25 years have passed since my country regained its independence, after 71 years of Soviet occupation and tyranny. Our freedom was achieved against the odds and brutal enemies, invasions, and human tragedy.
In 1993, Heydar Aliyev became President of the democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. With strong leadership and a lifelong commitment to national service, President Aliyev took Azerbaijan from the crossroads of instability, a broken budget and infrastructure, laying the solid foundations for it to become the largest economy and most stable country of the region today. The key factors of Heydar Aliyev's success focused on expanding opportunities for private business, defining and implementing Azerbaijan’s long-term energy strategy, developing trade, encouraging unrestricted multiculturalism and building strong relationships across the region, Europe, with the United States and the State of Israel.
Following in his predecessor's footsteps, President Ilham Aliyev has undertaken great efforts to bolster national stability and economic growth. Great evidence of this is the reduction of poverty in Azerbaijan, from 50% in 2001, to the current rate of under 5% in 2016. All this has taken place while our Karabakh region remains under illegal occupation by Armenia to this very day, and while our nation is home to over 1 million Azerbaijani refugees who were subjected to brutal ethnic cleansing in Armenia and the occupied areas of Azerbaijan.
Perhaps one of the most critical factors of success and most impressive causes for celebration is what Azerbaijan has done with the idea, values and actions of positive, harmonic diversity. Home to flourishing ancient Jewish and Christian communities, our nation is 95% Muslim (70% Shia, 30% Sunni). Azerbaijan has been cited as an example to the world on how people of diverse religious backgrounds can live in tranquility and cooperation together; each an essential fabric in the national tapestry. These values have been reflected in our will and commitment to act on the side of justice, fighting against the Nazis during the World War II, while sheltering tens of thousands of Jews from Nazi persecutions, and in more recent years, following 9/11 terrorist attacks, becoming one of the first Muslim nations to provide troops and logistical support to the United States and many other nations in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan.
Despite continued invasions and occupations by neighboring Armenia – Azerbaijan is still home to a large Armenian community, who continue to live peacefully in its capital city of Baku and other major cities. The capital city also boasts an impressive, state-funded Armenian Church, which was renovated by Azerbaijani government a few years ago and houses, perfectly preserved, over 5,000 Armenian books. All these are a strong testament to the robust commitment of Azerbaijan to the ideas and values of interfaith tolerance, acceptance and peace.
During our first period of independence, from 1918-1920, we became the first secular Muslim democracy in the world. In those brief years of our initial freedom, Azerbaijan granted women the right to vote for the first time among Muslim countries, but also an entire year before suffrage was granted to women in the United States. This tradition of progress has carried over into the Azerbaijan of today, since our second achievement of independence.
Today women are represented in all branches of the government, leading important government agencies, working as judges in many different courts including the highest courts of the country (in fact, one of the Supreme Court justices is a Jewish woman), constituting a large portion of Parliament members (21 out of 125 with deputy speaker and chairs of various standing committees of the Parliament being women), holding more than half of the PhDs earned in the country, etc.
There is no other nation in the world that has pushed stereotypes and broken “glass ceilings” for women and minorities as Azerbaijan has done it; not only today when it is more expected across the globe, but for an entire century, when many democratic nations had yet to take such monumental steps toward progress.
We are proud of the fact that our success with multiculturalism is a very old quality, dating thousands of years and well before our current and also first and brief independence from 1918-1920. But perhaps even more exceptional is the fact that these longstanding values of multi-faith harmony and positive multiculturalism have become an established and highly celebrated government policy. President Ilham Aliyev declared 2016 as the Year of Multiculturalism, and throughout the year, Azerbaijan has celebrated and shared our model of interfaith and multicultural peace with the world, hosting many cultural, political and humanitarian events and participating at the highest levels of international governance.
As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of our independence this October 18, 2016, we share these joys and triumphs with a world of friendships, communities that share our values and principles.
To another 25 years of success, achievement, progress and peace. L’Chaim.