Leyla Aliyeva: We must all take responsibility for our Planet

Before exhibition “Fly to Baku: Contemporary Art from Azerbaijan” opens in London on 17 January, Leyla Aliyeva, the Vice President of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, founder of the International Dialogue on Environmental Action and Head of the Azerbaijani Youth Organization of Russia, met with a number of Azerbaijani online publications. A few hours of conversation with representatives of the new media made for an interesting and open interview.

- Good day, Leyla khanum. Thank you for the meeting and the opportunity to discuss the past year with you and talk about plans for next year. I will start our conversation simply: with 2012 just beginning, it would be interesting to hear your assessment of the work of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation in 2011.

- First of all, I have to note that 2011 was an historically important year for us. This is not only because last year will be remembered as the year of our victory in Eurovision and of our gaining a seat as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. In 2011 our country marked the 20th anniversary of independence. This is a remarkable date on which we can look back and analyse the way we have come and think about the future.

The Heydar Aliyev Foundation organized unforgettable events on this occasion in European capitals. A series of concerts, exhibitions and presentations on the history and culture of ancient Azerbaijan, modern art and the distinctive character of the Azerbaijani people was held in London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, Rome and the Vatican.

The projects implemented by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation to raise the profile of Azerbaijan worldwide created the right conditions for the successful promotion of our national culture.

It should also be noted that in recent years the Heydar Aliyev Foundation has gained rich experience in holding music festivals which bring together world famous musicians and provide a stage for the future stars of classical music and mugam. The International Music Festival in Gabala, the International Mugam Festival in Baku, the International Rostropovich Festival and a number of other annual events have become traditional meeting places for international stars and the next generation and attract music lovers from all over the world.

Education is one of the main areas of the foundation’s work. It is this area that ensures the successful development of our homeland in the future and forms a new generation of leaders. From the very first year of its work, our foundation has been implementing the program “New schools for renewed Azerbaijan” which successfully continued in 2011. As part of this project we managed to build and fully repair up to 400 schools in different parts of Azerbaijan.

Last year the foundation, along with the administration of the Ichari Shahar [Baku’s old walled city], organized the Second International Maiden Tower Festival of Art, which involved 25 famous artists from 20 countries. This festival helped us promote one of Azerbaijan’s oldest monuments – the Maiden Tower – and speak about our history and culture and, of course, allowed our young talents to show what they can do.

As you know, the number of projects of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation keeps on growing. Consequently, this increases our organization’s experience and qualifications to carry out all possible projects in a variety of spheres. Therefore, we are determined to further expand our work, to continue to promote the national culture and traditions of Azerbaijan throughout the world. This is our priority.

Environmental action

– You recently launched the new global youth environmental campaign – IDEA (International Dialogue on Environmental Action). It has already taken its first step – following the signing of an agreement with the UNDP an international camp for young environmentalists was held in Gabala. How do you assess the public interest and did your idea meet with a response from young people?

- IDEA is an initiative that is a response to modern challenges. It’s not just the fashion when everyone talks about ecology and environmental protection. This is an intention to do something real and tangible. I think modern youth should be concerned about the world of tomorrow and the implications of environmental problems. We should all feel responsible for our planet and contribute together to the preservation of biodiversity and everything that makes our life not only healthy, but also interesting and colourful.

This is why we initiated the global youth environmental campaign – IDEA. I can say that the campaign results exceeded my expectations. In a short space of time we have been able to create the basis for future broader work.

On 21 October 2011, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation signed an agreement with the UNDP to mobilize Azerbaijani youth to prepare for the goals of the Rio +20 Summit. This year we mark the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit. This was the summit that laid the foundations for the world’s sustainable development and environmental security. The agreement envisages cooperation with the UN during the year, and this project stipulates numerous activities to inform young people about Rio +20. Until July, we will be actively working in schools and universities and holding round tables with civil society. In a nutshell, we will talk about everything that should concern us all today in terms of environmental improvement.

I want to emphasize that the campaign has received support from a number of environmental organizations. IDEA events have involved almost all the major youth and student organizations in Azerbaijan. This is yet more confirmation of our slogan, “One Planet – One Future”. Based on this, and trying to make the planet greener, we are planning to plant 300 000 trees in Azerbaijan before the June summit in Rio de Janeiro. IDEA has already started this action, and now campaign volunteers are planting trees along the Zikh highway.

We are not lagging behind in the information and communications field either, since you cannot do without the Internet in the modern world. The campaign has a website, www.ideacampaign.org, and hundreds of young environmentalists throughout the world send us letters of support and numerous initiatives. I have to say that IDEA is very active in social networks promoting various initiatives and projects. By the way, based on letters that we have received, our team started work to develop a special shelter for stray animals. This is an urgent problem which is sometimes highlighted in the national media, so we decided to help tackle the issue.

Also in Azerbaijan IDEA defined the Caucasian Big Five – five animals that are under threat of extinction – the bear, eagle, wolf, gazelle and Caucasian leopard. We set the goal of informing the Azerbaijani and international public about this problem as much as possible and carrying out projects to preserve species that are on the verge of extinction.

Together with the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources the Heydar Aliyev Foundation has implemented a project to protect and resettle Azeri gazelles in their natural habitat. The gazelles are provided with special sensors that allow the movements of these graceful animals to be monitored. With the help of the sensors it is possible to record the illegal hunting of gazelles and to take proactive measures to protect them.

I just have to mention an interesting process, which is also associated with rare animals and their habitats in Azerbaijan. I’m sure most people know that the symbol of Baku – the Maiden Tower – is also the habitat for swifts. Like swallows, they are migratory birds and in the winter they fly to South Africa. In summer the swifts return to Baku, and build some 200 nests in the walls of the ancient Maiden Tower. The start of the conservation process on the Maiden Tower threatened the existence of these nests, so the Ichari Shahar historical and architectural reserve and IDEA developed special nests right next to the historical monument so that the birds do not have to change their traditional habitat.

The central event was, as you rightly said, the international camp for young environmentalists in Gabala. This camp provided an opportunity to promote the aims of IDEA at a global level and to turn Gabala – one of the oldest parts of Azerbaijan – into a regional centre for discussion on environmental issues. Last year, the camp was attended by 85 environmentalists from 35 countries worldwide. The young environmentalists were so excited about the new project that they adopted the Gabala Declaration, which calls on everyone to take personal responsibility for the environmental situation in the world. This year we plan to reconvene the camp of young environmentalists from around the world to discuss the necessary steps to protect our planet.

- What are the IDEA campaign’s main plans for this year? Will there be large-scale events that directly involve the Azerbaijani public in Baku?

- Frankly, IDEA has big plans for 2012 and the coming years. In addition to the above, the major projects on a global scale include a photo exhibition on the Caucasian Big Five in various European countries. The main purpose of the exhibition is to attract international attention to the problem of endangered species in the Caucasus and in Azerbaijan.

Together with world-renowned photojournalist Reza Deghati, who has been working with National Geographic for many years, we plan to publish a quarterly environmental magazine for children that will carry our ideas and goals. The magazine will be published in Azerbaijani and English. Reza Deghati will also be the main driving force of an international photo competition EYE DEA, which will start soon. The photographs will be presented outdoors in European cities, and then on the streets of Rio de Janeiro during the Rio +20 global summit.

The other day we began a new project for Azerbaijani students – an essay contest “Send your message to Rio +20″. This will give an additional impetus to young people to learn about the global summit to examine the problems and challenges of sustainable development. As you can see, there is much to be done and we hope that the competition will attract new people to our initiative and will significantly strengthen the position of IDEA among young people.

Azerbaijani Youth Organization of Russia

- How do you assess the work of the Azerbaijani Youth Organization of Russia (AYOR) last year?

- AYOR turns five this year. It is already a mature and active organization. Today our organization covers more than 70 regions of Russia and has Azerbaijani student clubs in more than 25 universities in Moscow. The organization has the mission of bringing together young Azerbaijanis and their friends in Russia. I can say that AYOR copes well with its mission and is today a driving force for Azerbaijani youth in Russia.
Over the past three years we have been holding events related to health – “Blood has no nationality!” and the free examination campaign “Make sure you are healthy, say no to disease!” For example, the free blood donation annually involves over hundreds of youth representatives, and the blood collected is used to treat children with cancer.
In 2011, AYOR held a number of campaigns, including a football tournament, our regular conference in St Petersburg, publication of the AYOR journal, scientific conferences, flash mobs and meetings with students.

As well in 2011, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation opened an Azerbaijani Cultural Centre in Moscow, located in the M.I. Rudomino All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature. We have brought together books, movies, CDs and full information about Azerbaijan in this centre, where you can see the creativity of great Azerbaijani writers, poets, artists, composers, and also see the natural beauty of our country and the unique architecture of the city of Baku. We plan to hold recitals, exhibitions and meetings with interesting and well-known Azerbaijanis there. Of course, we will also hold classes in the Azerbaijani language, history and literature that will be taken by native speakers invited from Baku.

OIC Youth Forum

– You are the general coordinator of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation’s Youth Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, which aims to unite young people from the organization’s member states. The campaigns we have already talked about can also be seen as proof of this. Are you planning to conduct new campaigns and events next year? What do you see as the main and most pressing areas of work in the foreseeable future?

- The work as general coordinator of the youth forum has been continuing since 2007. During this time we managed not only to strengthen the structure but also to hold a number of major events and implement different projects.

I have to say that young Azerbaijanis are among the most active in the OIC states. Azerbaijan is a country where numerous ethnicities and religions live peacefully and our tolerant atmosphere can serve as an example.

In terms of the work of the Youth Forum, the year 2011 went down in history for the first session of the Global Youth Movement for the Alliance of Civilizations in Baku in April 2011. As a result of four years of work, we managed to set up and institutionalize the Global Youth Movement. This is a very important aspect since it envisages consistent work to achieve objectives.

The network of OIC entrepreneurs to promote cooperation among young entrepreneurs in the Muslim world was set up in Baku on 22-23 November. This is an area for the exchange of experience and making new contacts. Young entrepreneurs are the most active section of the population in every country and the determination of this social stratum will create favourable conditions for more effective consolidation within the forum.

In general, the Youth Forum is among the most active youth structures in the world and undoubtedly takes an active part in global ecological institutions, including IDEA. During the forum, we set up a prize for 10 Young Muslim Women as a real contribution to promoting the interesting, creative ideas of the young generation and stimulate activity among youth in the Islamic world. The year 2012 will also be the first year of the OIC Youth Forum’s Student Exchange Program which will create dynamism and ensure consistent development in the coming year.

Baku magazine

The English version of Baku magazine was published recently. It is no secret that the Russian version of the magazine is popular among Russian and other readers. What do you think are the prospects for the English version?

- I had been moving towards publishing the magazine in English for a long time. The idea first appeared after the launch of the Russian version of the magazine when many people showed an interest in the English version.

Throughout the four years that the Russian version of Baku magazine won a wider readership, our team studied markets and held consultations with various companies that could help. I myself was also preparing, since it demands not only time but also total physical and intellectual investment.

2011 was a starting point. We started to publish the magazine in English and today Baku magazine is sold not only in Britain but in other European countries too. I cannot talk about sales, as I don’t have the figures yet, but I do hope to have them soon and to share them with you.

This year we are planning to launch the magazine in the United States and we hope to further promote Azerbaijan through our magazine not only there but wherever there are Azerbaijani embassies and representative offices of our diaspora. This magazine is yet another opportunity for active promotion, for bringing our ancient history and culture, our traditions, music and literature to the attention of the world community.

- Are there plans to publish the magazine in other languages?

- Our aim today is to make the English version as good as we can, which is why we are not thinking about other languages yet. Probably, when the English version of the magazine becomes as popular as the Russian, we can think about it.

Fly to Baku

– An exhibition Fly to Baku: Contemporary Art from Azerbaijan is to be held in London from 17 to 29 January 2012 and will feature many artists. It is remarkable that your work will also be on show. Whose idea was this? What are the main objectives of the event?

– I have been thinking about holding this exhibition for a few years now. I have to say that talented young people have emerged in Azerbaijan, able to contribute to international art, as did previous generations of artists, sculptors and musicians. The current atmosphere in Baku creates all the conditions for the development of modern art and helps prepare for fully fledged exhibitions at the world level.

The exhibition of modern art of Azerbaijan will feature work by 21 artists who work in such diverse media as fine arts, graphics, sculpture, photography and video.
The exhibition is organized and curated by people well versed in the art world – the curator is Hervé Mikaeloff and the organizer Simon de Pury. Special thanks to them for this! They came up with the main idea and concept of the exhibition which will open in London on 17 January.

We do hope that the works of Azerbaijani artists will find an audience and this exhibition will lay the foundation for the entry of talented young Azerbaijanis to international art. This exhibition is yet another chance to show our culture and national characteristics.

– Are exhibitions of the work of young and established Azerbaijani artists planned for other cities and towns, including Baku?

– At this stage we are working hard on the exhibition in London, since this is the first exhibition of this scale and diversity. It is a great responsibility to represent Azerbaijan in such a respected place.

After the successful completion of the exhibition in London we are planning to exhibit work in Berlin, Paris and Rome, and, probably, in the United States and Moscow, as well as other cities that are centres of modern art. And certainly we are going to hold it in Baku but we want to do this at the end. Baku for us is the start and end of our projects and goals.

- I would like to move away from official questions. You are a busy person, you have a number of projects, different initiatives and despite this you also paint. How do you find time for this and what does art mean to you?

- Painting is really a great pleasure, because it is soothing, I would say, pacifying and it either works or it doesn’t. I can take a break of half a year in painting or I can paint five or six works a month and when you start drawing, it is impossible to stop and do anything else. Probably, everyone who paints feels the same. In other words, this is a great pleasure but if you cannot do it, you have to wait for inspiration.

Now, for example, I am working hard on illustrations for a book of national fairy tales for children which will be published in Russian and be called “Once Upon a Time” (“Biri var idi, biri yox idi”). This idea is interesting and close to my heart, and takes up a lot of my time, along with other work. But I want to make something special and very interesting for children.

I have been working hard on the exhibition in London over the past week. I will probably exhibit five or six works along with other Azerbaijani artists.

- Most people know that you write poetry. Are you still writing poems?

- Yes, I am still doing this. I already have a lot of poems but I’ve stopped publishing them. There is certainly an idea to publish a book but it will probably happen in the future. It is like painting – you can take a year off and then write for a whole week.

- Leyla khanum, you are always fit. Are you sporty?

- I am probably too sporty (smiles). Sport makes you feel better both physically and spiritually. Therefore, I do sport every day.

I am now thinking of rock climbing. It is something new to me, very interesting, because it is associated not only with courage but also with conquering another peak.
It often occurs in life that when you begin one project, you have to follow it with others. So when I started the campaign on environmental protection, I began to think about mountain climbing. And I started to learn how to climb. This summer I am going to climb one of the national peaks along with volunteers from our environmental campaign.

- Thank you for your interview!

- Thank you, too, and my best regards to your readers.