(By Shahid Qureshi ) Ambassador T.Taghizadeh’s Exclusive interview with The London Post
1. Your Excellency: You have presented your credentials to HM The Queen. How do you feel?
I feel profoundly honoured and privileged to have had the pleasure of presenting my letters of credence to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 18 November 2014. It is a huge honour to serve as Ambassador of Azerbaijan to the UK working to serve ever-expanding ties between our two countries and peoples. I have to say Her Majesty takes a keen interest to see bilateral relationship between our two countries getting expanded across many areas. Her Majesty hailed traditionally strong and dynamic energy cooperation that exists since early 1990s between Azerbaijan and United Kingdom. I briefed Her Majesty about the inaugural European Games to be held in Baku in June 2015 and highlighted great involvement and contribution of British professionals and companies in bringing about this important sporting event.
Her Majesty was delighted to learn that British professionals work closely with Azerbaijan Olympic Committee contributing to Baku European Games and wished best of luck to this sporting event. We also touched on the significance of people-to-people ties, among them education cooperation, ever-growing number of young Azerbaijanis studying at universities across the UK, increasing popularity of English language as a language of business and communication among the young in Azerbaijan. It was a truly magnificent moment in my professional career, the one that will be remembered forever.
2. How do you see the future of relationship with Britain and Azerbaijan and what are the areas in which the two countries can enhance co-operation?
I have to say the last twenty-three years have laid a foundation to be very optimistic about the prospects of this strong relationship. The energy cooperation between our two countries, spearheaded by BP and other leading British energy contractors, constitute the backbone of our bilateral ties. Looking ahead, both Azerbaijan and UK agree that there is a need to explore ways to expand these ties into new areas and focus on the importance of people-to-people connections. Education, cultural awareness, and technical cooperation, exchange programs, sports are among the areas we will prioritize during my stay in this country. I can proudly stress that in the run up to Baku 2015 First European Games, some 234 British experts who were involved in preparations for London 2012, now work hard to make the inaugural European Games a success. In fact, chief operating officer of the Baku 2015 is Simon Clegg, former director of British Olympic Association. As Baku will host a range of international sporting events such as Formula One, International Chess Olympiad and 2020 European Football Tournament in the coming years, we will have many opportunities to work together in this area.
On political front, our two countries maintain political dialogue and excellent cooperation in areas such as political military issues, security and cooperation in the framework of international organisations. From geostrategic and security perspective, Azerbaijan will continue to be a country of strategic significance for the United Kingdom. In its turn UK continues to be supportive of Azerbaijan’s aspirations to strengthen its role as an important regional player and a significant contributor to the energy security of Europe. In fact, the commissioning of Shah Deniz-2 gas project and international gas pipelines such as Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) and Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) will open new chapter in our relations with the UK. The ShahDeniz 2 gas project represents BP’s largest overseas investment and the recent decision of BP to join TANAP as a shareholder manifests the importance that Britain attaches to strengthening this cooperation with Azerbaijan.
I also believe that we should now look beyond energy, to explore new areas for potential cooperation. Azerbaijan has now prioritized development of non-energy areas and industrial sectors, British companies and expertise stand good chance to engage in this cooperation with Azerbaijan. Britain-Azerbaijan Business Council (BABC) was set up in 2009 with this in mind and aims to strengthening business-to-business ties and leading the efforts to bring British expertise and investments into non-energy areas such as financial services, banking, education, retail, consultancy, and tourism as well as space industry.
3. Can you give us some information about preparations of First European Games in June 2015?
Baku 2015 First European Games will be inaugural European Games and it will be a huge responsibility for Azerbaijan to stage as good a performance as possible and set the highest possible standards for this important regional sports event. The first is the sports infrastructure that will remain there and will help inspire next generation of Azerbaijani sportsmen. Apart from sports venues and infrastructure, main host city Baku and other cities across the country will undergo huge transformation with new transport and services infrastructure.
Secondly, the Games will offer a huge opportunity to promote Azerbaijan not only as a country of oil and gas or of significant geo-strategic importance but also as a land of sports. The Baku Games will be the biggest multi-sports event ever held in Azerbaijan and after hosting landmark cultural event of Eurovision Finals in 2012, the Games will further help put the country on the world map. The Games will also generate new jobs though on voluntary basis, for Azerbaijani youth and will offer up opportunities for the young to gain first hand expertise and experience in organising big international events as the Games.
As you might now, tourism is another area that the Government is prioritizing as we are now working to diversify the economy and create new non-oil sectors. Coupled with the opening of the Caucasus’ biggest ski resort and many luxury hotels, Baku Games is also yet another chance to highlight the country’s tourism potential and to attract tourists from around the world, mainly from Europe. The Games will also strengthen the government’s efforts to revitalize sports that have been popular in Azerbaijan during the Soviet period. And most important of all, Azerbaijani people never enjoyed the pleasure of hosting big international cultural and sports events in the Soviet times, Baku European Games will help fill this gap and make sure people of Baku and Azerbaijan in general, get the firsthand experience of hosting such events.
4. Can you tell us about the on going conflict with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh?
This is one of the so-called “frozen conflicts” in the post-Soviet space but in fact it is far from being “frozen” with frequent violations of ceasefire and casualties. The conflict began with an undeclared war and subsequent large scale military occupation from Armenian armed forces in late 1980s and later it turned into a full blown war. Military operations led to the occupation of Nagorno Karabakh region and seven surrounding regions of Azerbaijan which amount to some 20% of territory of Azerbaijan. Almost one million refugees and internally displaced ethnic Azerbaijanis were forced to flee their home in Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. The conflict has seen some of the worst humanitarian crisis in 20th century with hundreds of thousands of people resettled in makeshift camps, tents and train wagons.
There is a fragile ceasefire in place since 1994 and international peace negotiations are conducted under the auspices of OSCE’s Minsk Group. Minsk Group is comprised of three co-chairs, US, Russia and France with dozen member states. Though peace talks have been ongoing over the last 20 years, it has failed to
bring peace and stability to the region. Our position concerning the solution of the conflict is based on fundamental principles of international law and envisages upholding of territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has shown consistency and goodwill in the peace process and we still stick to the peaceful solution. However the most important thing for our people is to see their lands de-occupied and liberated. That remains our ultimate objective as resorting to war would be devastating to the whole region.
5. How can international community and friends of Azerbaijan help you in resolution of this conflict?
As the recent developments around Ukraine have demonstrated since beginning of 2014, there is a clear and urgent necessity for the international community to take key cornerstone of the international system, territorial integrity and inviolability of internationally recognized borders, really seriously. The case of Nagorno Karabakh represents a classic case where a part of one country’s territories has been invaded through forced invasion and use of military force. It is a conflict as a result of which some million ethnic Azerbaijanis have been forced to flee their homes by the Armenian armed forces. Each year on February 26 we remember hundreds of ethnic Azerbaijanis who were slaughtered by the Armenian armed forces in the town of Khojaly during the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. I am deeply convinced that fundamental principle of territorial integrity should be upheld in all cases notwithstanding other elements.
Azerbaijan has suffered from the neglect towards its sovereignty and continuing occupation of its internationally recognized borders. Throughout this period we have been clear on the need for the withdrawal of Armenian armed forces from occupied territories that could open up opportunities to reach final peaceful resolution of the conflict. The current status quo not only hinders regional cooperation, it also represents a source of insecurity to the neighboring countries and wider Europe. The sooner international community increases pressure on the invading country to make sure armed forces withdraw from these territories, the better prospects it will open for the future development of the whole South Caucasus. What we need to see is a principled and consistent position of the international community with regard to violation of territorial integrity of states, including the occupation of Nagorno Karabakh and other surrounding territories of Azerbaijan.
When it comes to what our partners can do, I should stress that the best thing to do would be to draw attention to genocidal acts such as Khojaly. What has happened in the town of Khojaly on 26 February 1992 is undoubtedly one of the most blatant violations of human rights with the mass killing of civilians simply because they belonged to a certain ethnic group. The international awareness campaign “Justice for Khojaly” led by Leyla Aliyeva, has indeed helped to raise the profile of this tragedy and countries and international organisations that have recognized it as genocide now include Czech Republic, Pakistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Peru, OIC etc. This awareness campaign aims not at taking revenge on perpetrators but to ensure these human tragedies do not repeat in the future and that people who are responsible are brought to justice.
(Exclusive Interview by Dr Shahid Qureshi)