"It is difficult to be optimistic about the new era"

The opinion has been formulated  in society that a new period will begin after the elections. In an interview with local TV channels in January this year, President Ilham Aliyev also said that a new era would begin in the country. In recent days, deputies and officials have been repeating this thesis.

What does the president mean when he talks about a new era? Indeed, what steps do we need to take to start a new era?

The head of the Open Azerbaijan Initiative, Zohrab Ismail, shares his thoughts on all this in an interview with ASTNA.

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Question: What did the president mean by talking about a new era?

Answer: There were no innovations in the early presidential elections held on February 7. Just as during the previous parliamentary and presidential elections, the elections were called unexpectedly, and the main political opponents did not participate in them. What new period can we talk about, given that the same person has been in power for more than 20 years? Let us ask ourselves, do the new era, as the government imagines it, and the new era, as we understand it, have the same meaning? The President has already appointed the old Prime Minister Ali Asadov to the post of Prime Minister. How can a new period begin with the Prime Minister, from whom we have not yet heard any meaningful opinion about the economy, reforms, and the future of Azerbaijan?

I think that, speaking of a new era, President Ilham Aliyev may mean the period after the full provision of the territorial integrity of the country. That is, the government already fully controls Karabakh. That is, in the so-called new period, the restoration of Karabakh will be a priority. Because from a political point of view, there is no reason to think that a new era has begun. We do not see any signs of this.

Question: This idea has raised expectations among the public. We are witnessing encouraging performances. How should the new era begin and what should it contain most of all?

Answer: Society is hungry for innovations, and therefore people expect big changes from every minor positive message they hear. But in any country, there must be conditions for big changes. A new era may begin in any country due to factors such as an economic or political crisis, changes in the region, and the coming to power of new forces. Let us look at these factors using the example of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has absolute political power, and economic problems are solved at the expense of oil and gas revenues. And geopolitical factors also do not correspond to the beginning of a new era. Russia's aggression is being fought in the region. The end of the Russian-Ukrainian war is not yet in sight.

The Azerbaijani public believes that if the country has already resolved the Karabakh issue and the territorial integrity is ensured, then this creates the basis for economic and political changes. This is due to the fact that for many years a significant part of society has seen the main problems of Azerbaijan in the occupation of Karabakh. But it was an illusion. Because the occupation of Karabakh by Armenia was only one of the main problems faced by Azerbaijan. There are deep economic problems in Azerbaijan, and the rule of law is under threat. Currently, there are no special expectations regarding the change of the political system in Azerbaijan, the establishment of democracy and the protection of human rights. At best, there are expectations of economic changes, especially when you consider that oil production in the country is declining from year to year, and the volume of natural gas production, although approaching its peak, still cannot compensate for the decline in oil revenues. Therefore, in the next few years, the economic problems in the country will become more pronounced. In 2015-2016, we experienced such problems due to the fall in oil prices alone.

Question: People often complain not about the President, but about the government and officials. Is it possible that in the new era we will witness more personnel changes? And is this enough for a new era?

Answer: The Prime Minister has not changed. There have been changes in the leadership of one ministry and a committee. Personnel changes cannot be considered a reform and a new era about which you are talking. The new era cannot be expressed in two words. It is 2024 now, and if the stage that you call the new era was to begin, it should have manifested itself in economic policy, in this year's state budget.

Question: Many experts propose mostly economic, managerial and constitutional reforms. Is all this enough? Is it possible to achieve successful results in the field of democracy and human rights with their help?

Answer: As already mentioned, there must be prerequisites for reforms. Talks about changing the Constitution began shortly after the 44-day war. The reason for this was the need to provide Karabakh Armenians with certain opportunities for local self-government. It was noted that, for example, if Khankendi is currently managed by a municipal-type system, its preservation may be necessary during the integration process. And this should be allowed by the legislation of Azerbaijan. These were just considerations. After the anti-terrorist operations in Karabakh last September, these considerations lost their relevance. Or the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic has broad powers, and this creates problems for the current management system. But even here they found a way out in a different reading of the laws.

Although the Constitution requires that elections to the Milli Majlis be held in November this year, nothing is officially said about this. It is unlikely that three elections and one referendum will be held within one year.

But certain economic changes may become necessary. The current decrease in the flow of oil and gas dollars entering the country creates certain risks for ensuring the state budget in the future. Therefore, the economy must grow at a faster pace to compensate for the losses. However, the government claims that the non-oil sector is steadily developing, and is trying to show this in numbers. However, this growth is not reflected in exports. In 2023, non-oil exports accounted for only 10% of total exports. As the oil and gas sector shrinks, we will increasingly feel this problem. We will need an economy that can export finished products so that foreign currency enters the country.

Question: What needs to be done to conduct cardinal and fundamental reforms in Azerbaijan?

Answer: Do the authorities need the reforms that you call cardinal? We have reviewed the conditions for large-scale reforms. The authorities are still doing everything to prolong their existence. And they are also trying to solve socio-economic problems with their extreme aggravation.

For example, how it happened with compulsory health insurance. Is there an order in society, a demand for deep reforms? Regardless of the reason, this social order is also not felt. True, there is discontent, but the situations and institutions that turn this discontent into a social order are weak. Therefore, it is difficult to be optimistic about the new era.

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