Interview with Shahin V. Bayramov, Vice-Rector for International Affairs and Programmes, Azerbaijan State Economic University

Interview with Shahin V. Bayramov, Vice-Rector for International Affairs and Programmes, Azerbaijan State Economic UniversityQ. First of all, let me congratulate you on your nomination as Vice-Rector. Could you tell us what you would like to achieve in this position?
Thank you for your congratulations. First of all, I would like to say that it is a great honour and responsibility for me to be appointed to such a prestigious position. This appointment has an additional importance for me as I graduated and received all my degrees from this university (bachelor, master, Ph.D.). Furthermore, at the beginning of my professional carrier I started work at Azerbaijan State Economic University (ASEU), and those eight years allowed me to become a part of ASEU’s family. I am very grateful to the governance and the whole academic/administrative staff of ASEU for their kind support and contribution to my professional development during these years.
ASEU is one of the biggest higher education institutions in the Southern Caucasus and it is the only completely economics-oriented public university in Azerbaijan. Despite being one of the oldest universities in the country, currently ASEU is considered to be the most modern and reform-oriented institution. ASEU’s mission is to provide high-quality education in the economic sector leading to the preparation of highly-skilled specialists for the Azerbaijan economy.
In this general picture, as the Vice-Rector for International Affairs and Programmes my principal role is to support and contribute to the overall development strategy of the university and to be directly involved in continuous reform processes drawn from the recognized international experience of leading higher education institutions in other parts of the world.
With reference to what I would like to achieve in this position, I can mention many goals. First of all, we have to make ASEU an integral part of the European educational area. In this regard, we are going to adopt the most advanced international practices on higher education while respecting local and traditional realities.
We will do our best to make ASEU one of the most prestigious universities in the region by increasing the level of higher education in all directions and fields of university activities. This will allow us to make ASEU an attractive university for international students and to prepare highly specialized graduates for all sectors of the economy. They will be able to face the rapidly changing labour market conditions resulting from the dynamic global economy, as well as the fast-developing Azerbaijan economy.
We intend to develop bilateral and multilateral co-operation with relevant global organizations like The World Bank, WTO, UNCTAD, WIPO, etc. This will enable us to align the educational process with global perspectives and to prepare future economists able to respond to international challenges. We are confident that this kind of in-depth co-operation will be our contribution to intensifying Azerbaijan’s integration into the world community.
ASEU also has great potential to become a research-oriented institution, which is also a significant factor in achieving the status of a highly competitive university. We are now going to pay special attention to this sector. Participation in international educational research programmes is another important aspect of our international co-operation. In this regard, EU-financed programmes (Erasmus, Jean Monnet, Marie Curie, etc.) will be our main priorities in completing overall reforms at ASEU. We have enormous potential to become a bridge between European and Asian universities by participating in these projects and programmes.
In order to reach these goals, we are going to draft and implement ASEU’s international strategy including our short-term and long-term goals, and this strategy will act as a so-called road-map for us. This strategy is intended to focus on enhancing bilateral co-operation, student/staff exchanges, joint-degrees and dual-diploma programmes with relevant foreign universities.
Generally speaking, there are many issues to deal with in the areas under my supervision. I am quite optimistic that we will achieve these goals with the support of the rector of my university and through the young and enthusiastic team in our international relations office.
Q: ASEU has just celebrated its eightieth anniversary. Could you tell us about its history?
Yes, we recently celebrated our eightieth anniversary and this means that ASEU is one of the oldest higher educational institutions in Azerbaijan.
Our university was founded in 1930 in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. The preparation of highly educated economists had already been going on in our country since the 1920s. Thus, the Polytechnic Institute established in 1920 had a special economics department and later an economics section, becoming the Social Sciences Faculty of Azerbaijan State University in 1922.
In 1930, Azerbaijan State University was separated into different institutions and the Azerbaijan Trade Co-operation Institute was established as its economics section. The history of ASEU started from that date. Up until 2000 our university functioned under different names –‒ Azerbaijan Social Economic Institute, Azerbaijan Institute of National Economy, and Azerbaijan State Economic Institute. Finally, according to presidential decree of 13 June 2002, ASEU was re-established by combining two institutions ‒‒ Azerbaijan State Economic Institute and Baku State Commodities and Commerce Institute. Thus, from a small department in 1930, our university became one of the leading higher educational institutions in the South Caucasus region.
Today, ASEU has thirteen faculties with more than 16,000 students. International economics, finance, banking, management and accounting are the main areas of specialization offered. Teaching at both undergraduate and graduate levels is provided in four languages –‒ Azerbaijani, Turkish, Russian and English. There are more than 500 international students from twenty countries. The regular master’s programme and the MBA programme total about 2,000 students. ASEU’s Ph.D. programme is one of the most prestigious in Azerbaijan. The staff includes about 2,000 professors, lecturers and technical personnel.
Our university is a full member of the European University Association (EUA), the International Association of Universities (IAU), the Federation of the Universities of the Islamic World (FUIW), the Universities Council of the Black Sea Economic Co-operation Organization and the Eurasian Association of Universities (EAU). ASEU has established bilateral co-operation with more than 100 foreign universities all over the world.
ASEU established a Special Talented Group where all subjects are taught exclusively in English according to Harvard University’s education programme, the first distance education centre in the Southern Caucasus (jointly with Indiana University, USA), the World Bank Information Centre (jointly with The World Bank), the World Trade Organization Reference Centre (jointly with WTO), the WIPO Depository Library (jointly with WIPO) and the Students’ Career Centre (jointly with the International Labour Organisation). For the last three years a number of Nobel Prize-winners in economics have delivered special lectures for ASEU students and staff. It is a great privilege for us that nine of them accepted to become honorary doctors of our university.
ASEU’s eighty years of activity have always been officially appreciated by the government. A number of ASEU’s professors and teachers have been rewarded with different state prizes. On this point, we can mention the “Glory” Order given to our rector, Professor Shamsaddin Hajiyev, for his active participation in the socio-political life of Azerbaijan in 2011.
Q: How would you describe your country’s economy in relation to the international economy?
As you know Azerbaijan obtained its independence for the second time after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. From the economic point of view, we can mention two main objectives that our country has tried to achieve over the last twenty years. First of all, we moved from a centrally planned economy to a market economy by implementing systematic and comprehensive reforms. Secondly, we integrated our national economy with the world economy and aligned it with current international economic standards. This was followed by the adoption of elements originating from regional economic integration and globalization processes that totally changed the general nature of the Azerbaijan economy.
The country’s modern economy is based on a national development strategy established by Haydar Aliyev, the national leader of Azerbaijan. The efficient use of natural resources, improving the well-being of the population, implementing the liberal foreign economic activity regime, ensuring national economic security, providing sustainable national economic growth and decreasing the economy’s dependence on the energy sector are considered as the main lines of this strategy.
Being one of the energy producing and exporting countries, Azerbaijan has successfully implemented well-designed targets for its oil and gas strategy. Following the signing of the “Contract of the Century” (1994), the launch of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline (2006), and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline (2007) played an important role in modernizing Azerbaijan’s energy industry and in diversifying the Caspian hydrocarbon export infrastructure. As a result Azerbaijan became one of the active players on the world energy market with its annual production of 50 million tonnes of oil and 27 billion cubic metres of gas. We are sure that the realization of the “Shahdeniz-2 project” and construction of the Trans-Anadolu (TANAP) and Trans-Adriatic (TAP) gas pipelines will significantly increase Azerbaijan’s importance in providing energy security to Europe.
I would like to give some general figures summing up the current economic situation. Over the last ten years Azerbaijan’s economy has tripled in volume and our GDP reached US$70 billion covering about 80% of the total economy of the South Caucasus region. Another important indicator of economic development is the volume of the state budget that increased from US$1.5 billion in 2003 to US$25 billion in 2013.
A total of US$145 billion has been invested in Azerbaijan’s economy between 1995 and 2012, 50% of which was foreign investment. Now our strategic exchange reserves are almost US$50 billion guaranteeing Azerbaijan’s sustainable economic development in the near future. Additionally, Azerbaijan is gradually changing from a capital importing to a capital exporting country.
Regarding foreign trade, as a WTO-acceding country Azerbaijan is committed to fully liberalizing its foreign trade relations and to aligning them with WTO requirements. As a result of implementing the complex reforms in this sphere, all kinds of foreign economic activities are being carried out. Azerbaijan is conducting export and import operations with almost 150 countries in 2012 and the country’s foreign trade turnover was about US$34 billion for this year, where export’s share was US$24 billion.
As regards the poverty and unemployment indices in our country, following successful socio-economic policies the poverty rate in Azerbaijan has decreased from 49% in 2003 to 6% in 2012. This is one of the highest levels of poverty reduction in the world. Due to the creation of more than 1 million jobs in the last ten years, the unemployment rate has dropped to 5.1%.
These positive trends have been recognized at the international level. Fast and widespread economic development in Azerbaijan has been acknowledged by several global organizations and internationally recognized reports. Azerbaijan was nominated as “the most reformist” country in the field of business environment improvement in the “Doing Business 2009” report jointly prepared by The World Bank and the International Finance Corporation.
The “Global Competitiveness Report” published by the World Economic Forum 2012 ranked Azerbaijan as forty-sixth among 142 countries, as well as first among Commonwealth of Independent States countries. In UNDP’s “Human Development Report”, Azerbaijan improved its position from 101st in 2005 to 67th in 2010. As a result Azerbaijan moved from the group of “medium human development countries” to the “high human development countries”.
All of these facts show that Azerbaijan is one of the most rapidly developing economies in the world. We should maintain this trend by continuing to implement scientifically proven and interconnected economic policies in the future. In this context, the efficient use of our oil and gas revenues is the main factor in diversifying the national economy and maintaining sustainable growth in Azerbaijan. This will obviously increase the country’s role and importance in the international economy, and we will derive more benefits from foreign economic relations.
It should be stated that the occupation of 20% of Azerbaijani lands by Armenia is negatively affecting the overall economic development of our region. Unfortunately, four UN resolutions on unconditional withdrawal of Armenian separatists from our occupied territories have not yet been implemented. I am sure that through the efforts of the international community the conflict will be resolved and Azerbaijan will regain its opportunity to fully contribute to the economic development of the South Caucasus region, as well as the international economy.
Q: Most European countries have been ‒‒ and still are ‒‒ in troubled economic waters. How has the financial turmoil affected your country?
Having a background in international economics, it is clear to me that periodic economic crises originate in the very nature and complexity of the global economy. The recent crises showed that they are able to have a negative impact on even the biggest and strongest national economies, as well as on common markets like the European Union.
Fortunately, I can say that Azerbaijan is one of the few economies that has been less affected by the global crises over last ten years due to its well-designed and balanced national macro-economic policy, sustained financial system and timely preventive measures. As evidence we can mention the favourable macro-economic indices of Azerbaijan’s economy during this crisis period. There have not been any serious decreases in general economic indicators, like GDP growth, inflation, employment, foreign trade turnover and so on. Contrary to the situation in most countries, a number of international agencies like Fitch, Moody’s and S&P have upgraded the credit rating of Azerbaijan over this period. Financial turmoil showed that our economic system is ready to adapt to changes taking place as a result of global decline and this has confirmed the need to continue diversifying the economy to make it more secure and resistant.
However, being a part of the global economy we have been faced, of course, with some consequences of the recent crises. First of all, we can mention a decline in oil revenues based on serious price reductions in global energy markets. At the same time, our overall foreign economic relations have suffered due to significant economic regression taking place in Azerbaijan’s major trade partners.
Q: You have often been summoned by Parliament to give an expert opinion. What does it feel like to have this kind of responsibility and on what subjects have they sought your advice?
The rector of our university has played an extremely important role in my career starting from the first year of my university education. Besides being my teacher during a number of international economic courses, Professor Shamsaddin Hajiyev was academic advisor for my bachelor, master and Ph.D. theses. He is a founder and the head of International Economics Department at ASEU.
Besides being the rector of ASEU, since 2005 he has been chairman of the Science and Education Committee of the National Assembly (Parliament) of the Republic of Azerbaijan. In that year he suggested that I become an expert for that committee and a new direction in my career began. We deal with drafting the different science education laws and making proposals to bring our national legislation into line with European and Bologna standards. The new “Law on Education” intending to improve and modernize the Azerbaijani education system has already been adopted by our Parliament. Now we are working on a new “Law on Science” that will substantiate the relevant reforms in this important sphere. Being economists, we also participate actively in the drafting and discussions of economy-related laws, particularly the laws on the annual State Budget of Azerbaijan.
Of course, it is not easy for me to hold two different responsible positions at the same time. However, my activities as a parliamentary expert and university vice-rector are actually two complementary sides (one legislative, another practical) of the same education sphere. In fact, this helps me to work more effectively on both positions as these two directions are interrelated and interdependent.
Q: You have conducted research on the integration of Azerbadjian into the European Community economic sphere. Are you still in favour of this integration?
The topic of my Ph.D. thesis was the “European Neighbourhood Policy and prospects for Azerbaijan’s integration into the European economic area”. I would like to sum up EU-Azerbaijan relations. The European Union (EU) recognized the independence of Azerbaijan in 1991 and established official diplomatic ties in 1992. Since then co-operation between the EU and Azerbaijan has been developing both on bilateral and multilateral levels. The “Partnership and Co-operation Agreement” between the EU and Azerbaijan was signed in 1996 and anticipated the development of mutual relationships in political, economic, cultural, social and other fields. Later, Azerbaijan was included in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) initiated by the EU in 2004. Being one of the main elements of the EU’s foreign policy the ENP aimed at ensuring the political stability and promotion of economic development through reforms, regional development and mutually beneficial co-operation. Then Azerbaijan became one of the key participants of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EP) initiative starting in 2009, which was more ambitious with concrete objectives.
In this context Azerbaijan tried to benefit from the opportunities proposed by the EU projects to successfully implement its European-oriented foreign economic policy. As a person who conducted research on Azerbaijan’s integration into the EU, I can confirm that Azerbaijan could become one of the important strategic and reliable partners of this unique regional economic integration union. The success was based on mutual objectives and targets stated in both the EU’s policy towards the South Caucasus region and Azerbaijan’s EU-related economy policy.
The EU is now Azerbaijan’s main trading partner covering approximately 42% of the country’s total foreign trade turnover, reaching US$14 billion in 2012. About 47% of Azerbaijani exports and almost all oil and gas export go to European markets. Of course, the energy sector is the main area of EU-Azerbaijan co-operation. This arises from mutual interests in this sphere –‒ the EU wants to diversify its sources of energy and Azerbaijan uses alternative methods of transport so that its hydrocarbon resources reach European markets. Additionally, Azerbaijan’s favourable geostrategic position makes it a key participant in the historical “Silk Road”, a bridge between Europe and Asia with efficient transport and communication opportunities.
I agree that the EU has changed much since 2008. The recent global economic/financial crises and their consequences have significantly influenced the common European economic area, and the individual economies of all EU member countries. This impact has had terrible consequences on some sensitive economies like Spain, Italy, Greece and Cyprus. Of course, we observe the subsequent negative impact on the EU’s role and place in the global economy, as well as on its foreign policy towards its neighbours.
In the case of Azerbaijan, there are no serious problems in our co-operation with the EU following the mentioned difficulties since the European economy is quite sustained and EU-Azerbaijan relations are based on real economic conditions. In this regard, I am still in favour of Azerbaijan’s integration into the EU.
Q: Finally, Mr Vice-Rector, where would you like to see “your” university a couple of years from now?
The real potential of our university makes me confident that we will achieve all our goals in the forthcoming years. We have reason to be more ambitious and self-confident, and those are very important elements in achieving success. Frankly speaking, I can assure that in the near future you will find my university’s name on the list of the world’s most prestigious universities, as well as in recognized international rankings of higher education institutions.
There is no doubt that the global higher education market is becoming more and more competitive day by day. In this regard, it is obvious that we have to consider all aspects of this competition and do our best to use our so-called comparative advantages efficiently.
Summing up all the above-mentioned ideas and approaches, I believe that in a few years ASEU will become one of the preferred places to obtain advanced economic education. Combining all the favourable circumstances for globalized education and multi-cultural learning, ASEU will bring the Azerbaijan education system into the sphere of international higher education.
I thank you for your interest in my university and you may interview me again in five years to talk about the actual results of these targets!