Elmar Mammadyarov is the Azerbaijani foreign minister. He was invited to the United States by Secretary of State Colin Powell for his first visit as foreign minister. The minister spoke on 20 July at his only public appearance in Washington at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a public policy and research organization.
Washington, 21 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Mammadyarov said building a strong democratic state is extremely difficult, especially in a poor country like Azerbaijan.
"This is a process and we are moving in this process," Mammadyarov said. "It doesn't mean that we are frozen in our position."
Mammadyarov, who was appointed to President Ilham Aliyev's cabinet in April after serving as ambassador to Italy, suggested one good step toward economic progress would be building up the country's energy sector.
"Sometimes it's very difficult to explain and sometimes it's very difficult to understand to some people who didn't visit there, that didn't live there, that it is not an easy task to build a Western-style society."
He stressed that Azerbaijan is committed to transparency in its spending of oil and natural gas revenues.
With its State Oil Fund, Azerbaijan is following British Prime Minister Tony Blair's launch in September 2002 of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which aims to ensure the transparency of funds being paid to states by companies.
Mammadyarov said he is optimistic about contract negotiations over the natural-gas market among European countries and his country's near neighbors.
"This will be also very, very important for the development not only of Azerbaijan, but the whole region, because it gets the access to the European market for the gas from Central Asia," Mammadyarov said.
Some members of the audience questioned the Azerbaijani government's commitment to democratic change.
The South Caucasus country has come under criticism for crackdowns on the political opposition and irregularities in last year's election of Ilham Aliyev, the son of Heidar Aliyev, who ruled the country -- directly or indirectly -- for nearly 30 years.
The topic put Mammadyarov on the defensive: "Sometimes it's very difficult to explain and sometimes it's very difficult to understand to some people who didn't visit there, that didn't live there, that it is not an easy task to build a Western-style society," he said.
The foreign minister also responded to a question about anti-Armenian propaganda by the Azerbaijani press, saying his country's media was free to criticize Armenia or any other country.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been engaged in a years-long dispute over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has a largely ethnic Armenian population but which is officially part of Azerbaijani territory.
"If we will start to prohibit that because of the interest of anyone, we have to stop our democratic reforms. We have to stop and change our course, and this is not the case in Azerbaijan," Mammadyarov said.
Critics say Azerbaijan has made some progress toward a freer media but that it has a long way to go.