Daily Telegraph, UK
March 24 2004
Tom Young, who has died aged 60, was from 1993 to 1997 Britain’s
first ambassador in Azerbaijan, before ending his diplomatic career
as High Commissioner in Zambia.
Azerbaijan, between Russia and Iran on the west side of the Caspian,
declared itself independent in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet
Empire. In its early years the new republic was mired in political
instability and economic chaos, largely caused by the struggle of the
Armenian population to control the enclave of Nagornyi Karabakh.
The Foreign Office decided that it needed representation in Baku,
chiefly in order to support British interests in oil contracts. Young
took up his post in September 1993, shortly after Heydar Aliyev
Aliyev was a former KGB apparatchik who had risen to considerable
power in Moscow before being dismissed by Gorbachev in 1987 – a
setback from which he emerged as a sudden champion of Azerbaijani
nationalism. Yet Aliyev’s ruthless ways with opposition did not
immediately restore order.
Young and his wife Elisabeth therefore arrived in Baku to discover
that even the basic necessities of life – food, power and lodging –
were uncertain. And since there was no reliable banking system in
Azerbaijan, he had to finance the new embassy out of a bag containing
$30,000 in cash.
For nearly two years the Young family lived in one old Communist
Party hotel overlooking the Caspian Sea, while the British
ambassador’s office occupied three rooms in another. Every Tuesday,
the British community in Baku – all 10 of them – would meet to share
a crate of beer and Soviet “champagne”. This proved to be the
foundation of the British Business Group of Baku, whose membership
would later run into hundreds.
Young took the situation in his stride: his main relaxation was
walking around Baku, where he would encounter people whose way of
living was far beneath the normal ambassadorial ken.
He already spoke Turkish and, through his contacts on the street,
soon mastered Azeri. One man he encountered on these peregrinations
had lost both legs and been reduced to begging. Young and his family
became frequent visitors to his lodging, where they gained insights
into the Azerbaijan economy denied to the experts from the
International Monetary Fund. Typically, Young continued to support
this man long after leaving Baku.
At the other end of the scale, he managed to stay on good terms both
with President Aliyev and his opponents, as well as with the human
rights activists who sought to combat the excesses of the regime. At
a time when the rule of law was shaky, and free speech dangerous,
this was a considerable achievement, of paramount importance to the
British oil interests which were at stake.
Thomas Nesbitt Young was born at Godalming on July 24 1943, the
middle son of Frank Young, who would be Professor of Biochemistry at
Cambridge and the first Master of Darwin College, Cambridge. Frank
Young was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1949, and knighted
At the Leys School in Cambridge, young Tom also became a scientist,
and indeed was obliged to struggle with his father’s chemistry
textbook. After school his spirit of adventure took him to Uganda,
where he taught at Kigezi College in Kabale. Back in England, he read
Chemistry at Pembroke College, Oxford.
After joining the Foreign Office in 1966, he opted to learn Turkish,
studying the language with Roger Short, who was killed in Istanbul
In 1969 Young took up his first foreign posting, as Third Secretary
in Ankara. There he met Elisabeth Hick, who was also working in the
embassy, and whom he married in 1971. They proved a brilliant team,
both equally intrepid. Together they travelled throughout Turkey,
making many friends who stood them in good stead when – after four
years in Madrid – Young returned to Ankara in 1978 as Head of
His Turkish contacts served him particularly well in September 1980,
when he learnt of General Kenan Evren’s pro-Western, anti-Islamic
military takeover as it was happening, in the middle of the night.
Deciding to go to the British embassy before the dawn curfew was
imposed, he met the Turkish guard, who expressed surprise at his
early arrival. “There has been a military coup,” Young explained.
“Where?” demanded the guard. “In England?”
Young always sought posts in developing countries. In 1981, however,
the Foreign Office appointed him Deputy Director of Trade and
Development in New York, from where he went to Washington as First
Secretary. This was followed by a spell in London, between 1984 and
1986, as assistant head of the nuclear energy department at the FCO.
Young’s next appointment, from 1987 to 1990, was as Deputy High
Commissioner in Ghana, where once more he was able to satisfy his
adventurous instincts. When a new High Commissioner arrived in 1989,
he was able to profit from Young’s knowledge of the country, secure
in the knowledge that while he discovered Ghana, the Deputy High
Commissioner would be holding the fort in Accra.
>From 1990 to 1993 Young was director of trade promotion at the
British High Commission in Canberra, which gave him the grateful duty
of ranging extensively across Australia. But the fall of the Soviet
Empire caused him to volunteer for the discomforts of Baku. Here
again he did not miss the opportunity for travel, venturing with his
wife across the Caspian Sea and along the Silk Road to Samarkand.
As High Commissioner in Zambia between 1997 and 2002, Young found
another post well suited to his talents. His humanitarian instincts
responded both sympathetically and effectively to the problems of a
country ridden with Aids, and he was able to provide vital support
through the distribution of funds from the Department of
International Development and other organisations. His humour and
imagination shone through to all he met.
On retiring from the Foreign Office in 2002, Young was appointed
director of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in
Europe’s regional centre for Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he
worked tirelessly to build bridges, both figuratively and literally,
between divided communities.
Besides his passion for challenging travel, Young enjoyed
hill-walking and sailing. Indoors, he loved Renaissance music. He
died on February 11.
Tom and Elisabeth Young had a son and a daughter.