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A policeman detains an opposition activist in Baku. An Amnesty report says Azerbaijan’s government unleashed a “new wave of repression and intimidation” in the past year.

The fittings of Committee Room 6 at the House of Commons – thick carpet, green leather chairs, portrait of 18th century Prime Minister William Pitt and view over the Thames – suggest a solemn and sedate atmosphere. But last Thursday the debate raged furiously, back and forth. Mainly between Murad Gussanly, UK representative of the Chairman of Azerbaijani National Council of Democratic Forces, and Rebecca Vincent, Advocacy Director of the Baku Human Rights Club, on the one side, and the First Secretary of the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan and his colleague, on the other.

With the support of Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland, Emma Hughes of Platform had organised the two-hour event ‘Fraud, freedom, and fossil fuels: Azerbaijan after the election’ in record time. Despite the trappings and furnishings, there was something moving about hearing truths spoken that would have been impossible to voice in Azerbaijan. To hear Murad, Rebecca, Emma and others in the meeting talk openly about the extremity of repression in Baku was very powerful.

One of the attendees, from the Azeri diaspora, pronounced: “It is a pity that BP is not here to listen to this”. It is ever in the interests of the company for there to be no open debate about the human rights, social or environmental situation in the countries in which it operates. It is most helpful for BP if the response of the UK political class to a state such as Azerbaijan is one of silence – or better still active support for the regime with which the company is allied. The Council of Europe and the European Parliament had both declared that there were grievous irregularities in the way the Azerbaijan’s Presidential Election on 9th October had been conducted. But the UK government and Parliament had remained silent. Here at least, in Committee Room 6, the issue was forced into the Parliamentary space..

The debate in Committee Room 6 takes place in the shadow of the construction of the Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline. This is a string of three linked industrial endeavours – the SCP X pipeline, the TANAP pipeline, and the TAP pipeline. If built their combined length would run to 4,000 km – over twice the scale of BTC – and deliver gas to Turkey, Bulgaria, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, and the UK. It is a vast undertaking – intended to pump gas from beneath the Caspian Sea to kitchens and power stations as far away as England. Indeed doubtless it would provide some gas to the stoves in the Parliamentary canteen and electricity for the lights of Committee Room 6.

A man attends an opposition rally in BakuPrior to, and in parallel with, the construction of the pipeline in the Caucasus and South Eastern Europe, it is constructed in politics – in meeting rooms such as those in the House of Commons, and buildings such as those as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in Whitehall. Here the political foundations are laid down, here the sense of the ‘inevitability’, the ‘common sense’, of such a monumental structure is under pinned.  For BP, and the other companies of the construction consortium, the rationale the pipeline is its ability to generate a return on capital. The rationale deployed in the political sphere is that this pipeline is vital for the UK’s ‘energy security’. But as was illustrated by the debate last Thursday, such a structure would inevitably further bolster the repressive regime in Azerbaijan and thereby increase the insecurity of so many of the citizens of that country.  It felt good to question this ‘inevitability’ in these very buildings.

Murad spoke with great clarity, saying: ‘It is very important that the UK focuses attention on Azerbaijan. I’m keen that Britain and Azerbaijan, my two homelands, are brought closer together. The view across Azeri democratic opposition is that we want a strong, long-term partnership with Britain. The problem comes when the relations between two societies have been translated into relations between a government and a regime. In this context attention is focused only on commercial interests, were as this should be augmented by more attention being paid to social and environmental concerns.’ Our task is to augment the debate that was held in the political arena of Committee Room 6 with a commitment to build stronger dialogue with  many in the Caucasus, to build bonds of friendship and understanding that can counter, and even replace, the technological bond of the proposed pipeline.