the recently liberated territories to the Azerbaijani side as stipulated under the customary international humanitarian law. As such, United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) highlights the evidence that mine action enables post-conflict reconstruction, sustaining peace and sustainable development, while emphasizing that recent conflict trends and diminished resources present new challenges, including limited data and the shortage of the economic and public-health resources needed to respond.

Expect this refusal, Azerbaijan has been started mining search, scanning, and clearing works in the region after the liberation. After the cleaning efforts that will take around two and half years, the region will be opened for resettlement. Terter, which was declared a “military zone” until May 2021, will also gain a “civilian” status after Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev’s expedition to the region. Most countries, including Turkey and international organizations also contribute and take active role to the resettlement efforts of the region.

In the last visit of the president of the European Council, Mr. Charles Michel, he mentioned: “one third of EU member states consider Azerbaijan a strategic partner. I think it is a very big achievement of our government.” Thus, this shows the willingness of EU member states to resolve most of the still remaining issues on the table. This was also a promise that EU will play a very important role for a broad regional cooperation.

Today, Azerbaijan re-build the Karabakh. A restoration period is now setting in. Large-scale construction work is to be carried out. Of course, both Azerbaijani companies and invited companies from countries that are friendly to us takes active part in this work.  The restoration is as innovative as possible including solar energy panels, electricity, and wind power plants which will be installed within the scope of a smart city project. Hospitals, schools, and hotels will be built in addition to the renovation of a ruined main road.

For Azerbaijan, the another most important gain is the liberation of Shusha, known as pearl and the cultural center of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Thus, immediately after victory, President Aliyev showcased it as “Cultural Capital” of the entire region. It was “massacred” and illegally “captured” by Armenia on May 8, 1992.  

During all these “painful” years, it has been “symbol” of “human resistance”, “purity”, “dignity”, “cultural diversity” and “peaceful struggle”.

The post-war plans of Azerbaijan attach a special importance to the restoration of the cultural and religious monuments destroyed and desecrated under Armenian control. Azerbaijan was outraged by the images of the historical mosques in the Karabakh region which had been turned into pigsties over the last three decades.

There is also a popular disillusionment with the international mediators from France, the United States and Russia who previously conducted fact-finding missions in those regions but never raised the issue of the situation of those religious monuments

However, as a multi-faith country, Azerbaijan plans to restore not only the Muslim monuments but also those belonging to Christianity and other religions in the liberated territories.

UNESCO and other international organizations are invited by Azerbaijan both to assess the material damage inflicted by Armenia on the recently liberated territories and also to take part in the restoration of the cultural heritage. However, unfortunately, the invitations failed and as Mr.President mentioned we waited UNESCO for 30 years. This comes against the background of disinformation campaigns claiming that the Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh will endanger the Christian heritage in the region.

After all works done it hopes that its natural beauty, museums, castles, roads, resorts, community centers, libraries, centers of learning, science and arts will be restored not only in Shusha, but all Karabakh. The cities will be again in the hearts of people and tourists alike in the days to come because cultural is eternal and conspiracy, conflict and contradiction is always short lived. These cities will again open their arms for all visitors and turn centers for culture and multiculturalism. 

After so many years, Vagif's Poetry Days and Khari Bulbul Music Festival hold in Shusha city, the voices of music in the mountains of Karabakh proved all the world, the importance of art, culture, and peace for our motherland.

Today, A Year Passed Over “44 Days of Victory”. Considering the most recent developments in the region, it is obvious that Azerbaijan is the victor, and this victory created the new realities. Armenia will now have to accept the new realities on the ground, which reflect the legal and legitimate claims of Azerbaijan. Thus, the only way to sustain the peace and security is to normalization and rapprochement to the cooperation opportunities in the ground.

The author Mezahir Efendiyev is a Member of Millli Majlis of the Republic of Azerbaijan

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Location, location? Not any more. Israel, Azerbaijan and the globalisation of entrepreneurship

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Last month, I became the first Israeli businessman to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Azerbaijan Investment Company, the sovereign investment arm of the Azeri government, on the historic occasion of the opening of the Azerbaijan Trade and Tourism Office in Tel Aviv. The projected agreement will promote strategic cooperation in the field of investment by the Government of Azerbaijan in OurCrowd’s portfolio, while OurCrowd will encourage startups to establish a presence in Azerbaijan, writes Jon Medved.

Why is OurCrowd interested in Azerbaijan? Because it’s the future.

Our modest memorandum is a small step in the march toward the true globalization of entrepreneurship. The Azeri government has wisely seized the opportunity to be part of the innovation investment revolution.

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The entrepreneurs and the investors of the future will come not just from Silicon Valley, or Midtown Manhattan, or the City of London. They will come from anywhere, because the world has shrunk to the dimensions of a Zoom screen. The innovators from these areas are aware of the urgent issues that pose the next big challenge for the rest of the world – not just the standard problems of rich, affluent western nations where so much technology is currently located and directed.

The people who make California such a high tech hotspot are not just the local population but the newcomers who bring their skills from across the globe. More than half of the startups founded in Silicon Valley between 1995 and 2005 had at least one immigrant founder and many of its flagship brands are headed by immigrant executives. All the key figures in the development of the Moderna vaccine against Covid-19 came from outside the US. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was developed by Turkish immigrants to Germany. Innovation thrives when different cultures and educational systems encounter each other. The blending of experience and different ways of thinking produce innovative approaches to problems. The cultural mix provides the technical color that separates startups from monochrome multinationals, like the diversity that marks out boutique hotels from bland international chains.

So in this era of remote working and electronic deals, why not connect with these innovators in their home locations?

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From Menlo Park to Berlin’s Torstrasse and Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, entrepreneurship has been guided by the old real estate adage: Location, location, location. Silicon Valley became the Mecca of megabytes as the new priests of tech and their acolytes made the pilgrimage to the center of the new tech world. No longer.

Covid has redrawn the innovation map. Location really doesn’t matter anymore. There is no map – just an infinite variety of instantly accessible people with an infinite variety of skills, cultures and education. With the globalization of entrepreneurial activity, the next big companies can come from anywhere in the world.

My company is all about democratizing access to the private investing asset class. We are not just committed to helping the wealthy citizens of rich countries write checks, but to truly making access to capital global. Entrepreneurs will come from anywhere and investors should come from anywhere.

In an interconnected world, where you can complete a venture deal with Brazilian or Japanese venture funds you will never meet because it’s all done over Zoom, why not Azerbaijan – either as investors or as entrepreneurs?

From Jerusalem, we became interested in Azerbaijan because it has become such an important strategic ally of Israel and a major oil supplier. The positive and warm treatment by Azerbaijan of its small Jewish community and its ties to Israel demonstrate how Muslims and Jews, who thrived together during the Golden Age, can cooperate to forge a new future.

Central Asia, largely ignored by the business world, is a place to watch. Its strategic location, natural mineral resources, growing economic influence and fast-developing educational institutions make me think it will be the next big growth spot for tech and entrepreneurship. It represents a market that has been woefully underserved by the tech investment community. My colleague Ori Sobovitz, who heads our Government Relations team, correctly identified Azerbaijan as a timely opportunity: an oil-producing country with a sovereign wealth fund that has never invested in venture capital before.

The Israeli experience provides a useful guide for such countries to take their first steps in high-tech investment.

When I came to Israel and raised money for my first startup, there was not a single venture capital fund. Most people are not aware that the supercharged blossoming of innovation in Israel has essentially occurred in just three decades. That’s the blink of an eye. Three decades from now, alongside Silicon Valley, New York, China, Israel, London and Berlin, other countries will have caught up and be participating – including many in Africa, Latin America and Central Asia. 

We are excited to be doing this with our new friends in Azerbaijan. We hope that by helping to develop the high-tech ecosystem in Central Asia, we will also be helping the rest of the world.

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Could Azerbaijan’s Free Economic Zone catalyze the Caucasus’ prosperity?

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Over the past several decades, international commerce has seen the blooming of several important global business hubs. From Hong Kong to Singapore, to Dubai, the common denominator of all these cities was a commitment by leaders to open their economic systems to the world--and make them as inviting as possible to the rest of the globe, writes Luis Schmidt.

Now that companies and investors have seen such centers of business thrive in Asia and the Middle East, it seems that it is the Caucasus' turn to shine.

Back in May of 2020, the Azerbaijani government unveiled plans for its new free trade zone, to be called the Alat Free Economic Zone (FEZ). The 8,500,000 square meter project was announced as part of the emerging trade and logistics hub in the Alat settlement located along the Caspian Sea coast.

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Plans for Alat had been in the works for years. The law pertaining to the FEZ, delineating its special status and regulatory policies, was affirmed by the country’s parliament back in 2018. Work on the Zone’s construction began shortly thereafter.

With the opening of the FEZ to foreign business now imminent, Azerbaijan’s leadership is now inviting the world to come to Alat.

There are a few key drivers behind the brand new hub along the Caspian. The first factor is the long-term strategy adopted by the Azerbaijani government to extend the country’s economy into information industries and diversify it away from the energy sector, traditionally Azerbaijan’s most cash-generating field. “The idea of establishing the Alat Free Economic Zone is based on our policy. In particular, the work done to develop the non-oil sector in recent years has given an impetus to the establishment of this zone,” President Ilham Aliyev said in an interview with Azerbaijan Television following the groundbreaking ceremony of Alat Free Economic Zone. “We saw that investment in the non-oil sector was made more by the state than local companies. Foreign companies tended to invest more in the oil and gas sector,” said Aliyev. The president concluded he is confident the Alat project will be instrumental in expanding the non-energy sectors.

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The second important factor in the FEZ’s establishment is the creation of incentives for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into Azerbaijan’s economy. The law governing Alat’s administration provides very attractive conditions for investors. This includes a special tax and customs regime to be applied for the companies operating within the free economic zone. No value-added tax will be imposed on the goods, works, and services imported to the zone, and will also receive a full exemption from customs fees. “This is a very progressive law that fully meets the interests of both our state and investors. This is very important. Because if there were any uncertainties for investors in the legislation, of course, it would not be possible to attract them here,” President Aliyev told reporters in a July 1st interview, noting that the COVID pandemic has also increased the demand for seamless, unfettered pathways to grow companies and international business activity.

The FEZ’s framework is specifically geared toward the needs of start-ups and individual entrepreneurs. Speaking at Azerbaijan's small business confederation, the ANCE, the group’s president Mammad Musayev told listeners how essential Alat would be for developing the country’s business environment. "Work has already begun on launching the activities of the Alat FEZ, meetings with investors are being held. We are ready to devote time to every entrepreneur who wants to work with us," said Musayev.

Finally, the Alat FEZ is uniquely situated both geographically and infrastructurally, to provide a world-class business platform. The Baku International Sea Trade Port, also known as the Port of Baku, is currently the most developed structure in the Alat project. The port already has a cargo capacity in the tens of millions of tons and is still expanding. Currently, the transportation hub links Turkey to the west, with India to the south, as well as Russia and other Northern European nations. An airport to be situated alongside the zone is already in the planning stages. “The fact that the North-South and East-West transport corridors pass through the territory of Azerbaijan, as well as its proximity to large markets, will increase the economic efficiency of the FEZ and give it the opportunity to serve the markets of Central Asia, Iran, Russia, Turkey and the Middle East,” said ANCE president Musayev. Administratively, the Alat Business Services Center will provide licenses, visas, and other critical services to the firms and individuals operating in the FEZ.

The progress attained by Azerbaijan in the Alat project has shown a firm commitment to moving the country towards establishing itself as a knowledge-based economy, and further modernizing its economic system.

If it can meet its expectations, the Alat FEZ will spell an economic boom not just for Azerbaijan, but for the entire Caucasus region.

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