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Azerbaijan's Achievement

As host of this year's Eurovision Song Contest, my country can showcase the progress it has made since independence.

Azerbaijan's pride in hosting the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, which has the largest television audience of any non-sporting event in the world, reflects far more than a love of music. It signals my country's re-emergence into the international community and enables us to showcase our achievements since independence.

Azerbaijan stands at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, but contact with non-Soviet Europe was almost impossible during the Soviet era. Few in the West were even aware of Azerbaijanis' dreams of national Independence. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Azerbaijan was plunged into a war with Armenia, which lasted six years and claimed 30,000 lives.

The conflict resulted in the occupation of nearly a fifth of our territory and nearly a million internally displaced persons and refugees. These years were accompanied by hyperinflation, near-economic collapse and fierce political infighting. As Azerbaijan tottered on the brink of disintegration, few external observers believed that it could survive as a fully independent state.

Today, after 20 years of independence, Azerbaijan has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with average annual GDP growth of 20% between 2003 and 2008. Prudent economic management and the creation of a national oil fund have allowed us to weather the economic storms since 2008 better than most. While the credit ratings of some Western countries have tumbled, Standard & Poor's recently upgraded ours.

Azerbaijan's achievement has been to combine rapid economic advancement—including steady growth in the non-energy sector—with economic and political stability. We have now embarked on an ambitious program of economic diversification.

Azerbaijan's landmark 2011 agreement with the European Union to build a pipeline that will take Caspian gas to European markets has been key to this progress. So too has my country's relationship with Britain; half of all foreign direct investment in Azerbaijan comes from Britain, and by far the biggest expatriate community in Baku is British.

Meanwhile, our record for stability and sustainable economic development, along with our promotion of religious freedom and our robust support of the West in the war against terrorism, were key factors behind our successful bid to join the U.N. Security Council in 2012.

To be sure, Azerbaijan has its problems, not least ongoing corruption. But this is also a global phenomenon, and it is disappointing that Azerbaijan's important breakthroughs in the fight against corruption have gone unreported. For example, Azerbaijan was the first country to sign up to the British-inspired Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which ensures that all revenues and spending relating to the energy sector are openly declared. Clear evidence that Azerbaijan has been taking its EITI commitments seriously came in October 2010, when it was placed ninth out of 41 energy-producing countries listed for their openness in the Revenue Watch Index. That puts Azerbaijan two places ahead of the U.S.

Through a national anticorruption drive launched in January last year, scores of corrupt public officials, including those in top positions, have been punished or sacked, while new systems for collecting motoring fines and customs payments have drastically reduced opportunities for graft.

Azerbaijan has also come under fire from some Western NGOs for its human-rights record and for the pace of democratic change. Strangely, the critics have ignored what undoubtedly constitutes one of the greatest violations of human rights in modern times: the violent displacement of the Azerbaijani population from Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding districts in the war with Armenia.

Twenty years after being forced to flee their homes, these million or so forgotten people wait patiently to return, not knowing whether their homes, villages and holy places have survived Armenian occupation. Despite four U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for the unconditional and immediate withdrawal of Armenian military forces from the occupied territories, Armenia has not conceded an inch.

Although the conflict remains unresolved, I consider Armenia's decision not to join the Eurovision Song Contest to be a mistake. This event should be about music, not political gestures.

Azerbaijan's democracy remains a work in progress, to be carried on by future generations. Each parliamentary and presidential election has been an improvement over its predecessor. Opposition newspapers can and do now criticize the government on a daily basis. Azerbaijanis take part in lively political discussion on social media. The right of assembly is guaranteed, and in common with a number of other states, including European countries, we require that political demonstrations take place in authorized areas. We continue to believe that the best cradle for democracy is a stable, functioning state.

Azerbaijan's critics have likewise misunderstood the situation of the Baku residents who have been moved to make way for the Crystal Hall in which Eurovision will take place. Much of the construction is taking place on the site of a former naval base. Those required to move lived in houses that were old and in poor condition and that, in any case, would have soon had to be demolished. All have been offered compensation significantly above market rates.

Ordinary Azerbaijanis understand all of this better than some Western observers. A survey conducted last year by Populus, the British polling company, showed that 70% of Azerbaijanis believe that their country has improved in terms of freedom and democracy over the last 15 years, while nearly 80% supported the general direction of policy.

This may not always garner world attention or praise. But for my country, it's something to sing about.

—Mr. Elmar Mammadyarov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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