Mention Azerbaijan and many will not have heard about the country in the UK or some may think that it is somewhere near Pakistan, since both end with the same two letters. Mention oil and gas and others, in the know on energy resources, will be able to comment on Azerbaijan as a country which is strategically placed to provide these resources under a private sector boom that has firmly placed the country on the map of the Caucasus. Yet, few actually realise the importance of this country.
Azerbaijan with its long running grievance over Nagorno Karabakh continues to feel that a part of its territorial sovereignty has been violated by the actions of Armenia. In 1992 scores of Azerbaijani civilians were killed in an Azerbaijani town of Khojaly. Military skirmishes continue to this day and even escalated more recently in July and August 2014 where President Putin had to intervene between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders, Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev. Yet, beyond the killings in Khojaly, the conflict has also created between five hundred thousand to one million refugees, most of them being Azerbaijani in ethnicity and such a dislocation of people has naturally created a deep grievance within many Azerbaijanis. It has, in effect become a national grievance that needs resolution at a time when there are greater threats on the horizon in the region.
Much like the Palestinian conflict, though much shorter in timescale and in the scale of the impact, Nagorno Karabakh has sucked up the resources and focus of both countries which could have been used elsewhere. Opportunities for both countries have been lost though what is noteworthy is the diplomatic tone that the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, has struck in public calls to his Armenian counterpart. Working with Turkey and other regional partners, calls from Azerbaijan on the Nagorno Karabakh issue have been measured and diplomatic in their tone, even after the skirmishes a few months ago that could have started a series of military campaigns which no side wanted.
Azerbaijan is a far cry from where the country was two or even three decades ago. Natural resources, high levels of skilled workers (many trained through Soviet style institutions) and an impressive acceleration of development within the capital city, Baku, have transformed the nation. Whilst there are steps to be made in terms of better governance and human rights, the trajectory of the country is moving in the right direction, with a leadership willing to listen, proud of its religious diversity and its heritage, and as a country at the cross-roads between East and West. This is one of the reasons why Azerbaijan should be a key military geo-strategic partner in the Caucasus for the United Kingdom. Much like the heavy investment that the United Kingdom makes into Azerbaijan, of importance for the future are closer military and civic connections between the two countries.
Which is why the Nagorno Karabakh issue must be resolved and cannot be allowed to fester. Looking at the scale of the issues in the Middle East, with ISIS just under three hundred kilometres away from Azerbaijan, there are frankly, bigger concerns that need to be addressed though this needs the courage for us within Western nations to resolve smaller scale conflicts. Today Azerbaijan is a stable, friendly, investable and valuable strategic partner, yet these opportunities are not maximised by our country. Looking at Azerbaijan only through the lens of having a grievance means that this blinkered view restricts us from the real opportunities that this country provides. However, this can only be done if a fair resolution of the grievance that has racked the nation's psyche is addressed.
The time really is now for the United Kingdom to take a lead in brokering some form of agreement based on United Nations resolutions. Leaving President Putin to play the diplomat and honest broker between both parties simply means that Russia's influence on the region is maintained and surrounding satellite nations remain subservient to its geo-strategic and geo-political wishes. This does not mean agitating and aggravating the Russian leadership since military tension in the Ukraine is also on the horizon. It does mean making the case that resolving the Nagorno Karabakh issue is beneficial for all parties and for Russia and Western nations. By doing so, we can ensure a co-ordinated approach to tackling greater threats with key countries like Azerbaijan side by side with us. Today that threat is ISIS in the Middle East, tomorrow, it could well be another group in another neighbouring region that is more mobile, highly motivated and extremely ruthless in its actions.