Azerbaijan and Azeris

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The Republic of Azerbaijan is a country located in the Caucasus region of west Asia. Azerbaijan has a total area of 86,600 square kilometers and shares borders with the Russian Federation in the north (284 kilometers), Georgia to the northwest (322 kilometers), Armenia on the west (566 kilometers), Iran to the south (432 kilometers), and the Caspian Sea on the east (800 kilometers). Geographically, Azerbaijan is considered part of the Middle East. However, it is a border country and not part of the heartland. This borderland quality has had a profound impact on the country's history.

From the time of ancient Media (eighth to seventh century b.c.e.) and the Achaemenid (Persian) period, Azerbaijan has mainly shared its history with Iran. In 300 b.c.e., Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid Kingdom, retaining Persian satraps to govern as his forces advanced eastward. According to one account, the name Azerbaijan is derived from the name of Alexander's original satrap, Atropatanes. Another explanation traces the origin of the name to the Persian word for fire keepers, "Azerbaycan." This is in reference to the fires burning in local Zoroastrian temples, fed by abundant sources of crude oil.

Azerbaijan maintained its Iranian character even after its subjugation by the Arabs in the mid-seventh century and the conversion to Islam. During the eleventh century, the migrations of Oghuz tribes under the Seljuk Turks settled into the region. These Turkic-speaking newcomers merged with the original population so that over time, the Persian language was supplanted by a Turkic dialect that eventually developed into a distinct AzeriTurkish language.

Under Shah Ismail (15011524), first among the Safavid line of rule, the Shiasect of Islam became the "official and compulsory religion of the state "(Cleveland, p. 58), and remains the majority faith in Azerbaijan in the early twenty-first century. When the two hundred-year Safavid Dynasty ended in 1722, indigenous tribal chieftains filled the void. Their independent territories took the form of khanates (principalities). The tribal nature of these khanates brought political fragmentation and eventually facilitated conquest by Russia. Russia's interest in the region was primarily driven by the strategic value of the Caucasian isthmus. Russian military activities have been recorded as early as Peter the Great's abortive Persian expedition to secure a route to the Indian Ocean (1722). However, penetrations into Persian territory were more successful under Catherine II (17631796).

Russo-Iranian warfare continued into the nineteenth century, ending with the Treaty of Turk-manchai (February 10, 1828). As a result, Azerbaijan was split along the Araxes (Aras) River with the majority of the population remaining in Iran. This frontier across Iran was laid for strategic purposes, providing Russia with a military avenue of approach into Iran while outflanking rival Ottoman Turkey.

The Turkmanchai settlement also had farreaching economic consequences. With Russia as the established hegemon, exploitation of Azerbaijan's substantial petroleum resources increased rapidly after 1859.

Over time, haphazard drilling and extraction led to a decline in oil production. By 1905 Azerbaijan ceased to be a major supplier to world energy markets. In 1918, with the great powers preoccupied by World War I and Russia in the throes of revolution, Azerbaijan proclaimed its independence on May 28, 1918. However, the independent Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan lasted only two years before Bolshevik forces invaded and overthrew the nascent government.

With its new status as a Soviet republic, Azerbaijan experienced the same transition as other parts of the Soviet Union that included an industrialization process focused on the needs of the state, collectivization of agriculture, political repression, and the Great Purges.

During World War II, Azerbaijan's strategic importance was again underscored when the Transcaucasian isthmus became an objective of Nazi Germany's offensive. Hitler hoped to cut Allied supply lines from their sources in the Persian Gulf. Azerbaijan was also coveted as a valuable fuel source for the German military. This operation was thwarted by the battle of Stalingrad.

Azerbaijan was also the scene of an early Cold War confrontation. On March 4, 1946, Soviet Army brigades deployed into Azerbaijan. The United States perceived this provocation as the first step in a Soviet strategy to penetrate the Middle East. In the face of shrewd Iranian diplomacy backed by Western resolve, the Soviet forces withdrew, averting an international crisis.

The limitations of the Soviet command economy coupled with the Western strategy of containment contributed to political and economic stagnation, especially in the last decades of the Soviet regime. A rekindled nationalism ignited by an outbreak of ethnic violence occurred in 1988 when neighboring Armenia voiced its claim to the district of Karabakh. As violence escalated, a national emergency ensued and new political groups, such as the People's Front of Azerbaijan emerged to challenge the predominant Communist Party of Azerbaijan (CPAz) upon the dissolution of the USSR. On August 30, 1991, Azerbaijan, once again became an independent republic.

However, the early years of independence were marred by political instability, exacerbated by the ongoing Karabakh conflict. The hostilities contributed to the fall of several administrations in the fledgling government with a favorable solution to the conflict taking precedence over the achievement of key political and economic reforms. On October 3, 1993, Heidar Aliyev, a former Communist Party secretary, filled the power vacuum. Signing a tentative cease-fire agreement with Armenia over the Karabakh conflict allowed him to concentrate reform efforts in Azerbaijan's government and economy.

In the early twenty-first century, the Republic of Azerbaijan is a secular democracy with a government based on a separation of powers among its three branches. The executive power is vested with the president, who serves as head of state, bearing ultimate responsibilities for domestic and foreign matters. The president of the republic also serves as the commander in chief of the armed forces and is elected for a term of five years with the provision to serve a maximum of two consecutive terms. The legislative power is executed by the National Parliament (Milli Majlis), a unicameral body consisting of 125 members. The Parliament

holds two regular sessionsthe spring session (February 10May 31) and the fall session (September 30December 30).

The judicial branch includes a Supreme Court, an economic court, and a constitutional court. The president, subject to approval by the parliament, nominates the judges in these three courts.

Azerbaijan's economy has been slow to emerge from its Soviet era structuring and decay. The CIA World Fact Book (2002) indicates that the agricultural sector employs the largest segment of the working population at 41 percent. Recognizing the significance of the petroleum industry in stimulating the economy, the Azerbaijani government has promoted investment from abroad to modernize its deteriorated energy sector. A main export pipeline from the capital, Baku, to the Turkish port of Ceyhan will facilitate transport of oil to Western markets.

See also: armenia and armenians; islam; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


Alstadt, Audrey. (1992) The Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under Russian Rule. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

CIA. (2002). The World FactbookAzerbaijan. <>.

Cleveland, William L. (1999). A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Swietockhowski, Tadeusz. (1995). Russia and Azerbaijan: A Borderland in Transition. NY: Columbia University Press.

Gregory Twyman