BAKU -- The U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan has praised the government's job in reducing poverty and said Azerbaijan's improved economic statistics are not widely appreciated in the West, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports.
Matthew Bryza made his comments at a meeting on September 28 at the Baku-based Caspian-European Integration Business Club (CEIBC).
"Thanks to the energy sector, your economic growth has been 300 percent since 2004; it's tripled the size of your economy thanks primarily to oil and gas production," Bryza said.
He added that he welcomes the government's emphasis on diversifying economic growth away from the energy sector.
Bryza also stressed how poverty has been reduced from 49 percent of the population in 2003 to 9.1 percent in 2009.
He called that "amazing" and said that "some people may say 'no, it's more than 9 percent.' OK, even if the statistics are unreliable, even if it's twice more, it's still an unbelievable job."
Bryza said that "we have spent a lot of time in the West thinking that we need to educate [other countries] about the need to diversify [their] economic growth, to make sure you are fighting poverty, and to ensure the benefits of oil and gas revenues are shared throughout society. You are already doing that."
On diversification of the economy, Bryza pointed out the government's focus on the spheres of transportation, tourism, information technology, and agriculture.
"[At least] 85 percent of your gross domestic product is produced in the private sector," he said. "Again, this powerful statistic is not appreciated enough in the West."
Bryza added that "the World Economic Forum's estimation recently came out which shows that Azerbaijan now ranks 56th among world countries in terms of competitiveness but said it's No. 1 among the [countries of the] former Soviet Union."
Bryza also compared Azerbaijan to Georgia, "which has done phenomenal things in recent years in fighting corruption, restructuring the economy, [and] trying to attract investment."
But despite that, he said Azerbaijan has become more competitive than Georgia in the World Economic Forum's estimation.
Bryza said a major problem in Azerbaijani society is that political and economic power is highly concentrated among a few groups.
"Is it bad or good? To me, it is a fact of life," he said. "If you look at the history of this region, for centuries there were groupings of power around what is today Azerbaijan that were known as khanates, which held power in various regions. Of course, [today] Azerbaijan is a state. But to a certain extent, maybe some of those traditions of khanates in the economy continue."
The European Commission recently received a mandate to talk with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan about the TransCaspian pipeline, which would transport gas to European countries. Russia and Iran object to the project.
Bryza said it's obviously up to the European Union and Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan as to what happens in terms of the flow of natural gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and further westward.
"Our strong view is that it is no one else's business, actually, how Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan decide to cooperate with Europe," Bryza said. "No one has the right to intervene; you are independent."
Bryza expressed confidence that the proposed pipeline between Europe and Turkmenistan will be built if it makes commercial sense.
"We care that the Southern Corridor [for gas transportation] evolves," he said. "Whether it consists of Nabucco, a Turkey-Greece-Italy pipeline, a Trans-Adriatic, or smaller interconnections, White Stream, or liquid natural gas -- all we want to do is make sure that there is competition so that you are independent, and [hope] that our European allies are more independent as well."
The CEIBC, of which President Aliyev is the honoray chairman, was established in 2002 with the support of major international oil and gas companies.
Read more in Azeri here