Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I thank all those who have supported and helped me in securing this debate on Azerbaijan and the south Caucasus. Azerbaijan is a country I know well. I have to declare an interest as a member of the European Azerbaijan Society’s advisory board, for which I receive an honorarium. Also, I have visited Azerbaijan at their expense.
The subject of this debate is the UK’s relations with Azerbaijan and the south Caucasus. These relations go back many years. The UK was one of the first western nations to open an embassy in Azerbaijan after it gained independence in 1991. In 1994, energy Minister Tim Eggar signed the “contract of the century” which installed BP as the lead company in developing Azerbaijan's oil resources, a pivotal position which it maintains to this day.
In common with all those who visit Azerbaijan—not just Baku but also the regional cities and the countryside—I see a country which is benefiting from the proceeds of oil and gas wealth. New infrastructure is being built, and not only in Baku. Evidence of wealth trickling down is provided by the United Nations. Their figures show that poverty levels have been reduced from 49% in 2002 to 11% in 2009. The president is genuinely popular, and people are optimistic about the future of the country.
However, there is one large cloud which hangs over the whole country. That cloud is the 20 year-old conflict with Armenia, which is the continuing illegal military occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding Azerbaijani regions. There are also the resultant 875,000 refugees and internally displaced persons who are still unable to return to their homes and lands. This is despite more than 20 years of talks under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group, and four UN Security Council resolutions instructing Armenia to withdraw its forces.
This ongoing conflict is far from being frozen, as some commentators describe it. I am sad to say that every week there are casualties along the line of contact, with small arms fire and mortar fire being exchanged. However, the casualties go far beyond the immediate proximity of the combat zone, and even beyond the refugee and the internally displaced persons camps.
There has also been a blurring of the lines, with some Armenians unable to separate Nagorno-Karabakh from their campaign for recognition of the genocide. That campaign has included violent action, spreading from Paris to California. The Armenian terrorists responsible were released as a result of Armenian diplomatic pressure, and on their return home were feted as heroes. Recently Azerbaijan pardoned Ramil Safarov, who was convicted of murdering an Armenian officer in Hungary, and when he, in turn, was feted on his homecoming, this led to increased tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and some bellicose statements by the Armenian Government and Armenian pressure groups.
As in any conflict, there are faults on both sides. It is always tempting for both sides simply to rehearse past wrongs. The inability to forgive and forget previous atrocities is, however, only part of the problem. The make-up of the OSCE Minsk Group means that it is seriously compromised. The three permanent chairs are the United States, France and Russia. These just happen to be the three countries with the largest Armenian diaspora anywhere in the world, and this makes it extremely difficult for the Minsk Group to develop a workable compromise. Has this point been recognised by Her Majesty's Government?
This is where the UK can play a constructive role. The UK's involvement in Azerbaijan goes right back to the first oil boom at the turn of the 20th century. In Baku, I have visited the war memorial to British servicemen who died defending the oil fields during the First World War. More recently, as I mentioned, the UK was quick to recognise Azerbaijan's independence, setting up an embassy very quickly, and positioning itself from the outset to help to develop the second oil boom and the new gas boom. Given the length of our involvement with Azerbaijan and our close involvement in developing the country's energy resources, do the Government think that it is appropriate that they take a more active interest in the plight of the refugees? What proposals do they have to take a more active interest in the search for a resolution to the conflict?
On a more practical level, one of the primary objectives of the coalition Government and of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is to help the UK economy to grow by fostering trade and investment links. In that context, do the Government consider that it is time that a Cabinet Minister should visit Azerbaijan? During the past year, eight heads of state and heads of government have visited the country. Such a high-level visit would be most meaningful to the Azerbaijan Government and people. What plans do the Government have to send a senior government Minister to Azerbaijan in the near future? I note that many recent contracts for construction and infrastructure have been awarded to non-UK companies. Outside the energy sector, we seem to be missing out on contracts because of our failure to send top-level representation to the country.
I conclude by reminding noble Lords of our long association with Azerbaijan and the huge amount of investment that is at stake. The country is barely 20 years old and is not yet a fully developed democracy by western European standards. However, by the standards of the region, it has a good story to tell and it can only benefit both sides if we engage more closely. The UK can benefit even more from trade and industry. Once a peaceful settlement of the conflict has been achieved and the refugees and the internally displaced persons have returned to their homes, progress towards becoming a fully fledged democracy can be completed. I thank the Minister and noble Lords for listening closely to my remarks and I look forward to the response in due course.
My Lords, Shakespeare wrote,
“O, who can hold a fire in his hand,
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?”.
We should indeed be thinking more about the frosty Caucasus and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Laird, for bringing the region, especially Azerbaijan, to our attention. This is a timely debate, since our EU Select Committee has just embarked on an inquiry into EU enlargement. It is a time when there are doubts even about the viability of fellow member states, let alone our neighbours in the Balkans or others further east. I am thinking, of course, of our economic crisis but also of belated worries about the judiciary in Romania and Bulgaria. I am one of those who would like to see much closer relations with the south Caucasus within a wider European fraternity. The Commission seems to think and act the same, but it does not call it “enlargement”.
As member states, we live in a time of great hesitancy and we, the British, generally do not like to commit ourselves to anything new—especially this Government. But Georgia for me is a good test of the real intentions of the EU over the coming decade. While in the West we are concerned day by day about the inner eurozone and its economic impact on the 27, we seem to lose sight of the enormous political and strategic dimensions of eastern Europe, especially the impacts of the West on the old Cold War frontiers and in the zone of continuing Russian influence. With the recent Nobel Peace Prize quite rightly awarded to the EU, it must be in Europe’s interest to share her experience of the rule of law and fundamental rights as a means of achieving greater freedom and political stability elsewhere.
No one is talking about political union or even a federation; people are talking about a gradual strengthening of relations along the fringes of Europe where enlargement or an enlarged association might take place. Some would say that we are already doing that in Kosovo to secure the border with Serbia—they are both states that seem some way away from full membership, although Kosovo is entering a new stabilisation and association process. We may be undertaking something very similar in the south Caucasus in the future. However, Kosovo has been a whipping boy for a number of states that fear separatist tendencies in other countries—namely, the Basques and the Catalans in Spain and the attempted breakaway of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, now recognised by Russia and only a handful of mainly Pacific and South American sympathisers.
The fragile borders with these territories remind me of the EULEX programme in Kosovo—going nowhere but keeping a fragile peace along the river at Mitrovica. The EU monitoring mission has similarly been critical to the prevention of conflict along the so-called administrative boundary lines on Georgia’s northern border. The mission was established after the war in 2008 to monitor compliance with the 12 August plan and the agreement between Presidents Sarkozy and Medvedev on 8 September. Since the Russian veto closed the UN and OSCE missions in June 2009, it has been the only international monitoring presence in the area and, remarkably, the only CSDP mission to which all 27 member states contribute personnel.
Georgia has also entered an association agreement with the EU. The Minister may well point to the enormous investment that the EU is making in the Caucasus arising from the partnership formed after the August 2008 conflict. This is the EU’s little known Eastern Partnership, which covers Georgia and five other former Soviet Union republics. It is benefiting from a €600 million aid programme in 2010-13 to include reform, institution building and regional development. There are many other examples of aid from the European Union, which make it possible for us to have closed our international development programme.
I have been lucky to keep a group of Georgian friends, some of them dating back to my visit to Tbilisi in 1964. Most are in exile, but they keep me informed of events in Georgia. While wanting improved relations with Europe, they were never enthusiastic about President Saakashvili’s style of government. They are more hopeful of change under Ivanishvili, the new billionaire Prime Minister, while not quite knowing his intentions. He is a rather maverick character but, by all accounts, a benevolent, art-loving oligarch. While his fortune was made in Russia, they do not accept the smear that he will necessarily take a pro-Russian stance. Nevertheless, having just appointed a new special envoy to Russia, he clearly wants to rebuild confidence on both sides and, above all, new trade links.
Let us not forget that Georgia is to Russia a little like Ireland has been to England—romantic, wild, poetic, violent and rebellious. It cannot be culturally cut off from Russia and should not be soldered on to the EU either. It must inevitably now find some modus vivendi with Moscow. Georgia signed the European Convention on Human Rights in 1997 and became a member of the Council of Europe two years later. However, there have been serious concerns about Georgia’s human rights record under President Saakashvili. Excessive force, for example, was used by police against protesters on 26 May last year and, while four officers were dismissed by the Interior Ministry, no independent public investigation took place and allegations against the police were never followed up. That is just one small example of the need for the spreading of the rule of law.
What exactly is the reason for the EU’s deepening engagement with this region? Does the Minister believe there have been substantial internal reforms in Georgia justifying this level of international support or does he think that the EU Commission has an eastern mission to contain the sphere of Russian political, and perhaps military, influence? It is 12 years since the CSDP was developed in Cologne and Nice. According to the EEAS website,
“the EU’s role as a security player is rapidly expanding”.
Is HMG satisfied that this expansion is taking place with the support of the whole international community?
My Lords, I am thankful for the opportunity to speak in the debate this afternoon, not least because of my increasingly close relationship with Azerbaijan following my visit there in June this year. I hold a deep conviction for increasing our ties with the country and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, for securing this debate.
I visited Azerbaijan with my colleagues the noble Lords, Lord Dykes, Lord Risby and Lord Patel of Bradford, and we were privileged to hold a number of successful meetings with senior figures, including the President of Azerbaijan. We learnt a great deal about the modern-day concerns of the country, what we share with them, what our differences are and how we can assist each other and build on our relationship in the future.
As a businessman, perhaps my foremost concern was establishing how we can further our trade and investment opportunities. The UK is already responsible for half of all foreign investment in Azerbaijan, investing nearly £1 billion in 2010. Most of this comes from BP’s investments in oil projects, although we have more than 175 other companies investing in commercial activities over there. The state-owned oil company, SOCAR, has worked closely with BP for many years. I believe that we need to use this as a platform on which to build further on trade and take advantage of opportunities beyond the energy sector.
I am sorry about that.
Azerbaijan has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and there are a number of sectors within which it is looking to expand, including finance, telecommunications and infrastructure. Other European countries have recently secured a number of high-profile contracts in technology and construction. We must harness our current relationship with Azerbaijan to increase our trade with it before more countries beat us to it.
I understand that the Azeri Government currently hold a surplus of cash and are keen to explore the potential for their investments in foreign businesses and properties. Securing such inward investment in the UK would be of great assistance in these troubled times. In assisting this effort, I would like to see more high-profile trade missions to the region or at least more senior ministerial visits to Azerbaijan. I applaud the Prime Minister’s current tour of the UAE and would like similar action to be taken to acknowledge the potential for future trade and investment with Azerbaijan.
During my visit, I was also struck by the social and cultural reform taking place in the country. I met the Sport and Youth Minister and understand that Azerbaijan has a desire to increase its sporting sector, as it has a new-found appreciation for the social, economic and health benefits gained through team-centred physical activity. I feel that we need to look into providing assistance to develop new sports programmes and summer camps for young people. Such an offer seems particularly timely given our sporting legacy this past summer and the long-term implications for increasing the health and stability of the country.
I attended a meeting chaired by the Minister of Religion, where the discussions related to the new wave of religious moderation spreading across the country, with which young people are increasingly engaging. There were delegates from across the region and I was impressed with their attitude to promote the true message of Islam as a religion of peace. I found that, as well as generally opening up the country to the international community, this was very encouraging for its prospects in combating terrorism, which remains one of its Government’s priorities.
This wide liberal shift in attitudes is also evidenced through SOCAR’s new drive towards corporate social responsibility. As a large state-owned company, it is leading by example by implementing a long-term environmental strategy, with commitments on pollution prevention and waste management, as well as acknowledging the need to address issues of biodiversity and sustainable development. It is simultaneously reducing its carbon emissions and increasing the efficiency with which it uses natural resources. Perhaps more impressively, it is constructing an ecological park to regenerate contaminated land and provide educational facilities for children.
It is safe to say that the international community is already recognising the changes that Azerbaijan has been making, having elected it a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2012-14 and progressing negotiations on the EU-Azerbaijan association agreement. These are historic milestones for the country and represent a more assured and stable relationship with the UK and other countries around the world. Colleagues will be aware of Azerbaijan’s continual state of conflict with the Republic of Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which constitutes 20% of Azeri territory. This issue continues to be Azerbaijan’s largest diplomatic challenge and a source of wider instability throughout the region. It is very important that we continue to pledge our full support to the OSCE Minsk Group peace process and to be very proactive in keeping both sides at the negotiating table.
I hope that my contribution has evidenced not only how proud we should be of our ties with Azerbaijan but also the very substantial potential heading forward. During my visit I noticed that society in Azerbaijan has become freer and more prosperous since gaining independence more than 20 years ago. The Azeri Government appeared highly enthusiastic about advancing international engagements economically, culturally and politically and I would like the UK to play an active part in this.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the British-Armenian All-Party Parliamentary Group and as a recipient of awards from the Governments of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. I have visited the region 78 times, many during the war against Karabakh. I regret that my contribution to this debate will be unpopular, because it is critical of Azerbaijan, but it is based on first-hand evidence.
I begin with a brief reference to aspects of recent history relevant to current issues. I visited Azerbaijan in 1991, when I met the then president and political leaders. I was dismayed by the explicit commitment to ethnic cleansing of the Armenians from the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. I also visited Karabakh then and met Azeris living in homes which had recently been owned by Armenians who had been evicted by Azerbaijan’s well documented policy, Operation Ring, in which Armenian villagers were surrounded by Azeri troops who killed, tortured and drove villagers off their land.
I tried to follow the example of Andrei Sakharov, who was committed to being on the side of the victim. Clearly, the Armenians were the primary victims as they had already been victims in the massacres in Baku and Sumgait. Then Azerbaijan unleashed full-scale war. I witnessed 400 Grad missiles daily raining onto Karabakh’s capital city, an aerial bombardment of civilian homes with 500 kilogram bombs. I also witnessed war crimes perpetrated by Azerbaijan on Armenian civilians at Karabakh, such as the cold-blooded massacre of villagers in Maragha. I was there hours afterwards and saw corpses whose heads had been sawn off and burnt, mutilated bodies. I visited Khojaly and can testify that the tragic events were not as portrayed by Azerbaijan—a massacre of Azeris by Armenians. Independent journalists and Azerbaijan’s former President Mutalibov have publicly come to the same conclusion.
It is important to understand that the capture of Azeri territories by Armenians was not aggressive land grabbing, but essential for survival, as they were used as bases for constant shelling of towns and villages inside Karabakh. I was there when one ceasefire was broken by Azerbaijan, with renewed bombing from Azeri bases in these lands. Therefore, continued occupation needs to be understood as a necessary buffer zone in any peace agreement.
This recent history is relevant to current concerns as the 1994 ceasefire is precarious. There is an urgent need for peace for the peoples of Azerbaijan and Armenia and because the peoples of the south Caucasus do not want another destabilising regional war. However, Azerbaijan’s continuing hostile policies are detrimental to attempts to reach a solution to this semi-frozen conflict. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Laird, mentioned the case of Ramil Safarov, the Azeri military officer who used an axe to murder an Armenian officer in his sleep while both men were attending a NATO course in Budapest in 2004. Safarov was arrested, convicted and sentenced to a lengthy term of imprisonment. But, when Hungary repatriated Safarov to Azerbaijan, on the understanding that he would continue to serve his prison sentence, he was released from prison and welcomed as a hero. According to the Economist in September 2012, this led to a new war of words in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
Patrick Ventrell, spokesman for the US State Department, said that the United States was extremely troubled by the pardon of Safarov and would be seeking an explanation from both Budapest and Baku. Russia, involved in trying to ease relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, said that the actions of the Hungarian and Azeri Governments contradicted internationally brokered efforts to bring peace to the region. May I ask the Minister what representations have been made by Her Majesty’s Government to Azerbaijan concerning the release and the honouring of the convicted murderer Safarov?
The Economist also raised questions about the EU’s credibility when it pledged €19.5 million to reform oil-rich Azerbaijan’s justice and migration systems. Since 2006, Azerbaijan’s economy, with its vast oil and gas reserves, has nearly tripled to $62 billion. May I ask the Minister what the EU’s justification was in giving €19.5 million to such a wealthy country? Moreover, there is widely-held concern over Azerbaijan’s massive investment in its military arsenal—a 20-fold increase in seven years. Apart from expenditure on arms, in a nation where many still live in poverty, there is deep anxiety over the propensity to renew war with Nagorno-Karabakh. This danger is exacerbated by Azerbaijan’s constant use of belligerent and hostile propaganda, which is not conducive to confidence-building or effective peace negotiations.
Finally, I refer to Azerbaijan’s disturbing record on human rights, particularly on freedom of the press and religious freedom. Accordingly to an article in Time magazine in April this year:
“Despite Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet economic success, international critics say the country remains an autocracy with little respect for human rights…The Human Rights House Foundation described the country’s most recent elections in 2010 as a farce. Azeri citizens who criticise the political elite face reprisal…Azeri authorities have ignored dozens of assaults on journalists in recent years, including two murders. According to the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human rights NGO, about 70 people are in jail for political reasons, where many are allegedly tortured.”.
There have also been frequent reports by Forum 18 of imprisonment of people for their religious beliefs. May I ask the Minister whether Her Majesty’s Government have raised these widely-publicised concerns over violations of fundamental human rights with the Government of Azerbaijan? Or does the situation remain as it did on a previous occasion several years ago, when I raised the issue of Azerbaijan’s violation of international human rights conventions when it was dropping cluster bombs on civilians? I was told by a senior representative from the Foreign Office:
“No country has an interest in other countries, only interests—and we have oil interests in Azerbaijan.”.
Azerbaijan pours massive funds into propaganda, disseminating positive images of its progress while trying to prevent access to Karabakh by intimidating potential visitors who wish to see the situation there for themselves. After one of my visits in recent years, an article appeared in an Azeri newspaper, entitled “Shoot the Cox!”. Parliamentarians visiting Armenia receive letters from Azeri authorities threatening to place them on a blacklist if they visit Karabakh. The British Ambassador is still not allowed to visit Karabakh, although the political and diplomatic representatives of other nations do so. Therefore, it is hard for the Armenians of Karabakh to have their story of Azerbaijan’s policies told.
I deeply regret having had to make such a critical speech. Of course, I can be accused of partiality, but if my contribution is partial, it is accurate, based on first-hand evidence and corroborated by many independent sources. I hope it is helpful to put on record some often untold aspects of the situation, because the search for a just and lasting peace can only be based on an understanding of historic and contemporary reality in all its multi-faceted complexity.
My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as someone who has visited Azerbaijan many times, although not nearly as often as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has visited Armenia. I took an interest in Azerbaijan and Armenia when I was in the European Parliament over 20 years ago and then more recently when I was in the Council of Europe. I was one of those who argued strongly for Azerbaijan and Armenia to join the Council of Europe on the same day, in the hope that by doing so and bringing both in equally, it would lead to a resolution of some of the very sensitive problems that exist. We have heard one extreme example of the problems in that part of the world.
I want to underline very quickly one or two things that have already been mentioned. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, mentioned United Kingdom investment. As he said, 50% of the foreign investment in Azerbaijan is by the United Kingdom—mainly in the energy field, of course. As the noble Lord, Lord Laird, mentioned, we must try to get greater British interest in other aspects of investment in Azerbaijan. I congratulate him on securing this debate.
It is a reflection on not only the present Government but earlier Governments that we as a nation, while so heavily involved financially in Azerbaijan, have never sent anyone more senior than a Minister of State to that country. Yet we find that even in the last two years, some 15 top politicians in Europe have visited Azerbaijan. Among them are the Prime Minister of Turkey—naturally, because Turkey and Azerbaijan have very close connections—but also the Foreign Minister of Germany and the French, Austrian, Czech and Polish Presidents. I could continue. These countries do not have as great an investment nor interest in Azerbaijan as we in the United Kingdom have. When one goes to Baku, it feels like little Scotland because there are so many people there from the oil industry. This is why we should be investing more in Azerbaijan and ensuring that the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary go there in the near future. One thing for which we must pay tribute to the present Foreign Secretary of our nation is that he has been developing contacts with foreign countries right around the world. I would like to see him take a further initiative in Azerbaijan to strengthen the British economic presence there.
As has been mentioned, we need to remember that Azerbaijan is a member of the Security Council of the United Nations and will be an important country over the next two years in terms of foreign affairs. It is a partner of NATO, facilitating what is going on in Afghanistan. However, we must always remember that there are two countries looking very closely at Azerbaijan which could destabilise it. One is Russia and the other is to the south: Iran. When I was there I discovered that Iran is now beginning to influence the mosques in the south of the country, and that is always a threat to stability in a Muslim nation. As for Russia—that pillar of democracy—when I monitored the elections on one of my last visits to Azerbaijan, who had the largest delegation there to ensure that democracy was taking place? Russia. They had even more there than the OSCE or the European Union. That is a warning that these two countries are watching Azerbaijan.
One of my great experiences when I went to Azerbaijan a few years ago was going to the border with Russia near Dagestan. I was monitoring an election in the city of Guba. It is mainly Jewish; I had not realised there were so many Jews living in Azerbaijan. It was a most wonderfully controlled election. The officers in the polling stations were very efficient, and it was a great thing to see in a Muslim nation that Jews were happy and welcomed as equal citizens.
However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, mentioned, there is of course the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh. Twenty per cent of Azerbaijan is now occupied by Armenia. It is supported by Russia, which also has troops based in Armenia: do not ignore that fact. The United Kingdom should join the United Nations, NATO, the European Parliament and the European Commission in supporting Azerbaijan’s right to reassume control over its own sovereign territory.
I underline what the noble Lord, Lord Laird, said about the Minsk partners. Every time I look at who they are, I realise that there is no chance of them settling the problem. I was deputy leader of my own party in Parliament when we negotiated the Anglo-Irish agreement. There were three elements to it. One element was Irish-British relations. Another, of which I was in charge, was Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland relations. That was a very difficult subject, just like Armenia and Azerbaijan. You had to have an impartial chairman to succeed. Once we have the Minsk process we do not have an impartial organisation. I am sorry to say that it is biased in favour of Armenia.
I am not asking the Minister to reply to any questions tonight. I must apologise because I have to leave quickly. I have a meeting arranged with Christians and Muslims of the Middle East at 7.30 pm. However, one thing we need to look at is how to get someone impartial to help Azerbaijan and Armenia reach a settlement over this very difficult subject of Nagorno-Karabakh, which could explode and destroy stability in that whole region if it is not handled carefully. One thing I ask of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is that we join together in opposition to Azerbaijan when it next plays Northern Ireland in the football.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to underline a couple of the points which have been made in this debate. I declare my interest. I have been to Azerbaijan this year, supported by the European Azerbaijan Society. One of the things that has clearly come out of this debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Laird, is the huge amount of foreign direct investment that the UK has in that country. What needs underlining is the potential for more. It is a country which has enormous amounts of regeneration prospects and the opportunity for other forms of investment from UK companies. I am afraid that we may be losing out to others, particularly Germany, which is seeking to do better and bigger business there as well.
In his winding up, will the Minister agree that we need a high-level trade delegation from this country led by a senior Minister to promote those new opportunities? After all, this country needs more opportunity to trade, to invest and to gain funding for this country.
The second issue that needs underlining underpinned some of our discussion. The amount of trade and investment that we have enables this country to be a critical friend of Azerbaijan. After all, we must recognise that it is not a perfect democracy—perhaps not even ours is a perfect democracy. It has had 21 years of existence since its life within the Soviet Union but it takes a huge amount of time to make the changes to reach a full democratic status. It is a country leaning towards that and it wants to achieve it.
As a critical friend, it seems that that is a role that the UK is well established to play. I regard investment in human rights and investment in justice systems as a crucial part of that journey, which I think this country wants to move on to. I suggest that justice systems’ support, supporting alternative measures and ways of approaching public order issues are things that this country can achieve. I believe that it is much better to support that from within than to try to complain from without.
We are in a unique position to influence the way in which Azerbaijan moves forward. It wants to move forward in a direction to which this country is sympathetic and I believe that we can undertake that. I have met Opposition MPs in Azerbaijan who have a role in human rights and say that they need support and help. They are not overcritical of the way in which their Government behave but they need the extra help that this Government could provide in the way of support. They need support for a free and open media. They have Opposition-leaning newspapers but we can provide more assistance in that direction.
In summing up, I hope that the Minister will give reassurance to noble Lords that we will be a critical but supportive friend working from within.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, for giving us the opportunity to have this discussion. The debate illustrates the difficulties faced by the United Kingdom in balancing, on the one hand, a complex set of concerns which do not always sit comfortably together and, on the other, a very small capability as a single sovereign nation to influence the trajectory of the region. The issues concern us, but it may be more realistic to recognise that it is our work through the European Union and NATO that is likely to have the greatest impact on the country and the region.
I am obviously aware, as noble Lords have been throughout the debate, of the struggles for independence that have taken place in Azerbaijan and the region more generally. I emphasise that history because it appears to me that it is shared to a greater or lesser extent by the whole region. Independence has been fought for in many ways and with diverse allies, each with their own motivations. At the moment, at the heart of all these struggles, one can see the assertion of national identity, but it is based on some very different premises—some national, some subnational, some regional, some ethnic, some religious—in their identity. It is perhaps unsurprising that deep fault lines have appeared and will continue to appear, making it difficult to find simple solutions.
For those reasons, the previous United Kingdom Government and, I believe, the current one, have been consistently concerned about the dangers inherent in conflicts between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territories, the question of the ethnic Armenians in the enclave and the alliances which have been formed around them. What does the Minister believe are the still current and useful bases of the Madrid principles and the work being done by the Minsk group? Do the Government believe that we can achieve a withdrawal of remaining Armenian forces from the country? How do they see the demilitarisation programme? How do they see the deployment of international peacekeepers? What are the prospects for reconstruction and the return of displaced Azerbaijanis? What programme do the Government have? If that programme is a European one, I make no criticism of that whatever; it may be the right way to go.
As I suggested, this is by no means the only fragile regional problem. The breakaway republics in Georgia, which have been supported by Russia, plainly in response to Georgia’s potential closeness to NATO, have created ongoing tension. David Miliband in another place was right in my view to describe Russia’s actions as aggression. The United Kingdom has been right to call for respect for Georgia and for its territorial integrity under international law. I should like to know that the Government still adhere to that position. Georgia is entitled to know that it retains our broad support. I do not for a moment underestimate the difficulties that would occur in discussing any future developments moving closer to NATO that would occur with Russia but, none the less, I am keen to know what the character of those discussions might be.
Several noble Lords made the point that visits to the region in general, including to Azerbaijan, by prominent politicians give signals. The first signal is one in the interests of the future of the country but it is also an opportunity—Hillary Clinton took that opportunity on 6 June 2012—to give signals about our expectations for a more normal and generous attitude to human rights, as well as to trade opportunities. Of course, there are signals being given all the time by Europe and by the United States; it may very well be that we can add to those. All speakers in this debate will appreciate the importance of energy supplies but, while we cannot ignore that, we need to place it in a context. The impact of having alternative sources of energy supplies to those provided by Russia unquestionably increases the prospects for energy security throughout Europe. I entirely see the arguments for developing the links and the commercial possibilities that BP and others have produced—not just in the extraction of oil and gas but in the construction of the pipelines. All of these are important economic developments.
In the last few moments that I have, I suggest that these interests should not for ever silence us to the issue of the poor human rights records in Azerbaijan. When one looks at how the wealth that has been generated has underpinned the power of just one political entity in Azerbaijan, it should concern us a great deal. The country is rated as not free by international indices; it has a number of political prisoners; its TV channels are controlled by the Government; its journalists are routinely threatened and, of 178 nations ranked in the 2011-12 press freedom index from Reporters Without Borders, the country ranks 162nd. The political opposition has all but been eliminated.
I therefore ask whether the Government have a view on whether the economic measures we have taken through the European Union and the discussions about the potential for NATO membership are, in themselves, having any kind of impact on a recognition of the need for human rights and democracy in that country. Like others, I do not say that out of a spirit of hostility but rather to make this point. If we believe that our influence has been significant, and significant through international bodies including the EU and NATO, how are we making sure that that influence is beginning to change what I believe is a human rights record which needs urgent attention?
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for this interesting debate. I am constantly struck by how much diverse expertise we have in this House on the many countries around the world. I can recall the questions that were asked some months ago on the Georgian Government’s reform of public services by a number of Peers who had just returned from Georgia. I recall my first visit to Yerevan in 1995, when the key lady on the floor of the hotel where I was staying said to me, in hushed tones, that I was staying in the very same room that Caroline Cox—the noble Baroness, Lady Cox—had stayed in some months before. I recall some years later in Abkhazia, with Anna Politkovskaya and a number of other journalists, meeting the Foreign Minister of what seemed to me that benighted and unrecognised country. His last words to me as I turned to leave were: “May I ask you, when you return to London, to please give my best regards to Lord Avebury?”.
We all recognise that there are many comings and goings. I enjoyed the pictures on the web that I looked at this morning of the noble Lords, Lord Laird and Lord Kilclooney, on their most recent visit to Azerbaijan. If I may make just one partisan point: when noble Lords demand that Ministers should travel more often and then demand that Ministers are always here at short notice to answer debates, it should be recognised that this coalition Government have visited more countries with more senior Ministers than our predecessors but that the demands of Parliament are one of the things that hold us all back.
The coalition Government are of course keen to promote Britain’s security and prosperity and, at the same time, to influence the Governments with whom we deal to improve the quality of their rule of law, human rights and democracy. None of the three countries in the Caucuses is yet a fully-fledged democracy. All of them have had problems with media freedom and media ownership; all have had problems with the rule of law. We are extremely happy that Georgia has just had an election which was ruled by most observers to be free and fair, and in which there has been a democratic change of Government from one party to another. Azerbaijan has not yet reached that stage, nor is there a fully-fledged opposition in Azerbaijan, but there was not one in George until relatively recently. Armenia has elections next year, which we very much hope will be up to the standard of being assessed as free and fair.
We are working across the region with our partners in the EU, the Council of Europe and the OSCE. I should say to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that our assessment of the EU’s mission is that it is there to strengthen the stability of our neighbourhood. The basis of the European neighbourhood policy—the eastern partnership is part of this—is that we export security or we import insecurity. It is much better to export security. There is no more expansionist mission than that. I have visited Georgia on a number of occasions and talked to the EU and OSCE representatives there, and that is very much what they are attempting to do. He commented that the relationship between Russia and Georgia is very similar to that between Britain and Ireland. I did once say in a discussion in Moscow that it seemed to me that the attitude that the Russians—with whom I was talking—had towards Georgia was very similar to that which the British had towards the Catholic Irish in the middle of the 19th century. That is part of the problem of accepting that these are countries which are entitled to their independence and to be treated as equal partners. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who complained about the Azeris acquiring weapons in large quantities from others, that the Russians sell weapons to Azerbaijan and to Armenia. That is one of the problems in trying to resolve that frozen conflict.
We are, as several noble Lords have remarked, the largest foreign investor in Azerbaijan—primarily in the oil industry, but also now spreading to the retail sector and others. I recognise that several noble Lords have commented that they would very much like to see a senior Minister going there. As we speak, the Minister for Culture, Ed Vaizey, is in Baku attending the internet governance forum. The Prime Minister has met the Azerbaijani President twice in the last six months. Other Ministers have visited the country. There are at the present moment no plans for a Cabinet Minister to visit in the near future, but such plans are kept fully under review. I had the great pleasure last night of speaking at the Iraqi-British business commission with the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, who was, as always, fully up to speed. It is not simply a matter for the Government: I encourage all noble Lords to be as actively engaged as possible in encouraging further British investment and trade with all these developing countries.
Why are we interested in the region? Of course for all these connections; the transit of oil and gas to Europe via a southern energy corridor is of considerable importance to Europe’s energy security as a whole. The region is important to us in terms of security, and is one of the many transit routes to Afghanistan. Noble Lords have mentioned that Iran is also a neighbour and that the sanctions on Iran have led to an increased Iranian interest in both Azerbaijan and Georgia. The Azeris are always conscious that there are more Azeris living in Iran than in Azerbaijan itself and that to go to Nakhchivan you have to go partly through Iran.
However, our common security means that we are engaged with the region. All three countries have contributed to the ISAF in Afghanistan. There are now two Georgian battalions in Helmand, taking over some tasks from the US Marine Corps and thus actively assisting the British forces in that region. The Eastern Partnership sees this as a collective Western relationship with the region. Georgia is the country which has most openly declared its intentions of joining both the European Union and NATO. This is a long-term process, but deeper relationships are currently being negotiated with Armenia and Georgia, and a deep and comprehensive free-trade area, to use the EU jargon, is now under way in terms of negotiation with both these countries.
We have also talked about the frozen conflicts. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, what happened across Georgia and between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in a number of other areas as the Soviet Union broke up, were some very bloody and disorderly conflicts, which have left us with what we have now. There were faults on all sides. Let us also touch on what happened in Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine. We are left, however, with the enormous problem of the Nagorno-Karabakh and with people on both sides of this ethnic conflict who feel deeply aggrieved at each other.
The Minsk process has failed yet to make much progress. We do, however, have only that process to work with. The United Kingdom, which is not a member of the Minsk group, continues to support the Minsk process, difficult as it is. We cannot entirely get rid, for example, of Russia as a major player in all this. Therefore, to rebuild a group which would attempt to negotiate without Russia would not be particularly helpful. If we were to invite China to adjudicate, I am sure that the Chinese Government would be much more impartial than the current chairs of the Minsk group but they might not necessarily be that much more helpful.
The British Government are putting in a certain amount of money themselves in terms of supporting NGOs, British and others, within Azerbaijan and across the region. We also support what the EU is doing in terms of promoting human rights and the rule of law. Of course, we invest as well. We would love the Azeris to fund what we do but we have, across the whole of eastern Europe, invested heavily, as we now are also doing in north Africa, in rule of law missions, in improving the capability of political parties to take part in elections and in looking at the administration of elections. That is very much how we see our democratic mission.
To wind up, we are committed to this region because it is part of the wider European neighbourhood. We are committed with our European partners because we share common interests. We are committed as a country that is an active exporter to compete with our European partners—the Germans, the French and others—for business and investment in the region. So we have a mixture of interests in which we recognise the growing importance of Azerbaijan, the importance of the Caucasus as a whole to our future energy security and the importance of helping the Caucasus to become more stable, more prosperous and more democratic for the peace of that region and of our broader region as a whole.
Committee adjourned at 7.44 pm.