AT the beginning of this year, the recently ended conflict in the Caucasus between Azerbaijan and Armenia offers an opportunity – and a test – for Global Britain.
By BOB BLACKMAN MP
PUBLISHED: 14:19, Fri, Jan 15, 2021 | UPDATED: 20:02, Fri, Jan 15, 2021
The UK has long maintained strong commercial interests in the region. BP’s vast oil and gas extractive operations in Azerbaijan and the London Taxi Company’s supply of the black cab fleet in the country’s capital Baku are just two examples. Yet for all its economic engagement, Britain has wielded little by way of geopolitical influence for decades. In order to counterbalance the constant power of Russia over its former Soviet satellites, we have first deferred to the Americans and, latterly, to the Europeans whose engagement has been led by the French.
Together Russia, the US and France have comprised the intermediary “Minsk Group”. As recent war made plain, the forum had failed to find a peaceful solution to Armenian occupation of nearly quarter of Azerbaijani territory for some 25 years.
This is hardly surprising: Russia has maintained a military base in Armenia, sought another in Azerbaijan and gleefully armed both sides of the conflict.
The United States – until only recently alive to a revanchist Russia – has shown little real interest.
France, with its large and electorally important Armenian diaspora, could never be a neutral “honest broker”, which made wider EU foreign policy unintelligible.
Fortunately, shorn of EU constrictions, Britain now has the opportunity to advance three objectives in the Caucasus, as part of our newly emergent and fully sovereign foreign policy.
First is the UK’s stated policy to protect Christians and their heritage worldwide.
Initiated by Jeremy Hunt as Foreign Secretary, and fully supported by Boris Johnson, there is now is an opportunity – necessity, even – to work with the government of Azerbaijan.
Areas reclaimed in the latest conflict are rich in Armenian Orthodox heritage sites.
Our internationally recognised experts in restoration can support Christian churches and inter-religious groups, so Britain can play a unique role in protecting the heritage for posterity.
This is particularly important as alarm, from some quarters, has already been sounded.
Only weeks ago, respected historian Dan Cruickshank spoke of the danger Armenian Christian heritage sites may be in following the liberation of territory by Azerbaijan.
I don’t believe for a minute that a nation that has worked assiduously to restore churches and synagogues both at home and abroad would countenance such acts as are being insinuated.
Nevertheless, Britain can and should work with the government of Azerbaijan – and Armenian representatives – to ensure the safeguarding of, and access to, religious sites for all.
Second is truth and reconciliation.
No nation in the world has greater depth of experience in successfully resolving conflict than Britain in Northern Ireland.
Two seemingly intractable sides can be brought together, as the UK has proven through the Good Friday Agreement.
Where the Minsk Group and its combination of disinterested or biased members demonstrably failed, we must offer our expertise to both countries’ governments to assist bringing them and their peoples together.
The UK experience in the field is further bolstered by our work after the war in Bosnia.
There, we led programmes that reunited and reconciled internally displaced persons (IDPs) with those of another religion and ethnicity with whom they once lived with side-by-side.
This is germane to the challenge that lies ahead in the Caucasus.
The 1990s invasion created nearly a million, mostly Azerbaijani, refugees. They remain displaced to this day and eager to return home.
Then the recent conflict saw an inversion of history, with many ethnic Armenians fleeing the conflict.
The traumatic history remains close to the surface, posing significant challenges to reconciliation.
But, as Bosnia shows, it is not impossible.
Third is energy. Here lie many opportunities for Britain: Azerbaijan seeks to reduce its domestic dependence on fossil fuels and Armenia contains one of the most dangerous nuclear plants in the world.
However, the mountainous region at the heart of the dispute is rich in wind resources.
Last month, the UK was the first country in the world to generate more than 50 per cent of its energy needs through wind power – a remarkable achievement, and just in time for Global Britain’s leadership of COP 26 in Glasgow in November.
The UK can offer unrivalled experience in renewable energy production and transnational distribution which can in time lead to the supply of energy from Azerbaijan to Armenia.
It is not merely that Britain can bring here money and technology, for there is also a geopolitical opportunity: as Northern Ireland in particular demonstrates – there no better way to build bridges and reconciliation between countries and peoples than through shared prosperity.
Bob Blackman is the Member of Parliament for Harrow East and Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Azerbaijan