Republic of Azerbaijan

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Republic of Azerbaijan

Type of Government

Azerbaijan is a secular republic with three branches of government. The president, who is the chief of state, holds a considerably greater degree of power than the legislative or judicial branches, and is elected by popular vote to a five-year term. Legislative power is vested in the Milli Mejlis, or national assembly, a unicameral body with 125 representatives. While Azerbaijan operates under a multi-party system, most alternative parties do not offer real opposition to the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP), which has dominated the country since the early 1990s. In addition, the presidential election in October 2003 and the parliamentary elections in November 2005 were plagued by accusations of fraud and political interference.


Azerbaijan is situated on the Caspian Sea in the South Caucasus mountain range in Central Asia. Its location on an ancient trade route made it an attractive property to a succession of empires. A predominantly Shiite Muslim nation, Azerbaijan is bordered by two powerful neighbors, Russia and Iran. In addition, it has two other neighbors, Georgia and Armenia, that have clashed with Azerbaijan periodically throughout history for domination of the region. The people of Azerbaijan are sometimes called the Azeri, after a Turkic language of the same name, and this group makes up about 90 percent of Azerbaijan’s modern-day population. The remaining 10 percent include individuals of Russian descent and those belonging to other regional ethnic groups, including Dagestani and Armenian.

Azerbaijan began to flourish after 500 BC, when it became the center of Zoroastrianism, a religion that originated in neighboring Persia. The Macedonian general Alexander the Great (356 BC–323 BC) and his armies later conquered the area. Islam arrived in the eleventh century with a group from Turkmenistan known as the Oghuz Turks. Their reign gave way to the empire of the Seljuk Turks, who also conquered Iran and Iraq, and ruled the area after 1000 from their capital in Baghdad.

Seljuk Turk domination of Azerbaijan ended with the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, followed by a long period of alternating Ottoman Empire and Persian rule. In 1828, after a war between the Persian Empire and imperial Russia, Azerbaijan was divided between the countries in a peace treaty that ended hostilities. Azerbaijan’s fortunes changed immensely in 1873, when oil was discovered near what later became its capital city of Baku. The oilfields proved immensely lucrative, and as the twentieth century approached nearly half of the world’s crude oil exports were coming out of this area.

Russian rule in Azerbaijan ended with the fall of the imperial government during the communist revolution in 1917. During this period Azerbaijan briefly entered into an alliance with Armenia and Georgia that was known as the Transcaucasian Republics. Within a few months, however, nationalist elements in Azerbaijan proclaimed the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in May 1918. That declaration made Azerbaijan the first Muslim nation in the world to exist as a parliamentary republic. Its tenure was short-lived, and ended with the invasion of the Russian Red Army troops in 1920. For the next seventy years the country existed as the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. The collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991 prompted the declaration of independence from nationalist groups inside Azerbaijan, whose demonstrations had been brutally suppressed by the Soviets just a year earlier.

Government Structure

Azerbaijan’s executive branch consists of a president and a prime minister, who serves as head of government, along with a Council of Ministers, or cabinet. There is also a first deputy prime minister along with four additional deputy prime ministers. The prime minister achieves office after a confirmation vote of the Milli Mejlis.

The Milli Mejlis comprises Azerbaijan’s legislative branch, and shares its power with the ruling government. It is a unicameral body with 125 members elected to five-year terms. One hundred of them are chosen from designated districts, while the remaining twenty-five are elected from party lists. Laws passed in the Milli Mejlis are subject to presidential veto, but legislators may override that veto with ninety-five votes.

At the head of Azerbaijan’s judiciary branch of government is its Constitutional Court. There is also a Supreme Court and an Economic Court, and all three benches are occupied by judges appointed by the president. The Azerbaijani government has been accused of many human rights violations, including imprisoning political dissidents and assaulting journalist attempting to cover anti-government protests.

Azerbaijan is divided into seventy-six administrative districts. Eleven of them are urban districts, with the remaining sixty-five called rayons, or rural districts. There is also a separate autonomous republic, Naxçivan. All districts have a governor appointed by the president. There is universal suffrage in Azerbaijan at age eighteen, but neither presidential nor parliamentary elections conform to international standards for legitimacy. Violations reported include preventing opposition groups from campaigning and using intimidation to control voting and election results.

Political Parties and Factions

Azerbaijan’s political life is dominated by the New Azerbaijan Party, formed in 1993 by Heydar Aliyev (1923–2003). Aliyev, who served as the country’s president from 1993 to 2003, was a high-ranking official of the Azerbaijan Communist Party during the Soviet era and was the Politburo’s first Muslim member. During parliamentary elections in 2005 the New Azerbaijan Party won 56 out of the 125 seats. Seven seats were won by the Azadiq (Freedom) slate, consisting of members from three other parties. The first of these is the Müsavat (Equality) Party, the country’s oldest political organization and one that was instrumental in formation of the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918. The other two are the Popular Front Party and Azerbaijan Democratic Party. Several dozen other political organizations operate in Azerbaijan, including a Social Democratic Party and an Islamic Party, but human-rights groups assert that the ruling New Azerbaijan Party engages in widespread electoral fraud. Its party loyalists are assigned to supervise elections, and instances of vote-tampering and ballot-stuffing are said to be commonplace.

Official opposition parties were severely restricted until 2005, but even after the ban on their activities was lifted, political rallies by parties other than the New Azerbaijan Party were not permitted in the run-up to parliamentary elections that year, and their members were sometimes detained or otherwise harassed. The state-controlled electronic media is ardently pro-government.

Major Events

Azerbaijan’s earliest incarnation as an independent republic in 1918 was recognized by the international community, but this period of sovereignty ended with the 1920 Soviet invasion. Even prior to its renewal as the Republic of Azerbaijan and independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, political tensions centered around an area called Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian enclave surrounded entirely by Azerbaijan but allowed special status in the Soviet era as an autonomous administrative district. Armenians are predominantly Christian, however, and accused Azerbaijan of religious as well as ethnic discrimination. In 1988 Nagorno-Karabakh’s National Council voted in favor of secession from Azerbaijan and becoming part of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. This act prompted the Nagorno-Karabakh War that same year, which endured for another six years.

Nationalist demonstrations in Baku in late 1989 led to a serious skirmish with Soviet Army troops in January 1990, which left 190 dead. When independence was declared in August 1991, the former head of Azerbaijani Communist Party, Ayaz Mütalibov (1938–), became Azerbaijan’s first president after a popular vote a month later. He was forced out of office in the aftermath of the Khojaly massacre of Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh in February 1992. The opposition Popular Front Party (PFP) surged to power and won elections that were held that June, but a year later was also forced out of office when an armed uprising occurred in Azerbaijan’s second largest city, Gäncäa. In the aftermath of this crisis, Aliyev was installed as president, and won the next uncontested election for the office in October 1993. Reelected under similar circumstances in 1998, he was succeeded in October 2003 by his son Ilham Aliyev (1961–).

Twenty-First Century

The election in which Ilham Aliyev gained the presidency in 2003 was widely criticized as rigged in his favor. Two years later he became head of the New Azerbaijan Party, a post that technically violates the country’s political statutes, which specify that the president may not be a member of a political party.

Azerbaijan’s oil fields continue to provide a steady source of revenue via the state-owned oil company. Deals have been struck with foreign oil companies to mine new sources of crude oil from once-unreachable deepwater deposits below the Caspian Sea. Tensions over the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh lingered after a 1994 cease-fire was called, and the question of its secession remains unresolved.

Alaolmolki, Nozar. Life After the Soviet Union: The Newly Independent Republics of Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Albany: SUNY Press, 2001.

De Waal, Thomas. Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War. New York: New York University Press, 2004.

Gammer, Moshe. The Caspian Region. London: Routledge, 2004.