Azerbaijan - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Azerbaijan: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Azerbaijan, republic in western Asia. Azerbaijan is the easternmost country in the South Caucasus (the southern portion of the region of the Caucasus), which occupies the southern part of the isthmus between the Black and Caspian seas. The country is bordered on the north by Russia, on the east by the Caspian Sea, on the south by Iran, on the west by Armenia, and on the northwest by Georgia. Azerbaijan also shares a short border with Turkey through its autonomous exclave of Naxçivan (Nakhichevan), which is separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by a mountainous strip of Armenian territory. Azerbaijan includes the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian-inhabited enclave in western Azerbaijan. In Azeri, the official state language, the country is called Azarbaijchan Respublikasy (Azerbaijan Republic). Baku, a large port city on the Caspian Sea, is Azerbaijan’s capital and largest city.

After a mere two years of independence, Azerbaijan was invaded by the Bolshevik Red Army in 1920 and became part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922. In 1991 it became independent again. The republic’s first years of renewed independence were troubled by political upheaval, economic decline, and a war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Until a cease-fire agreement effectively ended the war in May 1994, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh fought for secession of the enclave. In 1995 Azerbaijan held its first legislative elections since independence and passed its first post-Soviet constitution.


Azerbaijan covers an area of about 86,600 sq km (about 33,400 sq mi). The borders of Azerbaijan generally correspond to natural geographic features. The western coast of the Caspian Sea forms the country’s entire eastern border, which extends about 800 km (about 500 mi). The main stretch of the Caucasus Mountains, known as the Greater Caucasus, forms part of Azerbaijan’s northern border with Russia and contains the country’s highest peak, Mount Bazar Dyuzi (4,480 m/14,698 ft). The Greater Caucasus extend into northeastern Azerbaijan and run southeast as far as the Abşeron Peninsula, which juts into the Caspian Sea. In western Azerbaijan, the Lesser Caucasus mountains attain heights of about 3,500 m (about 11,500 ft) and form part of the border with Armenia. The Talish Mountains border Azerbaijan in the extreme southeast.

Rivers of Azerbaijan

Lower elevations are found along the Caspian coast and in the river basins of the country’s two main waterways, the Kura and Aras (Araks or Arax) rivers. These rivers, which form a continuous lowland through central Azerbaijan, both originate in the mountains of northeastern Turkey. The Kura flows into northwestern Azerbaijan from neighboring Georgia and then follows a southeasterly course to the Caspian Sea. The Aras forms part of Azerbaijan’s southern border with Iran and eventually turns northeast to enter south central Azerbaijan; it then joins with the Kura and also empties into the Caspian. The Kura and Aras are also linked farther upriver by the Upper Karabakh Canal, which channels water from the Mingäçevır Reservoir on the upper Kura in northwestern Azerbaijan, providing irrigation water to farms in the central lowland and supplying the Aras during the dry summer months. The reservoir, which was formed by a dam built in 1953, covers an area of about 605 sq km (234 sq mi). Another canal in the east, the Samur-Abşeron Canal, redirects water from the Samur River on Azerbaijan’s northeastern border to the Abşeron Peninsula, an arid area where Baku, the capital, is located.

Plants and Animals in Azerbaijan

Forests of beech, oak, and pine cover 11 percent of the country, with most tree cover on the mountain slopes and in the southeastern Länkäran Lowland. The subalpine forests support a number of mammal species, including bear, deer, lynx, and wild boar. Leopards also inhabit the forests but are rare. Reptiles, such as lizards and poisonous snakes, thrive in the arid and semiarid lowlands, which constitute the majority of the country’s territory. Gazelles, jackals, and hyenas populate the lowlands as well. The Caspian Sea coast provides a mild winter home to populations of pelicans, herons, flamingos, swans, and other migratory birds.

Natural Resources of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan contains many natural resources, the most important being crude oil. Azerbaijan’s oil reserves are located offshore, beneath the Caspian Sea, with most developed oil fields near the Abşeron Peninsula. Mineral resources include iron ore, aluminum, copper, lead, zinc, limestone, and salt.

Climate in Azerbaijan

The lowlands of central and eastern Azerbaijan have a dry subtropical climate, with relatively mild winters and long hot summers. The average temperature in the lowlands in July is 27°C (80°F), although summer temperatures can enter the upper 30°s C (lower 100°s F); the average temperature in January is 1°C (34°F). Summers are typically dry, with most precipitation falling during the winter months. Humidity is high in the Länkäran Lowland, which receives significantly more precipitation than other areas of the country. Temperatures are colder in the mountains, and snowfall is heavy at elevations of more than 3,000 m (10,000 ft) during winter.

Environmental Issues in Azerbaijan

Severe pollution from heavy industries and agriculture has damaged the environment of Azerbaijan. The contamination of the Caspian Sea from oil drilling in Baku has been a problem since the 19th century, when the Russian Empire took control of the region and began to rapidly exploit its oil reserves. Although oil production waned during the Soviet period, petroleum waste was routinely dumped into the Caspian. The Caspian also suffers from the discharge of untreated sewage, and pollution has depleted the sea’s stocks of sturgeon. Severe air pollution is a problem in the major cities due to emissions from petroleum and chemical industries. During the Soviet period, dangerously high concentrations of pesticides and fertilizers were used to increase Azerbaijan’s agricultural output. In the late 1980s, when environmental awareness began to surface in the USSR, Azerbaijan’s high infant mortality rate and high rates of infectious diseases were linked to the chemicals used in cotton growing. Although the people of Azerbaijan are generally aware of the need to protect the environment, the republic’s environmental issues have not received significant attention from the government.


Azerbaijan is more populated than the other South Caucasus states, Georgia and Armenia. Its population was an estimated 8,238,672 in 2009, giving it an average population density of 96 persons per sq km (248 per sq mi). The most densely populated area is the Abşeron Peninsula in the east, where Azerbaijan’s major cities are located. Despite its larger population, Azerbaijan is the least urbanized country of the South Caucasus, as only 50 percent of its population lives in urban areas. The largest city is Baku, the capital. Other important cities include Gäncä, the industrial center of western Azerbaijan, and Sumgayıt, located on the Caspian coast and the second most important industrial center after Baku.

Ethnic Groups in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan, including the autonomous exclave of Naxçivan, is populated mostly by ethnic Azerbaijanis, who are also known as Azeris. The ethnic composition of the country changed due to a civil war between the government of Azerbaijan and Armenian secessionists in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Beginning in 1988, when the people of Nagorno-Karabakh unilaterally decided to secede from Azerbaijan, nearly the entire Azerbaijani population in Armenia fled to Azerbaijan and northern Iran, while many ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan fled to Armenia. The number of Armenians in Azerbaijan decreased from slightly less than 6 percent of the total population to about 2 percent. Armenians now reside almost exclusively in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, where they constitute a majority. In the 1990s the proportion of Azerbaijanis in Azerbaijan increased from about 80 percent of the total population to about 90 percent. This change was largely due to the civil war, but the emigration of many Russians and other Slavs after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 also contributed.

Dagestanis and Russians are the largest minority groups in Azerbaijan, followed by Armenians. Dagestanis, a people whose traditional homeland is Dagestan, a republic of Russia on Azerbaijan’s northern border, make up about 3 percent of the population. Russians constitute about 2.5 percent of the total (a reduction of about 3 percent since the 1989 census). Other ethnic groups include Lezgins, Kurds, and Talysh, who are geographically concentrated in the north, east, and south of the republic, respectively. There are also small communities of Georgians, Ukrainians, and Avars. Most of the republic’s ethnic groups have resided in the area for centuries, although Russians arrived in large numbers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Languages in Azerbaijan

The official language of Azerbaijan is Azeri, a Turkic language of the Altaic family that is closely related to the Turkish and Turkmen languages (see Altaic Languages). Other languages spoken in Azerbaijan include Russian and Armenian. Azeri originally developed in the Arabic script, but in the 1920s a Latin (Roman) alphabet was introduced. In 1939 the Soviet regime mandated the use of the Cyrillic alphabet, the script of the Russian language. After Azerbaijan gained independence, the government decided to introduce a Turkish version of the Latin script. In 2001 a presidential decree abolishing the Cyrillic script for official and business purposes came into force.

Religion in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijanis are traditionally Muslim. Islam was introduced in the area of present-day Azerbaijan during the 7th century AD, and Shia Islam was established as the official religion of the Azerbaijanis in the 16th century. During the Soviet period, religious leaders were persecuted, mosques were closed or destroyed, and religious practice was officially condemned. Islam has experienced a revival in Azerbaijan since the late 1980s, when political reforms allowed most of the Soviet restrictions on religion to be lifted. Nearly all Azerbaijanis now identify as Muslim, although few actively practice their religion. About 70 percent of Azerbaijani Muslims are Shias, and about 30 percent are Sunnis. Christianity is practiced to varying degrees among the Georgian, Armenian, and Slavic minorities.

Education in Azerbaijan

Most adults in Azerbaijan can read and write. The country’s high adult literacy rate was achieved during the Soviet period, when an extensive, state-funded education system was developed. The first eight years of education are compulsory, but most students complete the full ten-year program of basic education, and many choose to continue their education at secondary or vocational schools. Baku is the seat of most of the country’s institutes of higher education, including Baku State University (founded in 1919 during Azerbaijan’s brief initial period of independence), Azerbaijan Technical University (1950), and Azerbaijan State Petroleum Academy (1920).

Culture of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s cultural institutions, located primarily in Baku, include the State Museum of Shirvan-Shakh, which houses weapons and decorations from palaces of the khans (rulers), and the State Museum of Azerbaijan Literature. The culture of the peoples inhabiting eastern part of the South Caucasus developed during the ancient and medieval periods under a predominantly Persian influence, although Turkic influences also were present. Azerbaijanis contributed several notable literary and scientific works during the medieval period. After Azerbaijan became part of the Russian Empire in the early 19th century, Azerbaijani intellectuals such as scholar and poet Abbas Qoli Agha Bakikhanov began the study of the Azeri language and attempted to set up schools that would teach literacy. At times during the Soviet period, artistic expression that conveyed any hint of Azerbaijani nationalism was brutally suppressed.

Music has long been an important aspect of Azerbaijani life. The ancient Azerbaijani musical tradition has been kept alive by musicians known as ashugs, who improvise songs while playing a stringed instrument called a kobuz. Other vocal and instrumental compositions called mugams are also part of the oral folk tradition. Modern Azerbaijani composer Uzeir Hajjibekov is known internationally for his classical operas.


The collapse of the Soviet Union had a devastating impact on Azerbaijan’s trade-dependent economy. As traditional markets and trading links were severed, Azerbaijan’s economy fell into severe decline. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which imposed an economic burden of providing for approximately 1 million refugees, compounded the economic crisis. Skyrocketing inflation caused consumer prices to rise by 1,664 percent in 1994, while also making the country’s new currency, the manat, practically worthless. As a consequence, living standards deteriorated for the majority of the population.

The economy began to recover after the government of Azerbaijan introduced an economic stabilization program in 1995 with the support of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Also that year, the government launched a program to transfer state-owned enterprises to the public sector. Azerbaijan’s gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the value of goods and services produced, began to show growth in 1996. In 2007 GDP was $31.2 billion.

Azerbaijan is one of the world’s oldest oil exporters, and development of the country’s extensive petroleum reserves remains central to its economic future. Foreign investment is focused almost exclusively in the petroleum industry. Other sectors have received relatively little development since independence.

Agriculture of Azerbaijan

Agriculture produced 6 percent of GDP in 2007. About 40 percent of the workforce is employed in agriculture. Cotton is the leading export crop. Fruits, vegetables, grains (primarily wheat), wine grapes, tea, and tobacco are also grown. Most crops are cultivated in lowland areas and require extensive irrigation. Some of Azerbaijan’s best farmland is located in Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Kura and Aras rivers. Livestock raising is also important, and extensive pastures provide grazing lands for sheep, cattle, and goats.

Agricultural production declined during the 1990s. The conflict involving Nagorno-Karabakh contributed to the decline, in part because transportation links were disrupted. Production was also adversely affected by the breaking up of large state-owned and collective farms that had been established during the Soviet period. Those farms were replaced by smaller, privately owned farms, which for lack of machinery and fertilizers have tended to focus on subsistence agriculture (the cultivation of crops for personal consumption). In addition, the ability to bring agricultural products to market is hindered by the country’s underdeveloped distribution routes.

Mining and Manufacturing in Azerbaijan

The extraction of petroleum is the country’s largest industry, and it supports a number of other industries, including petroleum refining, petrochemicals processing, and equipment manufacturing. Other factories produce glass, ceramics, textiles, and clothing.

Most of Azerbaijan’s oil is found in fields under the Caspian Sea. Reserves of natural gas are also located in offshore fields. Azerbaijan also possesses deposits of iron ore, aluminum, copper, and zinc; industrial minerals, such as iodine and bromine; precious and semiprecious gems; and marble.

In the early 1990s Azerbaijan opened its oil industry to foreign investment as a way to fund development, both for the exploration of new offshore fields in the Caspian and for the construction of new export pipelines. The subsequent discovery of massive offshore oil and gas fields, the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli oil field and the Shah Deniz gas field, significantly improved Azerbaijan’s export prospects.

The establishment of new, commercially viable oil and gas pipelines was critical to growth in exports. Initially, petroleum was exported solely via a pipeline to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. In 1999 a new pipeline opened between Baku and the Black Sea port of Supsa, Georgia, to facilitate the export of oil to Europe.

Another new pipeline opened in May 2005 linking Azerbaijan with Turkey, providing the first direct route between Caspian oil fields and the Mediterranean Sea. This pipeline was especially significant for reaching markets beyond Europe, as the Mediterranean is accessible to large oil tankers. The 1,770-km (1,100-mi) pipeline carries crude oil from Baku, through central Georgia via Tbilisi, to the port of Ceyhan in Turkey. Known as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, it will carry about 1 million barrels of oil a day once it reaches full capacity later in the decade. The pipeline was primarily developed as a conduit for Azerbaijan’s new Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli oil field, but at full capacity it will take oil from Kazakhstan’s offshore fields as well. Meanwhile, construction began on a new gas pipeline following the discovery of massive reserves of natural gas in 1999. Scheduled to open in 2006, this pipeline will carry natural gas along a route roughly parallel to the BTC oil pipeline.

Energy in Azerbaijan

About 89 percent of Azerbaijan’s electricity comes from thermal power stations fueled by oil and natural gas. Hydroelectric facilities produce the remainder of the country’s electricity.

Currency and Trade in Azerbaijan

Since gaining independence, Azerbaijan has worked to develop new trading relationships with countries outside the former Soviet Union. Its leading markets for exports are Italy, France, Israel, Russia, and Turkey. Its main sources of imports are Russia, Turkey, Kazakhstan, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Oil and oil products are leading exports. Machinery and equipment are leading imports.

Until 1994 Azerbaijan used the Russian ruble as its currency. That year, the Azerbaijani manat became the sole legal tender (1 manats equal U.S.$1; 2007 average).

Transportation in Azerbaijan

The transportation system in Azerbaijan is considered inadequate for the country’s long-term needs. Paved roads extend along the Caspian Sea north to Russia and south to Iran. Other paved roads connect Baku with Tbilisi in Georgia. During the Soviet era, a rail line extending north was the country’s principal route for transporting goods; regional disputes have since occasionally closed the railroad. Azerbaijan now depends on a railroad through Georgia to ports on the Black Sea for much of its imports.


Azerbaijan is a presidential republic, governed under a constitution adopted by referendum in 1995. The new constitution replaced the 1978 constitution, which had been amended to reflect Azerbaijan’s new status after the republic gained independence in 1991. All citizens of Azerbaijan age 18 and older are eligible to vote.

Executive of Azerbaijan

The head of state is the president, who is directly elected for a term of five years. With the approval of the legislature, the president appoints a prime minister and a cabinet of ministers, who carry out the day-to-day operations of government. Among other powers, the president calls legislative elections, nominates the prosecutor-general and higher-court justices, and may declare a state of emergency or martial law.

Legislature of Azerbaijan

Legislative power is vested in the Milli Majlis, or National Assembly, a unicameral (single-chamber) body composed of 125 members who serve five-year terms. Under the country’s electoral law, 25 seats in the Milli Majlis are awarded to candidates according to the proportion of the vote their parties draw in elections. The remaining 100 seats are filled by the winners of district elections.

Judiciary in Azerbaijan

The judicial system includes the Supreme Court, which is the country’s highest court; the Constitutional Court, which is charged with ensuring that the government complies with the constitution; and the Economic Court, which is the highest legal body in economic disputes. The members of these three courts are nominated by the president and approved by the Milli Majlis.

Political Parties of Azerbaijan

Political parties with representation in the Milli Majlis include the New Azerbaijan Party (NAP), the Popular Front of Azerbaijan (PFA), and the Civic Solidarity Party (CSP). The NAP, which is the party of President Heydar Aliyev, holds the majority of seats.

Local Government of Azerbaijan

For purposes of local government, Azerbaijan is divided into 71 administrative regions, consisting of 59 districts, 11 cities, and the autonomous republic of Naxçivan. The local government of Naxçivan adheres to the republic’s constitution and cooperates with the central government. The enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has no official designation at this time. It was established as an autonomous region in 1923, but this status was officially abolished in 1991 due to the conflict in the region. In December 1991 Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself an independent republic, but neither Azerbaijan nor any other country, including Armenia, formally recognized its independence.

Defense of Azerbaijan

The formation of Azerbaijan’s national armed forces began after the republic gained independence from the Soviet Union. By 2006 Azerbaijan had developed an army of about 56,840 troops, a navy of 2,000, and an air force of 7,900. Military service is compulsory for at least 17 months for all males, beginning at age 18.

International Organizations in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan became a member of the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 1992. In September 1993 the republic was admitted as a full member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose alliance of most of the former Soviet republics. In May 1994 Azerbaijan became a member of the Partnership for Peace program, which provides for limited military cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Azerbaijan became a member of the Council of Europe in 2001.


The area of present-day Azerbaijan was settled beginning in about the 8th century BC by the Medes, an ancient Aryan tribe. It became part of the Persian Empire in the 6th century BC, and the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism was introduced. Between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, the Romans conquered the area of present-day Azerbaijan, which then became known as Caucasian Albania. Christianity began to spread there in the 3rd century.

A much-disputed area, Caucasian Albania was conquered in the late 7th century by Arabs, and Islam predominated thereafter. In the mid-11th century Seljuk Turks led by Togrul Beg conquered present-day Azerbaijan as well as most of Iran and Iraq. Turkic tribes migrated to the area from the east and came to influence the linguistic and cultural development of the Azerbaijanis. With the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, the area fell under the domain of Mongol khans (see Mongol Empire). In the 16th century Azerbaijan again came under the control of Iran (formerly known as Persia), which was ruled by the Safavid dynasty, and the Shia doctrine of Islam was established as the official religion. The Ottomans, who were Sunni Muslims, went to war with Iran and held Azerbaijan from 1578 to 1603, but the Safavids continued to reign over the area until their dynasty fell in the early 18th century. Turkic Muslim khanates were then established in Baku, Naxçivan, and other areas.

Russian Conquest

Imperial Russia conquered the Caspian coast in the early 18th century, but soon relinquished the territory to the Muslim khans. In the early 19th century Russia again sought control of the area. In 1801 some western territory of present-day Azerbaijan was annexed to the Russian Empire along with adjacent territory in Georgia. Russia and Iran then engaged in war between 1804 and 1813 and again from 1826 to 1828. The treaties of 1813 and 1828 ceded Iranian territory north of the Aras River (present-day Azerbaijan) to Russia.

During the latter half of the 19th century, oil was discovered in Azerbaijan, and by the turn of the century the Abşeron Peninsula supplied most of Russia’s oil. Baku experienced rapid industrialization and population growth as the center of Russia’s oil industry. The influx of Russians and Armenians resulted in a highly segregated city, and violent clashes erupted in 1905 between the city’s Azerbaijani and Armenian communities. Azerbaijanis were edged out of the highest-paying positions in the oil industry, and wealthy Russians and Armenians gained control of local government.

The Soviet Period

The Russian Empire collapsed in the Russian Revolution of 1917, and militant socialist revolutionaries called Bolsheviks (later called Communists) seized power in Russia. This upheaval gave Azerbaijani nationalists the opportunity to assert control over local government, and in May 1918 they declared Azerbaijan an independent republic. Bolshevik supporters (mainly Russians) resisted the nationalists in Baku, and armed conflicts took place in the city in March and September 1918, resulting in thousands of deaths. In 1920 the Bolshevik Red Army invaded Azerbaijan and the rest of Transcaucasia (South Caucasus), establishing Bolshevik control in the region. In December 1922 Azerbaijan was incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (SFSR), which also included Georgia and Armenia. When the Transcaucasian SFSR was dissolved in 1936, Azerbaijan became the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) within the USSR.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Soviet government created a Soviet Azerbaijan culture, fought illiteracy, and promoted local people into state and party positions. At the same time the Soviets persecuted those Azerbaijani nationalists and intellectuals whom the government considered a threat to Communist rule. Many of these Azerbaijanis were deported to gulags (Soviet concentration camps) or simply executed. Religious leaders also suffered severe persecution, and many mosques and religious centers were closed and in some instances destroyed.

During the early 1930s the Soviet regime began the forced collectivization of agriculture, combining private holdings into large state-operated farms. Azerbaijani farmers rose up in protest, but they were brutally suppressed by Soviet troops. In the mid to late 1930s, Communist Party officials throughout the Soviet Union were purged and executed as part of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s campaign to wipe out all opposition to his rule (Great Purge). The Stalinist purges also came to include rank-and-file citizens, and by 1940 an estimated 120,000 Azerbaijanis had died from Soviet acts of repression. The purges were directed in Azerbaijan by first secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party Mir Jafar Bagirov, who was arrested and executed after Stalin’s death in 1953.

Azerbaijan developed economically and became more industrialized under the Soviet planned economy, especially after World War II (1939-1945). It remained one of the least urbanized republics of the USSR, however, and agriculture continued to be an important part of the local economy. The further development of local oil reserves was put on hold in the 1960s, when larger deposits were discovered in the Russian region of Siberia.

In 1969 Heydar Aliyev, chief of the Soviet secret police in Naxçivan, was appointed first secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party. He became the most influential of the republic’s Communist leaders in the period after World War II (1939-1945). However, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev dismissed Aliyev in 1987 following an investigation into charges of widespread corruption in Aliyev’s administration.

In February 1988 a conflict surfaced in Azerbaijan’s autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians had long constituted a majority of the population. The Armenian-dominated regional council requested that the territory be transferred to Armenia, but the Soviet authorities in Moscow ultimately rejected the request. Armenians staged massive demonstrations in the region and in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. In Sumgait, an industrial city in eastern Azerbaijan, organized attacks against Armenians took place. Armed conflicts between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh triggered a large-scale exodus of Azerbaijanis from Armenia and Armenians from Azerbaijan. In early 1989 some 5,000 Soviet troops were sent into Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Soviet government assumed direct control of the region through most of the year; nevertheless, the situation remained highly volatile. Later that year Azerbaijan imposed a rail blockade of Armenia, followed by a full economic blockade in 1990.

Beginning in the late 1980s, meanwhile, the Soviet government allowed political groups other than the Communist Party to function openly for the first time. The Communist Party leadership in Azerbaijan was reluctant to observe this political liberalization. The Communist-controlled Azerbaijan Supreme Soviet (national legislature) conceded official recognition to the newly formed nationalist group called the Popular Front of Azerbaijan (PFA) only after the PFA organized a national strike in September 1989.

The PFA sought to maintain Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, which made the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh even more bitter. Interethnic tensions continued to increase, and violent riots targeting ethnic Armenians erupted in Baku in January 1990. The PFA effectively took control of the city, leading the government to declare a state of emergency. The city’s Armenian inhabitants were hastily evacuated. The Soviet government immediately dispatched troops to Baku in an attempt to reestablish government control. During the intervention of Soviet troops, more than 100 people were killed and more than 700 injured, according to official reports. To enforce the state of emergency, the government banned all public demonstrations, outlawed radical nationalist organizations, and arrested leading PFA members. Because of the Azerbaijan Communist Party’s failure to maintain stability, the Soviet government dismissed the head of the party, Abdul Vezirov, and appointed Ayaz Mutalibov in his place.

Relative order was restored in Azerbaijan by the end of January. Elections to the Supreme Soviet, originally scheduled for February, were postponed until September. Although they were the republic’s first multiparty elections, the continued state of emergency limited campaigning by opposition groups, and Communist Party candidates won a majority of seats.

In August 1991 Communist hardliners attempted to seize control of the Soviet government in Moscow. Although the coup attempt failed, it instigated large demonstrations in Azerbaijan calling for the republic’s independence. Demonstrators also called for an end to the state of emergency, the resignation of Mutalibov, and the postponement of presidential elections scheduled for September. The elections were held as scheduled, however, and Mutalibov won as the only candidate because the PFA and other opposition groups boycotted the elections.

On August 30, meanwhile, the Azerbaijan Supreme Soviet voted in favor of independence, and Azerbaijan’s status as an independent republic was formalized in October. A new 50-member legislature, the Milli Majlis (National Assembly), subsequently replaced the Supreme Soviet. In December the USSR officially collapsed.

Independent Republic

After Azerbaijan gained independence, the government abolished Nagorno-Karabakh’s autonomous status. The Armenian leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh responded by declaring the region’s independence. The conflict continued to plague Azerbaijan during its first years of independence. President Mutalibov was forced to resign in March 1992 after he was held directly responsible for the death of several hundred Azerbaijanis killed by Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. The interim president, Yagub Mamedov, was unable to control the political situation, and Mutalibov was reinstated in May. He was immediately deposed, however, when the PFA seized control in a nearly bloodless coup with the support of military units.

The leader of the PFA, Abulfaz Aliyev Elchibey, was elected president in June. Elchibey soon lost popularity, however, because of his inability to end the war in Nagorno-Karabakh or improve Azerbaijan’s war-ravaged economy. Pressure on Elchibey increased when he attempted to disarm a disobedient military garrison based in Gäncä in June 1993. The garrison, led by Colonel Surat Huseinov, marched on Baku and seized control, and Elchibey fled to Naxçivan. The Milli Majlis voted to transfer Elchibey’s powers to former Communist Party official Heydar Aliyev, who had been elected chairperson of the assembly earlier that month. A national referendum supported Elchibey’s removal, and in October 1993 Aliyev was elected president in a virtually uncontested election. The Milli Majlis appointed Huseinov as prime minister, and he took over the coordination of the military effort in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Meanwhile, the government of Armenia continued publicly to support the Armenian secessionists in Nagorno-Karabakh. By August 1993 Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, with reinforcements from Armenia, gained control of the enclave as well as some 20 percent of adjacent territory in western Azerbaijan, including a corridor linking the enclave with Armenia. Azerbaijanis fled the Armenian-controlled territory to other parts of Azerbaijan, resulting in 100,000 new refugees in the country. In December 1993 Azerbaijani forces began a renewed offensive in the region, recapturing some areas while suffering heavy casualties. By early 1994 an estimated 18,000 people had been killed and 25,000 wounded since the conflict began in 1988. The massive relocation of population had produced an estimated 1 million refugees and displaced persons (primarily Azerbaijanis and Armenians) in Azerbaijan alone. Initial cease-fire agreements failed to hold, and fighting continued in Nagorno-Karabakh until May 1994, when both sides agreed again to cease hostilities. Subsequent negotiations failed to achieve a final peace settlement, although the cease-fire remained in effect.

In other internal affairs, the Aliyev government faced mutinies among certain military troops (particularly the special militia attached to the Ministry of Internal Affairs) in October 1994 and March 1995. Forces loyal to Aliyev quickly crushed the revolts and reestablished government control. After the October revolt, Aliyev dismissed Prime Minister Huseinov as well as several high-level government and military officials, charging they had supported the mutinous forces. Aliyev declared a state of emergency and banned demonstrations. After the March revolt, which Aliyev described as part of another plot to oust him, the PFA was accused of involvement and banned by the government.

In November 1995 Azerbaijan held its first legislative elections since independence, for a new 125-seat Milli Majlis. The New Azerbaijan Party (NAP), aligned with Aliyev, won a majority of seats. Two opposition parties were allowed to participate—the PFA, which had been officially reinstated, and the National Independence Party (NIP)—and both won seats. International observers reported serious electoral violations such as the exclusion of a number of opposition parties and hundreds of independent candidates as well as restriction of the media. At the same time as the legislative elections, voters approved a new constitution that granted wide-ranging powers to the president.

After the 1995 elections, Aliyev maintained a strong position, in part because of an improved economy. However, his government continued to limit freedom of the press and opposition activities. In 1998 Aliyev won a second term, defeating five opposition candidates in an election marred by voting irregularities and strong pro-Aliyev bias in the media. Subsequently, Aliyev’s failing health due to a heart condition led to speculation over his ability to govern the country. His party, the NAP, won a majority of seats in the Milli Majlis in the legislative elections of 2000, which according to international observers were neither free nor fair. Aliyev’s health continued to deteriorate, and in mid-2003 he appointed his son, Ilham Aliyev, as prime minister. Under the country’s succession law, the prime minister assumes power if the president becomes incapacitated.

In the October 2003 presidential election Ilham Aliyev was declared the winner by an overwhelming majority in the first father-son succession in a former Soviet republic. Election observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), however, said the election failed to meet international standards for a free and fair election. The OSCE observers cited ballot stuffing and falsified vote counts. Violent protests by members of opposition parties erupted in the capital, Baku, in response to the election results. Ilham Aliyev was reelected president in 2008 by a large margin, although the election was boycotted by the main opposition party.

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