Summer 2004 (12.2)
UK Ambassador Thomas Young
Our Tom is Gone!
by Betty Blair
This past spring (February 11, 2004), Thomas Young, the first
Ambassador to Azerbaijan from the U.K. (1993-1997), passed away
in a tragic accident. After his assignment in Azerbaijan, he
served in Zambia for four years or as he fondly used to say,
"From AZ to ZA". Then he retired from the British Foreign
Office and eventually secured a position with OSCE (Organization
for the Security and Cooperation of Europe) and was working on
special assignments in Sarajevo.
Left: The late Tom
Young, former Ambassador to Azerbaijan, and his wife Elizabeth
in 1999 in front of Buckingham Palace on the occasion when she
was personally honored
by the Queen as a Member of the Order of the British Empire for
her charitable services in Azerbaijan, especially in relationship
to creating better conditions for the children living in the
His death was an enormous shock to those who knew him. He was
greatly respected in Azerbaijan. Young, a graduate of Oxford,
was bright, extremely personable, unpretentious, genuine and
had a keen sense of humor. He is remembered for being one of
the first Western ambassadors who endeared himself to Azerbaijanis
because he spoke Azeri. Even a decade later, few diplomats have
made the enormous effort to become fluent in Azeri. Prior to
his assignment in Baku, he had lived and worked in Turkey. The
transition from Turkish to Azeri, he admitted, had not been as
easy as he might have hoped for.
Young was among the "Big Three Ambassadors" who arrived
early on the scene in Baku and who was committed to supporting,
not only his own country but also the development of Azerbaijan
as a new nation; the other two being Richard
Kauzlarich of the U.S (1994-1997) and Michael
Schmunk of Germany (1995-1998).
After Young left Azerbaijan, he continued to stay in touch with
the developments in the country via Azerbaijan International
magazine. After Zambia, he and his wife Elisabeth returned to
Baku for a summer visit - a rare gesture for diplomats.
In an interview with Azerbaijan International in 1993, Young
mentioned how much he and his wife enjoyed the hospitality of
the Azerbaijani people. "I've been to many countries,"
he said, "and I've rarely been invited by so many people
into their homes. Often people are hesitant about inviting diplomats
as they think they can't entertain us properly. Here, there's
none of that. People develop such deep friendships that they'll
invite you home, no matter what.
"Also I've found Baku to be a very safe as well as attractive
city. It's a lot safer here than in any capital city in Europe
in terms of security of people, goods and property. That's what
makes Azerbaijan special for me. I like Baku. I like the people,
the parks, the fact that it's on the sea. I like the architecture.
It's a comfortable place to live, and it's exciting to be here
at this time in history."
In 2002, Young wrote Azerbaijan International about what it was
like to open the UK mission in Baku.
Opening the UK
Embassy in Baku
by Thomas Young
In 1972 as a young British diplomat, I remember standing opposite
the Iron Curtain on Turkey's eastern frontier. Actually, the
curtain seemed very thin between Turkey and the Soviet Union.
No Berlin wall here, just a thin fence with watch towers. How
I longed to enter the Turkic-speaking parts of the Soviet Union
to hear for myself the differences of speech between Istanbul,
Ankara, Baku, Ashgabat and Tashkent. I had always been interested
in the interface between Islam and Christianity, reflected in
its most majestic splendor in Istanbul. Now I wanted to learn
about the life of the peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
I hoped one day to be posted to a British Consulate, perhaps
in Tashkent, but I knew that there would have to be a huge thaw
in East-West relations for that to happen. I never imagined that
the Soviet Union would actually collapse. The post to open the
British Embassy in Azerbaijan in 1993 was the fulfillment of
an old dream. I only wish that I could have arrived in time [January
5, 1992] to see the huge Kirov statue on Baku's highest vantage
point dismantled as a symbol of the collapse of the Soviet Union
My wife Elisabeth and I arrived in Baku in early June 1993 to
assess the needs of the new Embassy. That evening we went out
looking for a restaurant, but the streets were empty and everywhere
was closed. Eventually, we learned that Surat Huseinov had staged
an army insurrection in Ganja and was marching on Baku. Within
days, Abulfaz Elchibey had abandoned both Baku and the Presidency,
and a change of regime was on the way. In July, I returned to
Baku to meet Heydar Aliyev who had just assumed the post of Speaker
of Parliament. The absence of a cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh
meant that the new President, soon to be elected, would not be
short of problems to solve.
Any new Embassy runs into major problems, too - like finding
accommodation in which to live and work. The market economy was
so new and advertisements hardly existed. The concept of renting
a house or apartment from a private owner was not always easy
to explain, let alone implement. I had wanted the new British
Embassy to be housed in the Old City, but the costs were prohibitive
and unreliable. In the end, we renovated some floors of the Hyatt.
During the two-year interim, our offices were in the Old Intourist
Hotel (Rooms 214-217). Home was on the ninth floor of the Respublika
Hotel. Our space was cramped but functional and, at least, we
were on the map. Sometimes, we would sit in our office or at
home in our overcoats shivering as the winter wind whistled through
the cracks in the window frames. For some reason my office in
Room 216 always seemed to be allocated to people with messages
to get across. I had the feeling that, at least, mine would be
It was a great moment to see the British flag being unfurled
for the first time from our tiny Old Intourist balcony. The flag
had not flown in Baku since 1920. Azerbaijani friends told me
that they never thought they would see its return. We were glad
Regular commercial banking was not yet available in Baku. It
was not easy to open any initial credit on our account at the
International Bank. The only way was to carry tens of thousands
of dollars in cash from London in my brief case. I remember feeling
so vulnerable, walking around with so much cash, but the plan
Our first Embassy vehicle was a Lada Estate. I remember the phone
ringing early one morning. It was the President's office calling
from next door. Would we kindly move our Lada, which had rolled
down the hill during the night and was blocking the President's
exit as he needed to leave soon. I ran out to retrieve the damaged
car from the wall into which it had crashed. The following night
we placed some large rocks under the wheels.
The four years we spent in Azerbaijan were full of rewards. We
got to know a marvelous people who deserve to succeed. The tradition
of cooperation between the Azeri friends in the West is now firmly
established. This was a far cry from 1972.
Young is survived by his wife,
Elizabeth, and two children, Harriet and Simon. Those who knew
Young and his family will greatly miss him. He was a great human
being who genuinely cared about others.
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