Azerbaijan International

Summer 2004 (12.2)
Page 15

UK Ambassador Thomas Young
Tribute: 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.

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 orphanages there.
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 orphanages there.

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 [late 1991].

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 heard.

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 to oblige.

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 worked.

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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