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Bob Blackman MP: Britain acting Global saved the Caucasus after Communism

Bob Blackman MP
November 29, 2021

Look no further than Britain's powerful role in rebuilding the Caucasus after Communism to see what can be achieved by a newly Global Britain, says Bob Blackman.

Imagine a country whose economic re-integration into the world after the fall of communism was built in Britain. Imagine that British investment allowed this country to provide gas both to the UK and Europe; and for its neighbours build railroads, powerlines, and their economies – and then use its new-found wealth to repair Churches and ancient buildings at home and abroad. All the while providing spectacular returns for UK plc.

Imagine that the UK had consistently used its permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council to support this country's efforts to win back lands legally belonging to it but lost in a war in the early 1990s.

Would this, surely, not be as good an example as any of the power and potential of Global Britain?

This place is the Caucasus, the lands squeezed between revanchist Russia and extremist Iran. Britain is the western country which arguably has done more to help bolster peace and prosperity in the region in our lifetimes than any other.

I take the view that how Britain has partnered with Azerbaijan – the most important country of that region – over the last 30 years offers a template for how we shall prosper beyond the regional European Union as we spread our wings and go global.

It began with an investment that many saw as extremely risky by BP almost exactly 30 years ago in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Soviet Union. The oil industry in the region seemed in perpetual decline. Interest in gas seemed likely to remain lacklustre. Two years later, Azerbaijan lost a vicious war to its neighbour Armenia: one quarter of Azerbaijan's territory and their hopes for a future – when only just freed from soviet communism – suddenly seemed lost.

The investment and Britain's diplomatic commitment made the difference. Britain helped Azerbaijan build its economy from the 1990s as one of the least developed of post-Soviet states to today one of the wealthiest. British knowledge created pipelines and transport links across the region – linking Azerbaijan with its neighbours in growing prosperity. In turn, Azerbaijan invested some of those newfound riches in repairing the devastated cultural heritage not only of its own country – much of it wrecked by the Communists – but also to churches in Georgia, France, and Rome. And just over one year ago, Azerbaijan won back control of most of the lands taken from them in the war of the 1990s.

Just as British technology revived an oil industry thought to be exhausted, and helped build a new gas one, today British know-how is bringing rapid – and renewable – change to the region: the construction of one of the largest solar power plants in Europe, capable of powering a fifth of the country's energy needs, has been announced this year.

So too is British expertise helping clear landmines from the territories returned to Azerbaijan after conflict with their neighbour that ended one year this week. British development aid is also helping educate schoolchildren to recognise and avoid landmines and other unexploded ordinance – tragically one of the largest causes of child fatalities in Azerbaijan today.

There will be those of course who will point out "wasn't Britain a member of the EU when the Soviet Union collapsed?" And so, "Wasn't this British success therefore really a European one?"

The simple answer is "no". The search for a common European policy on Azerbaijan, let alone the Caucasus, has been fraught with difficulty. France, the other European country with a seat on the Security Council has an outsized Armenian diaspora with considerable influence in their national politics – meaning their room for manoeuvre is curtailed; Germany has shown little interest in a seat at the top table of peace talks; others – such as the eastern European nations – have neither economic influence nor diplomatic heft. Because its members face every which way, the EU has been left tangled in a "Caucasian knot" over its policy towards the region.

The case for Britain is open and shut: the UK made a bet on Azerbaijan and by doing so and not only helped divine the development of a country, but build the economy of a region, making it more stable and prosperous. Once more, the region is in need of international friends who can help guide it out of long-term conflict and towards full economic integration with the rest of the world.

Britain had space and speed to follow its own foreign policy with Azerbaijan because much of Europe was wanting. There was no need to have to try to influence the foreign policy of other European nations, then a European Commission, and finally a European parliament first.

It seems incredible to me that anyone believes UK does not have the means, or the will, to operate as an independent great power.

Together with world-class armed forces, one of only three of the world's blue-water navies, the fifth largest economy in the world, a permanent UN security council seat, nuclear weapons, the world's second largest diplomatic network, a family of nations through the Commonwealth many of whom share with Britain the same head of state, I cannot think of any country in the world holding such advantages which would dream for a moment it was not possible – in fact desirable – to be sovereign.

Certainly, Azerbaijan never would.


Bob Blackman is the Conservative MP for Harrow East and Chair of the APPG for Azerbaijan.

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