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The people of Azerbaijan want long-lasting peace and prosperity

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Despite the formal end of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, many problems still persist, including the plight of Azerbaijanis who were forced from their homes by the long-standing bitter conflict between the two sides, writes Martin Banks.

Another major unresolved problem are the many mines which still litter the entire landscape, posing a deadly and constant threat to the local population.

These, and other issues which have resurfaced just this week, highlight the fragility of a Russian-brokered ceasefire that halted six weeks of fighting between Armenian and Azeri forces towards the end of last year.

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The recent military confrontation including Armenia and Azerbaijan, which raged unabated for six weeks, has caused casualties, damages and displacement of the local population.

The fighting pushed thousands to flee their homes for safety, of which some remain displaced and will not be able to return to their homes in the long-term. The hostilities have brought damage to livelihoods, houses and public infrastructure. Moreover, many areas have been left with mines and other unexploded ordnances, bringing significant risks for the civilian population.

Despite the ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan on 9 November 2020, the humanitarian situation, further worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, remains of concern.

The conflict first escalated into war in 1991 with an estimated 30,000 people were killed and many more were displaced.

Fierce fighting erupted again on 27 September last year, with thousands thought to have been killed. Azerbaijan's military retook the territories that had been occupied since the early 1990s.

But the many of Azerbaijan's IDPs (internally displaced persons) who vowed to return  to their homes had little any idea what they'd be returning to.

Many of the homes they left decades ago - and more recently - are now gutted ruins and the scars of the expulsions and displacement run deep. As this could affect as many one million Azerbaijani people, each with a tragic and deeply personal tale to tell, the task of re-homing them is a sizeable one.

But, even so, last year’s liberation of Karabakh and surrounding regions of Azerbaijan from Armenia’s occupation demands urgent and immediate resolution to one of the world’s  biggest ever  displacement of people.

Forced displacement in Azerbaijan was a consequence of the military aggression by Armenia conducted in the territories of Azerbaijan in the beginning of the 1990s.

More than a million Azerbaijanis were forcefully displaced from their native lands, among them hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees who fled from Armenia.

All forcefully displaced people in Azerbaijan were temporarily settled in more than 1,600 heavily populated settlements in 12 tented camps.

Last year’s unrest resulted a further 84,000 persons being forced to temporarily leave their home.  These include 85 displaced families in Tartar region of Azerbaijan.

The situation in Azerbaijan is notable for several reasons. The first is that, in a country of a little over 10 million citizens (7 million during the displacement), Azerbaijan hosts one of the world’s largest per capita displaced populations.

 Another unique feature is that IDPs in the country enjoy the same rights as other citizens and do not experience discrimination. Azerbaijan has also assumed full responsibility for improving living conditions of the lDPs.

 In fact, since the late 1990s, the government has made significant progress in improving living conditions of the forcefully displaced population, providing 315,000 people living in dire conditions with temporarily homes in the newly established settlements.

Another crucial issue to be resolved is Armenia’s refusal to submit the maps of mined areas (formularies) in the recently liberated territories to the Azerbaijani side.

The immediate danger this poses was seen in the short period following the signing of the trilateral statement last November when more than 100 Azerbaijan citizens became victims of mine explosions, among them lDPs.

After three decades of conflict everyone agrees that it is vital to clear these territories from mines and other unexploded ordnances.

Information about their location is seen as an absolute necessity to save human lives and accelerate post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction processes.

It is also necessary to restore the cities and other settlements totally destroyed during the conflict and create necessary conditions for voluntary, safe and dignified return of the lDPs to their native lands.

For over 25 years, Azerbaijan has sought diplomatic negotiations for the peaceful resolution of the conflict with Armenia.

The unconditional and safe return of Azerbaijani displaced population has also been confirmed in dozens of resolutions and decisions of the UN General Assembly, Security Council, OIC, PACE, OSCE and the European Court of Human Rights.

As far back as 2014 the Special Rapporteur on human rights of lDPs of the UN acclaimed the Government of Azerbaijan for its dedication to the issue.

Despite the hardships being suffered by IDPs, there is still some good news.

Take, for example, the successful return to something like normality for one wrecked village in Azerbaijan, Jojug Marjanly, which has seen 150 families to return to their homes after 23 long, painful years.

This is something thousands of other Azerbaijani people hope to do in the coming months and years.

Azerbaijan is now, understandably, looking to the international community, including the EU, to put pressure on Armenia to cooperate on eliminating the humanitarian consequences of its activities in the formerly occupied territories of Azerbaijan.

The European Commission, for its part, has agreed to contribute €10 million in humanitarian aid to help civilians affected by the recent conflict. This brings EU assistance to people in need, since the start of the hostilities in September 2020, to around €17m.

Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič told this site the humanitarian situation in the region continues to require attention, with the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbating the impact of the conflict.

“The EU is substantially increasing its support to help people affected by the conflict to meet their basic needs and to rebuild their lives."

Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, added that the EU will work towards a more comprehensive conflict transformation and long-term socio-economic recovery and resilience of the region.

EU funding will help to provide emergency assistance including food, hygiene and household items, multi-purpose cash and healthcare. It will also cover protection assistance, including psychosocial support, education in emergency and ensure early recovery assistance through livelihood support.

The assistance aims to benefit the most vulnerable conflict-affected people, including displaced persons, returnees and host communities.

A commission spokesman told this site: “Funding will also ensure humanitarian de-mining in populated areas and provide mine risk education to affected people.”

An Azerbaijan government source said: “The three decades war in the territory of Azerbaijan is over. The people of Azerbaijan want long-lasting peace and prosperity in the region. All necessary humanitarian measures for alleviating human suffering caused by 30 years of conflict should be taken.”

Azerbaijan

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.

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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Azerbaijan keeping strong in achieving '2030 Agenda' in South-Caucasus despite challenges

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As being one of the rarest countries Azerbaijan achieved positive results at the successful implementation of “Millennium Development Goals” of UN under the supremacy of great leader Heydar Aliyev from 2000, and for the contribution to tolerance, multiculturalism, stimulating and assuring gender equality, diminishing poverty in a short term, retaining health of people, raising education standards of population, ameliorating environment, writes Mazahir Afandiyev (pictured), member of the Milli Majlis of the Azerbaijan Republic.

Mazahir Afandiyev

Azerbaijan met many of the MDGs, including halving extreme poverty and hunger (reached in 2008), achieving universal primary education (attained in 2008), eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education and reducing the spread of certain deceases. That is the main reason the President of Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and our country were gratified with “South-South” award in 2015 due to policies that aimed to realize MDGs successfully.

This award is considered one of the essential awards that is introduced to the countries made significant progress at the realisation of MDGs.

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In October 2016, the President of Azerbaijan signed a decree establishing the National Coordination Council for Sustainable Development (NCCSD) chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister to also become an active participant of 2030 Agenda.  This marks a significant step towards integrating Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into national development agenda in Azerbaijan. Policy documents and roadmaps have been developed within NCCSD has already supported Azerbaijan's development trajectory to support its ambitions toward SDGs.

As a result of intensive consultations with various stakeholders within and outside of the government, 17 SDGs, 88 targets and 119 indicators were deemed a priority for Azerbaijan. Due consideration is given to the “Leaving no one behind” pledge of the 2030 Agenda and the government will serve to improve the economic and social welfare of the country as a whole, including everyone living in our country, in the spirit of strengthened global solidarity with a special focus on addressing the needs of underprivileged sections of society.  Azerbaijan has already submitted 2 Voluntary National Review (VNR) on the country’s Sustainable Development Goals at High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) at the UN headquarters in New York, USA.

Azerbaijan is the first country in the region and CIS area to submit its third Voluntary National Review (VNR). The establishment of a just, equitable and inclusive model of sustainable development for everyone is one of the key priorities for the Republic of Azerbaijan, mentioned in the 3rd VNR. The National Coordination Council on Sustainable Development and the Ministry of Economy lead VNR process with the support of UNDP country office through the consultation with various stakeholders including the parliament, line ministries, public institutions, NGOs, private sector and academic institutions.   

Azerbaijan is entering a strategic phase in this new post-pandemic and post-conflict era which spans from 2021 to 2030. Acknowledging global trends and challenges, the Government of Azerbaijan sets the country's long-term development vector and pathways to socio-economic and environmental development through five corresponding national priorities (approved by Presidential decree) for the subsequent decade. These priorities aligned with Azerbaijan commitments under the 2030 Agenda.

Despite the challenges to monitor and measure the success of global goals, the reports introduced by countries allow to follow the implementation process in international levels. The Sustainable Development Report 2021, one of the most important report to monitor the implementation processes, is the seventh edition of independent quantitative report on the progress of UN Member States towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The report for 2021 has a special focus on the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the decade of action for the SDGs.

Azerbaijan scored the best results among Caspian Sea and South Caucasus countries evaluated in the Sustainable Development Report 2021, has ranked 55th among 165 countries with an overall index score of 72.4, to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) adopted by the United Nations. The country of 10 million people demonstrated a strong commitment to all seventeen goals given the overall indicators outlined in the document. I also would like to mention that this index is about 70.9 among countires in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Beside major succes in implementation of SDGs in the world, global crises caused by the pandemic of COVID-19, since early 2020, can compromise the world commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Sustainable Development Report 2021 clearly shows a unique pattern of interconnectedness between SDGs that can be related to COVID-19 consequences.  The SDG4 (Quality  Education) is the main goal has decreased in success in the world and Azerbaijan too.

Nevertheelss, as the result of President Ilham Aliyev’s strategic view of the fight against coronavirus, Azerbaijan is in track and maintaining achievement in SDG1 (No Poverty) and SDG6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), also moderately improving on SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being), SDG7(Affordable and Clean Energy), SDG 13 (Climate Action), and SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities).

Moreover, I would also like to note that Azerbaijan is the most sensitive country in the South Caucasus to the negative consequences of climate change in terms of the diversity and geographical location of its climate zones. In this regard, the achievement of SDG13 (Climate Action), which is closely linked to all other goals of the agenda, is an important goal for our country, and failure here may hinder the achievement of SDG6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) and SDG15 (Life on Land).

Unfortunately, Armenia’s three-decade occupation extensively damaged the ecosystem, wildlife and natural resources in and around the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Armenians also resorted to large-scale acts of ecological terror in regions they had to leave under the trilateral November peace deal that stipulated the return of Azerbaijan’s occupied territories. Moreover, every year, Armenia constantly polluted transboundary water resources with chemicals and biological substances. This, in turn, undermines the success of the SDG6. 

In 2006 the UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/60/285 on “The situation in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan” had also called for an assessment of and counteraction to short and long-term environmental degradation of the region. Also, in 2016, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted Resolution No.2085 titled “Inhabitants of frontier regions of Azerbaijan are deliberately deprived of water”, demanding the immediate withdrawal of Armenian armed forces from the concerned region and allowing access by independent engineers and hydrologists to carry out a detailed survey on the spot. All these facts shows the general damage on environment of Azerbaijan as a result of illegal occupation for years.

Nevertheless, 30 years of ecological terror have ended with the liberation of the Azerbaijani village of Sugovushan, and work is underway to ensure ecological balance and create a sustainable, clean environment in the Tartar, Goranboy and Yevlakh regions.

As a result of the victory of the victorious Azerbaijani Army, 30 years of illegal occupation were ended, thus, for the first time in years, our country has made progress towards the goal of SDG16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions). 

I am confident that as a result of the peace and stability to be established by our country in the South Caucasus, permanent cooperation (SDG17) will be established, and the goals in common to the region will be successfully implemented.

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South Caucasus: Commissioner Várhelyi visits Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia

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Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi (pictured) will travel to the South Caucasus from today (6 July) to 9 July, visiting Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. This will be Commissioner's first mission to countries of the region. It follows the adoption of the Economic and Investment Plan, underpinning a renewed agenda for recovery, resilience and reform for the Eastern Partnership countries. During his meetings with political authorities, business and civil society actors, Commissioner Várhelyi will present the Economic and Investment Plan for the region and its flagship initiatives per country. He will also discuss key issues of bilateral relations with each of the three countries. The Commissioner will confirm the EU's solidarity with partner countries in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Georgia, Commissioner Várhelyi will meet with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, Foreign Minister David Zakaliani, Chairman of the Parliament Kakhaber Kuchava and representatives of political parties as well as with Patriarch Ilia II among others. In Azerbaijan, he will have meetings with Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov, Head of the Presidential Administration Samir Nuriyev, Minister of Economy Mikayil Jabbarov and Minister of Energy Parviz Shahbazov among others. In Armenia, Commissioner Várhelyi will meet with President Armen Sarkissian, Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Acting Deputy Prime Minister Grigoryan, and Patriarch Karekin II among others. Audiovisual coverage of the visit will be available on EbS.

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