Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(John Penrose.)
May I share with the House the fact that this month marks the 20th anniversary of the ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, which is also known as the mountainous Karabakh republic? Many people know very little about the political situation in the south Caucasus, but I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and the noble Lady, Baroness Cox in the other House, for frequently raising the subject. My purpose in raising it in this Adjournment debate is that the Minsk process has sought to resolve the conflict since the ceasefire 20 years ago, but now appears to be stalled, if not frozen. I seek tonight to try to apply the gentlest of nudges to the three Minsk co-chairs, to see if we cannot make progress.
It is difficult to understand and almost impossible to appreciate the full extent and horror of the war that raged between February 1988 and May 1994 in Nagorno-Karabakh. One has to go back many centuries if one wants to discover its origin, but, for the sake of brevity, Mr Speaker, and to avoid testing your patience and indulgence, I shall refer to a couple of simple and basic facts. In that war—and it was a war; it was not a regional conflict, a local conflagration or skirmish—on one side was an Azerbaijani army of 42,000 people, of whom 11,000 died, and on the Armenian side was an army of 20,000, of whom 6,000 died. There were Afghan mujaheddin and Chechen volunteers fighting on the side of the Azeris, and Armenian volunteers and people from the diaspora fighting on the other side. It was an extraordinarily bloody war, and I think that, because there was UK-British involvement in the early days of the creation of the boundaries of these republics, we have a duty to do what we can to nudge the matter forward.
After the Russian revolution in 1917, the three south Caucasian republics, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, together formed a trans-Caucasian federation, which sadly did not last long, collapsing after three months. British troops occupied a great deal of the south Caucasus, particularly Baku in Azerbaijan, in 1919, pending the Paris peace conference—a period in which we were rightly involved in the area. However, the Soviet army invaded and set up something called the Kavburo—the Caucasus bureau—which at the time voted 4:3 in favour of the area we know as the mountainous Karabakh republic or Nagorno-Karabakh being allocated to Armenia.
You will know, Mr Speaker, as will many in this House, that the dividing line between the two communities is very deep and very ancient. Armenia has been a Christian country since 301 AD; the vast majority of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh are Christian, and the majority of the population of Azerbaijan Muslim. There has been a degree of tension, which has spilled over into bloody ethnic conflict.
Churches had to register in Azerbaijan by 1 January 2010. Any house churches active after that date were raided by police and state authorities, with church leaders arrested and sent to jail. Should not our Government make representations to the Azerbaijan Government to stop the persecution of Christians and actions against the churches?
The hon. Gentleman’s record on addressing the persecution of Christians is second to none, and I hope that his words reverberate and are heard beyond this Chamber.
After the Caucasus bureau voted for Nagorno-Karabakh being allocated to Armenia, there was an intervention by the Communist party leader in Azerbaijan, Nariman Narimanov, who reversed that decision. He was guided in this by the people’s commissar for nationalities—better known to us as Joseph Stalin.
Things came to a head in 1985, when Gorbachev was elected in the Soviet Union. In the ensuing feeling of perestroika—the slight lifting of the yoke—there were demonstrations in Yerevan and Baku, which were very much about determination of what was then called an enclave between the two countries. In February 1988, there were skirmishes near Askeran in Artsakh, on the Stepanakert-Agdam road. Then there was what is still—rightly—called the pogram in Sumgait, in which many Armenians were killed in the most horrendous circumstances. There were riots for three days and then the Soviet Army intervened. As if that were not enough, in December 1988 there was an enormous earthquake, which killed 25,000 people in what was then called Leninakan and is now Gyumri.
That period saw increasing tension along the borders, including in January 1990 an air and rail blockade by the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, another pogrom, and finally Gorbachev declaring a state of emergency. There was fighting throughout the Azeri cities, and then, in spring 1991, Operation Ring, in which Ayas Mutalibov—the Azerbaijani leader, who was seen at the time as one of the new wave of non-communist leaders that included Yeltsin, who had just been elected in Russia, and Levon Ter-Petrossian in Armenia—launched a military offensive against Armenians in the Shahumyan area, with a view to ethnically cleansing the area. That is when the diaspora, personified in some ways by Monte Melkonian, who was one of the great leaders, realised that it had to support ethnic Armenians in their homeland.
Gorbachev resigned in December 1991. That allowed the old Soviet Union to collapse in the south Caucasus region. Azerbaijan voted to rescind the autonomous oblast status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenians did the same and declared independence on 6 January 1992.
Then the war started, and it was a war. There was a complete imbalance between the two armies. Together, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia had 170 tanks and 360 armoured personnel carriers, but no fighter aircraft. The Azeris had 300 tanks, the same number of APCs and, crucially, 170 fighter aircraft. They were helicopter gunships—the old Mil Mi-24s that were left over from the Russian retreat. Throughout this sad and sorry story, almost all the weapons, armaments, ordnance and artillery pieces were left by the retreating Russians. It was like there was a vast warehouse of weaponry throughout the south Caucasus—an enormous bonfire waiting for the spark.
There were appalling scenes throughout the war. There were accusations of atrocities on both sides, many of which have been investigated. In May 1992, the war took a crucial turn when the Armenians captured the headland or redoubt of the Azerbaijan army in the area that most people now know as Shushi, but which at that time was called Shusha. At that time, much of the fighting was being done by Chechens, who were fighting for jihad. Their leader, Shamil Basayev, referred to the soldiers of the so-called Dashnak battalion, which is also known as the Dashnaktsutyun or the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, as the only people who had ever defeated him.
I could describe the war further, but that is not really the point of this debate. Towards the end of the war, in January 1994, even by the horrific standards of modern warfare, things had got to an almost unbearably painful phase. Azerbaijan extended the call-up to boys of 16. The war entered what objective, independent observers call the “human wave” phase. Andrei Sakharov, who is often quoted in this Chamber, said at the time:
“For Azerbaijan the issue of Karabakh is a matter of ambition, for the Armenians of Karabakh, it is a matter of life or death”.
The peace process started. In 1994, it was recognised that it was, in effect, a frozen conflict. The Minsk group, with its three co-chairs, who are currently Igor Popov from the Russian Federation, Jacques Faure from France and James Warlick of the USA, is working as hard as it can to move matters forward. I hope and believe that it is doing so with the support, knowledge and understanding of Her Majesty’s Government. The co-chairs visited Baku and Yerevan just this month.
However, matters along the line of contact are not good. Twenty soldiers were killed along the ceasefire line in 2013, despite the existence of the ceasefire. There were nearly 200 ceasefire violations between 2 and 8 February of this year. Often, the violations involve people firing across the border, including snipers, but there are also more violent incidents. The line of contact is porous and is coming under increased pressure.
People will be asking themselves the question, as I would be if I were listening to this debate, “What can we do?” Every Member of Parliament is inundated by letters saying, “Please put pressure on country X or nation Y and do something about it.” What can we do in this case? I think that we have a crucial role to play. There is not a massive amount of trade between the United Kingdom and Armenia. Fewer than 10 UK firms are active in Armenia. We gave Armenia £882,000 in aid last year. I pay credit to our remarkable joint ambassadors in Yerevan, Kathy Leach and Jonathan Aves, who work extraordinarily hard to progress British trade interests in the area. However, we could do much more. By contrast, Azerbaijan was given £1,335,000 in aid over the same period, and we have very close trade links. The United Kingdom is actually the 15th largest trade partner of Azerbaijan, and the major role of BP in oil extraction, refining and marketing cannot be underestimated.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Azerbaijan. Our trading links go much further than that, and indeed, we are by far the biggest investor in Azerbaijan through BP and other companies in that sector. The country is increasingly important to the British economy, and I hope he will reflect that in his comments.
I am grateful, and I place on record my appreciation for the hon. Gentleman and the work he is undertaking in that area. To show how important that link is, when President Ilham Aliyev made critical comments fairly recently—I think it was on 17 October 2012—in connection with British Petroleum’s output from the Azeri–Chirag–Guneshli field, our ambassador to Azerbaijan, Peter Bateman, said:
“I shall be calling on BP in London next week to find out what more, if anything, we can do to help”.
That shows a remarkable degree of association with the British Government, and of involvement at a very high level. Indeed, the FCO was vital in negotiating what was widely called the “contract of the century”, which was signed in Azerbaijan in 1994. Co-operation was so close that when we first posted ambassadorial staff to the Republic of Azerbaijan they were located in BP’s offices in Baku. The relationship continues and prospers. In fact, the Foreign Secretary attended the signing ceremony for the final investment decision on the Shah Deniz 2 project in Baku.
The Foreign Secretary told me in response to a parliamentary question that he raised human rights issues on that visit. Does my hon. Friend know, and will he press the Minister on whether the Foreign Secretary also raised the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh?
Like many Members, I was in the Chamber for the debate that my hon. Friend initiated on that issue, but I think, with respect, that the Minister may be a more appropriate person to respond. I am not entirely privy to every detail of the negotiations and discussions, but I certainly recall the debate on this important issue.
There are some signs of movement. Just this week, the United States ambassador to Azerbaijan, Richard Morningstar, issued a statement to say that the United States is being even more active in resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict than in the past. He said:
“I can understand the frustration of the Azerbaijani people about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. We are committed to trying to bring about resolution. It is a good thing that presidents met in November.”
There is some movement. This week, the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk group have spoken of their hope for moving forward on this issue, particularly because of the additional truce that was agreed before the winter games in Sochi.
Human rights issues in Azerbaijan are probably not the subject of this debate, but I am looking to get some movement to allow some peace to return to a deeply troubled part of the world. This may be commonplace and obvious, and it may almost be otiose for me to say it, but it is one of the great tragedies that some of the most beautiful parts of the world are the places that are most troubled. One thinks of parts of central Africa, East Timor, and so many countries of great heart-stopping beauty. Anyone who has been to Nagorno-Karabakh—as I know many Members of the House have—will never forget those great sweeping, soaring mountains, those deep, eye-stretching valleys, and the churches going back nearly 2,000 years, with distinctive Armenian crosses everywhere one looks. We need to do something to bring back that peace.
In addition, we are approaching the anniversary of the great Armenian genocide of 1915. If ever there was a time when this House could look to Armenia with support, friendship and solidarity, it is as we approach this anniversary. The Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) is not in the Chamber, but I notified him that I was likely to mention his name. Every time we have discussed the Armenian genocide and the current situation, he has chosen to use comments such as “the so-called genocide” and say how he disapproves of any democratic opposition in Azerbaijan. He never misses an opportunity to defend President Aliyev. That is a shame, because I would have thought that if there is one thing the House can agree on it is that a genocide of the most horrendous proportions did take place in Anatolia, Van and what was then called western Armenia. The 1915 genocide was the third genocide and was particularly horrendous. Would it not be a good thing if we were to lend our support, put our shoulder to the wheel, and try to move Minsk forward in time for the commemorations of this appalling genocide?
Some would say, “Can we not put this matter behind us?” I am not Armenian and I am not Azeri. I do not have a drop of blood of either of those nations in my veins. However, I cannot help but note that even though much of what we talked about this evening appears to be in the past, it is a past that still resonates.
Many people will know the situation that occurred on 18 February 2004. Extraordinarily, soldiers from Azerbaijan and Armenia were present at a NATO partnership for peace activity in Budapest. One Azerbaijani soldier, Ramil Safarov, decided to buy an axe and take the head off an Armenian soldier, Gurgen Markarian. This happened in Hungary in 2004. This is not ancient history; this is recent history. At the time, the Azerbaijan human rights commissioner said that Safarov must become an example of patriotism for Azerbaijani youth and the National Democratic party awarded him the man of the year award in 2005. When the Hungarians released Ramil Safarov, he returned to Azerbaijan to be promoted to the rank of major. He received eight years back pay and was given accommodation. It is that raw and it is that recent. My point is that these emotions simply cannot be allowed to fester. When we have a feeling of animosity between two peoples that leads to a fellow soldier on a NATO joint exercise decapitating another soldier, that is something intensely felt and we must be able to somehow push that forward and improve the situation.
The British Government cannot demand action, but what we can do is to show our concern. I know the Minister and respect him, as do most in the House. We have an opportunity to put down a marker: to say it was an awful, bloody and terrible war, but that it finished 20 years ago. Let us finally end this awful conflict, and allow two nations to emerge into the sunshine to live in peace. Then we can talk about human rights, but at least let us talk without the sound of gunfire, without the smell of cordite and without the chill anticipation of death.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) on securing the debate and on the extremely articulate, comprehensive and passionate way in which he set out his case. He combined a detailed understanding of the history with an extreme passion for trying to find a satisfactory lasting resolution to this long-standing conflict in the south Caucasus region. He, and all Members of this House, will be extremely concerned with the lack of progress in resolving this conflict. This is not just an issue for Members of this House, but for many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, as well as those people living in the south Caucasus region.
The hon. Gentleman was right to highlight the fact that the conflict dates back to before world war one. Its causes are very deep-rooted. The conflict that broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh as the Soviet Union disintegrated created not only the problems to which he alluded but hundreds of thousands of refugees. For many of those refugees, the situation either has not improved or has improved little since then. The conflict continues to hamper development in both Armenia and Azerbaijan and cause further instability in the already troubled region of the south Caucasus.
It goes without saying that finding a lasting solution will be vital in alleviating the suffering still felt in the region. I am extremely grateful for the work being done by the hon. Gentleman and other Members of both Houses to raise awareness of that tragic conflict. Of course, it does not need to be said that we are not much further on than we were 20 years ago, and we are almost at that 20th anniversary.
The hon. Gentleman used the phrase “a frozen conflict”. Let me gently say that I think that that is misleading. As he rightly pointed out, fighting continues to this day. The UK is concerned by the ongoing breach of the ceasefire along the line of contact as well as along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. There were reports of increasing numbers of ceasefire violations in January and early February, as he rightly mentioned. We were pleased that the Presidents of both countries committed to a truce during the winter Olympics. While fighting continues, there is always a danger of escalation, whether that is deliberate or not, and we urge both sides to exercise restraint and avoid provocation.
The UK strongly supports the work of the co-chairs of the Minsk group-led peace process and I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. We also recognise the frustration that he rightly articulated about the fact that progress has been slow and that it feels as though we are no closer to a resolution than we were 20 years ago. However, at last year’s G8 summit in Lough Erne the three co-chairs primarily made the point that it was for the Armenian and Azerbaijani Governments to take ownership of the peace process. It is their conflict and they must take responsibility to resolve it. Of course, the co-chairs work hard to facilitate progress and we and the international community stand ready to provide further support when the time is right.
The UK is concerned that neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is creating a situation in which a peace agreement would be acceptable to their populations. A generation of people from both countries now exists that has had no contact with anyone from the other country. That is all the more regrettable given that throughout much of the region’s history the two communities resided peacefully alongside each other, as they still do in neighbouring Georgia. Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in isolation goes against that trend and we need collectively to address that.
The perceptions that many citizens of both countries have of their close neighbour are now founded on negative stereotypes and aggressive rhetoric. Neither Government have done enough to counter that image and, at times, they have actively encouraged those perceptions. The longer the conflict continues and the longer both Governments shy from preparing their populations for peace, the greater the loss of life will be for both sides and the more difficult it will be to find a lasting solution to the conflict. The UK Government do not underestimate the fact that finding peace will involve difficult decisions and compromises. Despite the difficulties, we are committed to doing everything we can to foster efforts to find a resolution to the conflict.
We continue to encourage Azerbaijan and Armenia to follow the Madrid principles, to exercise restraint, to avoid provocation and to redouble efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement based on the principles of refraining from the threat or use of force, territorial integrity and the people’s right to self-determination.
The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) rightly mentioned the Foreign Secretary’s discussions, and I can assure her, the hon. Member for Ealing North and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who has a particular passion for the plight of Christians everywhere in the world, that the Foreign Secretary raised the importance of human rights and Nagorno-Karabakh when he met President Aliyev. He also raised those issues with Armenian Foreign Minister Nalbandian last May. We regularly speak and raise these important issues with representatives of both Governments at all levels.
The UK has invested more than £1.5 million over the last three years funding projects that attempt to break down walls and develop an understanding between the communities affected by the conflict. However, the leaders of both sides must play their part, and we consistently urge Armenia and Azerbaijan to work with the Minsk group to reduce tensions and create an environment conducive to a peaceful, long-lasting settlement. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), the Prime Minister’s special trade envoy to Azerbaijan, was right that a peaceful solution will be beneficial, in economic and trade terms, to Azerbaijan, Armenia and the whole of the south Caucasus. We feel that is a way for the UK to play a significant part in engagement and reducing tensions, and we specifically encouraged the meeting of the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, which happened last November, after almost two years, and we hope that further meetings between them will take place soon.
These two countries occupy a pivotal geographical position just east of the EU and are an important part of the EU’s wider neighbourhood, and the EU works with them through the Eastern Partnership. Both have huge potential, vibrant, dynamic populations and geostrategic locations, situated, as they are, between Europe and Asia, with Russia to the north and the Gulf states to the south. The south Caucasus can be a crossroads for trade, transport and energy, linking China, central Asia, the Caspian sea, Turkey, Europe and the middle east. Given that potential, it is hugely disappointing that this conflict remains unresolved, not least as we approach the 20th anniversary of the ceasefire agreement this May. The UK, as a friend of both countries, will continue to support all efforts to resolve this protracted conflict. These efforts are crucial to helping both countries and the broader south Caucasus region reap the substantial rewards and benefits that lasting peace and stability will bring.
Question put and agreed to.