Created: 22 June 2011
Bob recently spoke during a debate on Azerbaijan and the South Caucuses.
"At the outset of this debate, it is important to refer to the strategic importance of Azerbaijan in the surrounding region. We must always remember that Azerbaijan sits between Iran to the south, Russia to the north and Turkey to the west. Of course, it is also adjacent to Armenia and Georgia, which I will say more about later.
Azerbaijan is a strategically important country that has freed itself from the yoke of the Soviet Union, and it is making tremendous strides as a democratic republic. It is important that we understand and appreciate the strides that Azerbaijanis are making. It is also important that we understand the importance of Azerbaijan to the British economy. Azerbaijan is a country that is rich in oil and gas reserves. Those reserves are strategically vital not only for the region but for Britain's future economy.
I am particularly pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Alistair Burt will respond to the debate today. I know that the region that Azerbaijan is a part of is one that he picked up on quickly as part of his ministerial responsibilities. I congratulate the Government on taking a strong lead in encouraging diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan and the other countries in the region.
Azerbaijan was the first secular democracy in the Islamic world, created in 1918. It gave the vote to women before women in this country or the US had the vote, which is a tremendous history. However, Azerbaijan's development was halted when it was annexed by the Soviet Union back in 1920. Of course, Azerbaijan was under the Soviet yoke for 71 years before its battle for independence began. After their second revolution and after large numbers of brave Azerbaijanis were killed by Soviet soldiers, the country was finally able to become free and to govern itself.
Azerbaijan has a variety of different arrangements with different international bodies, including the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the EU's Eastern Partnership, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Euronest, the Non-Aligned Movement and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. So Azerbaijan is very outward-looking; it is not an inward-looking country. We must encourage and promote that outward-looking nature, and ensure that we safeguard the future of this burgeoning democracy.
There is one major issue that is mentioned by everyone involved with Azerbaijan, which is the current situation in the occupied territories. Between 1992 and 1994, there was a war with Armenia, which led to Armenia occupying the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The ceasefire in 1994 resulted in 17% of Azerbaijani territory being occupied by Armenia, an issue which remains a running sore today. It has also meant that 870,000 Azerbaijanis have been forcibly removed from their homes, and those people have had to be accommodated elsewhere in Azerbaijan.
The international community has taken action on that. There have been no less than five United Nations resolutions covering this issue, four in the Security Council and one in the General Assembly. All those resolutions have demanded the withdrawal of Armenian troops. However, the Armenians have refused to honour those resolutions, and they still occupy Azerbaijani territory today. That is a serious problem, because it has created 870,000 internationally displaced persons whom Azerbaijan has to accommodate. On my visit to Azerbaijan, I was able to see the new facilities that the Azerbaijani Government are developing for some of those people to live in. However, there are too few of those facilities, because those people live in dreadful conditions. Some of them live in tents and have done so for 10 years. Others live in slums or in old student accommodation, which we in this country would rightly condemn and ensure that it was removed. So progress in accommodating those people is slow, but they are due to return to their homes once the Armenian forces are removed from the occupied territories.
The current position has been negotiated over an extended period of time, but the progress of negotiations is far too slow. As part of the process, there is the Minsk group, which is co-chaired by Russia, the US and France. However, there is a debate about whether that group is impartial or is actually influenced by the Armenians. The reality is that Russia is a direct political, economic and military ally of Armenia, operating military bases within Armenia itself, so it can hardly be said to treat Azerbaijan and Armenia equally.
Under the Madrid principles, which are a proposal to resolve the conflict, there should be a phased withdrawal of Armenian forces. However, those principles have been accepted by Azerbaijan but not by Armenia, so there is a stalemate. The next meeting to discuss those principles is taking place this week. We hope that there will be progress, but so far there is little optimism, because nothing has happened. We have a concern, and we are a major investor in Azerbaijan's economy. It is my contention that we should have a much more direct, prominent and vocal role in the peace process, to defend our own economy and to promote both our national interests and the interests of the region of which Azerbaijan is part.
In Azerbaijan, there are excellent relations between different people of different backgrounds and different religions. It is an Islamic republic, but the constitution guarantees that anyone has the right to choose any faith, to adopt any religion, to express their religious views and to spread those views. As many hon. Members know, I am a strong promoter of the Jewish community, and I try to combat anti-Semitism wherever it raises its head. The Jewish community in Azerbaijan is an excellent example of Azerbaijan's different minorities.
Krasnaya Sloboda, in the region of Guba, is the only completely Jewish town outside Israel. The Bet Knesset synagogue in the town was restored by Government aid to ensure that Jewish people in the area can celebrate their religion. Other than Israel, Azerbaijan is the only country in the world where the finance to rebuild and refurbish a synagogue has come from a national Government. Opposite that synagogue there is a leading mosque, so religions co-exist side by side in Azerbaijan. Indeed, Azerbaijan has excellent diplomatic relations with Israel, and in many ways the relationship between the two countries demonstrates the future of diplomatic relations between Islamic countries and Israel. Israel has an embassy in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. All communities in Azerbaijan have the opportunity to celebrate their religions and their faith, which is a shining example for other former Soviet countries as they emerge from years of dictatorship.
There is one sad fact. Relatively recently, mass graves were discovered. At the moment, the one certain fact is that large numbers of people were murdered—battered to death—but when that happened, who the people were and who was responsible is disputed. I contend that it is vital that the international community gets involved in the discussion, in analysing what happened, in excavating the graves and in dating the murders, so that an international inquiry can establish responsibility and the perpetrators can be brought to justice. That is clearly a concern for everyone. Seeing the mass graves is thought provoking, because terrible atrocities have gone on down the years.
On my recent visit, I was astonished to see a war memorial to British soldiers and sailors who sadly died at the end of the First World War. I have to confess that it was news to me that we had had any involvement with Azerbaijan at any stage during either of the world wars, but there the memorial stood, in all its glory, restored by the Azerbaijani Government. I plead with the Minister to visit that memorial and see that we need to honour those brave British individuals who gave their lives by ensuring that the memorial is brought up to a decent modern standard. Some colleagues and I were privileged to lay a wreath at the war memorial, because those brave people need to be remembered.
The key issue in relation to Azerbaijan's economy is energy supplies. The country sits on the Caspian Sea, which has huge deposits of oil and gas, which are strategically important. Azerbaijan is the only country that can guarantee a gas supply through the southern corridor without going through Russia. A pipeline exists to take gas through Azerbaijan, bypassing Armenia, and then through Georgia, into Turkey and on to Europe. BP has just signed a major contract, which means that by 2015, I think, that one gas field will be able to supply twice the needs of Europe in any one year, which offers huge future potential. We have a direct and natural interest, because BP is the only external contractor and, once the process is complete, it will be the biggest gas and oil terminal in the world. BP is investing $20 billion in Azerbaijan, and one of the great things is that the Azerbaijani Government say that they are ensuring that the wealth that is created is recycled among the whole Azerbaijani people, rather than going into the hands of relatively few individuals. The great attraction is that they will regenerate their economy while ensuring that everyone benefits.
There are, of course, things on which Azerbaijan needs to make progress. There is the problem of 870,000 internationally displaced persons. Azerbaijan is still at war with its immediate neighbour, so stability is its greatest priority, and here is an opportunity for Britain and the European Union to work in partnership with the fledgling Azerbaijani Government to ensure that things improve. Azerbaijan does not have a perfect democracy, but its Parliament building is a darned sight better than the one we sit in—especially in terms of the seats that we all enjoy. Importantly, Azerbaijan has embarked on peaceful elections, the last of which was watched by 2,500 foreign observers, who clearly stated that the election was free, fair and appropriate.
There is a worry about corruption. Corruption can be a problem anywhere there is oil, gas and a burgeoning economy, but when accusations have been made, the President has taken direct action by ensuring that people who have allegedly taken bribes are dismissed from the Government straight away.
The other worry is that Russia continues to wish to extend its interests and influence in the region. It has just extended its lease on the air base in Armenia by 40 years, even though the last lease had a full 10 years to go before expiry. That demonstrates that Russia is not going to let go and still wishes to influence and control the whole element of Azerbaijan and the surrounding areas.
In conclusion, the fact is that there is a great opportunity for Britain and its economy, for the promotion of jobs and for furthering British interests in the region. Probably more importantly, there is an opportunity to encourage and promote a democracy that is relatively in its infancy and freeing itself from dictatorship to ensure that it recognises and benefits from everything that goes on. We also have the opportunity of saying to Armenia, in our diplomatic way, "If you reach a satisfactory conclusion and a proper settlement on the occupied territories, there is absolutely no reason why you can't benefit from the economic activity that will flow. If however, you continue to blockade and prevent progress, the natural result will be that you will not benefit from the burgeoning economy."
My final point is that most people do not know where Azerbaijan is. Not the greatest thing in the world as far as I am concerned, but the greatest thing as far as Azerbaijan is concerned, was winning the Eurovision song contest this year. I will not sing the song—[Hon. Members: "Oh, go on."]. Azerbaijan is looking forward to hosting the contest next year and having the opportunity to bring people in to witness it from all over Europe. It plans to build a concert hall specifically for the occasion. This really puts the country on the map, in a very positive way, which is, I think, warmly welcomed by all concerned. Of course, if we can encourage better diplomatic relations with Azerbaijan, it might give us votes come the next Eurovision song contest—[Hon. Members: "Please, no."] On a serious note, the contest has put Azerbaijan on the map, as has the expansion of oil and gas. The country has become a major strategic area of Europe and of the world, and we can invest and be directly involved in it. I trust that I have given a flavour of the debate. There is now an opportunity for other hon. Members to join in with their contributions."
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