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“”What American politicians fail to understand (or at least it seems to me) is that today's Azerbaijan is quite a different place than the chaotic, war-torn, nearly failed state that the United States dealt with in its early years of independence.
|—Thomas Goltz, American author and journalist best known for his accounts of conflict in the Caucasus region during the 1990s.|
The Republic of Azerbaijan (Azeri: Azərbaycan; the end is actually pronounced "John") is a majority Shi'a Muslim country in the rugged Caucasus region. It borders Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Iran, and the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azerbaijan is also notable for having significant oil deposits from which Russia historically benefited. Its capital and largest city is Baku.
Like the other Caucasus states, Azerbaijan spent much of its early history being bounced around between various empires, eventually being seized from Safavid Iran by the Russian Empire in the Nineteenth Century. After the Russian Empire collapsed in World War I, Azerbaijan became involved in the Russian Civil War. During this chaotic period, Azeris and Armenians engaged in ethnic cleansing and civil warring. On the plus side, however, this brief period of independence saw Azerbaijan become the first parliamentary state in the Muslim world as well as the first majority-Muslim country to grant women equal political rights as men. This independence was short-lived, though, because Vladimir Lenin and the Red Army knew full well that the nascent Soviet Union could not survive without access to Azerbaijan's oil deposits. Thus, the Red Army invaded Azerbaijan and established it as one of the Soviet republics.
Along with being used as a country-sized oil rig by the Soviets, Azerbaijan became embroiled in a territorial dispute with its fellow Soviet Republic, Armenia, over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Although populated with an ethnic Armenian majority, the Nagorno-Karabakh region had been placed under Azeri jurisdiction by the Soviet government. This issue grew in importance and tension, and ethnic civil war began once more in the 1980s and intensified from there. The situation rapidly became uncontrollable, and the Soviet's solution of conducting a huge massacre in Baku only made things worse. The Soviet Union stopped being a Union in 1991, and Azerbaijan almost immediately engaged Armenia in warfare over the land dispute. It ended in 1994 with a cease-fire which solved nothing; much of Azerbaijan's territory is still occupied by Armenian armed forces. That has been, as you can expect, Azerbaijan's principal foreign policy concern to this day.
Despite its large Muslim population and its geographic location, it is a fairly secular state and only 21% of Azeris consider religion to be important in their daily lives. It is generally pro-Western in comparison to its neighbors and has frosty relations with Russia as a result, while the also moderately pro-Western and anti-Russian Georgian government has found an ally in Azerbaijan.
Despite rampant government corruption, Azerbaijan has a HDI on par with most Eastern European countries and its economy is doing quite well due to the rich oil deposits found there.
Human settlement in Azerbaijan dates back to at least the Stone Age. Between 900-700 BCE, ethnic Persians rose to power in Central Asia, and they eventually formed the Achaemenid Empire in 550 BCE. The Persians spread Zoroastrianism throughout the Azerbaijan region until they were conquered by Alexander the Great. After that interruption, however, Azerbaijan remained under Persian rule until the spread of Islam.
Islam and invasions
This prolonged period of Persian rule ended in the mid 600s CE with the Rashidun Caliphate's decades-long conquest of the Sassanian Persian Empire. Along with Arab conquerors, the Islamic religion arrived and received many converts. After a time, however, the age of Arab caliphates ended with the Abbasid dynasty, and the Azerbaijan region was then invaded and conquered by Turkic-speakers from Central Asia. These Turks established the Seljuk Empire, who introduced Turkish culture and were the most significant influences of the modern Azeri nation.
Under the leadership of Hulegu Khan, the Mongols invaded Azerbaijan in the early 1200s; the Mongol Empire ruled Azerbaijan as part of the Ilkhanate. The Mongol Empire fell apart, of course, but that wasn't the end of Azerbaijan's Mongol troubles. Timur Lenk, a Uzbek Mongol warlord, decided to start his own Mongol Empire by invading Central Asia and Persia.  Timur then rose to become a powerful Mongol leader who declared himself the "defender of Islam", launched genocides against Indian Hindus, Egyptian and Turkish "usurpers", and Middle Eastern Christians. Azerbaijan was also swept up in this wave of conquest, and the region's ruling Shirvanshah dynasty became a vassal state of the Timurid Empire. The Shirvanshas maintained a high degree of autonomy and presided over one of the cultural high points of Azerbaijan. This era has left behind some great architectural heritage like the Shirvanshah palace and mausoleum.
Also in Azerbaijan, the Safavid dynasty arose after the collapse of the Timurid Empire, and they reunited the Persian region and took Azerbaijan as one of its client states. The Safavids became perhaps the most important dynasty in Iranian history, being responsible for converting the entire region to Shia Islam rather than Sunni Islam. The Safavids simultaneously converted Azerbaijan to Shia Islam as well.
The Safavids accomplished this by harshly persecuting Sunnis. The rationale behind this was largely political, as the Safavids wanted to make Persia as distinct as possible from their Ottoman Empire rival. Methods of forced conversion included massacres, destruction of Sunni mosques, and confiscating property. Imposition of Shia Islam was especially harsh in Azerbaijan, where various massacres occurred. Later on in the dynasty's history, wars escalated rapidly between the Safavids and the Ottomans. Dozens of wars ensued between the two empires, many of which were fought in the Caucasus region and caused devastation throughout places like Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Starting in the Eighteenth Century, Russia also started expanding into the Caucasus region, bringing all three of the region's empires into constant warfare with each other. Azerbaijan was home to Baku, which was a significant port city on the Caspian Sea, making the area very desirable to the Russian Empire, which lacked many warm water ports. Russia proved to have better staying power than the other two empires, and by 1812, they forced Persia to cede much of the Caucasus, including Azerbaijan, to Russian rule.
At first, Russian rule was fairly light-handed since the Russians were only really concerned with Azerbaijan's ability to serve as a port. However, towards the late Nineteenth Century, oil started to become very valuable, and prospectors discovered a shitload of it in Azerbaijan. All of a sudden, Azerbaijan became the black jewel in the Russian imperial crown, and ethnic Russians started flooding into the region to get a piece of the oil industry. The population of Baku increased from 13,000 in the 1860s to 112,000 in 1897 and 215,000 in 1913, making Baku the largest city in the Caucasus. By this point, about a third of Baku's population was Russian.
In 1905, however, revolutionary unrest in Russia also gave rise to inter-ethnic tension in Azerbaijan between Azeris, Armenians, and Russians. This situation exploded into a series of riots and massacres across the entire Caucasus region, in which all sides killed thousands of people until the Russian military regained order in 1907.
Urbanization and industrialization in Azerbaijan also contributed to the rise of social radicalism, with social democracy and nationalist parties forming to push for a different kind of Azerbaijan. Many of these people would later be absorbed into the Bolshevik faction during the Russian Civil War. As happened elsewhere in the Russian Empire, racial tensions and political radicalism fully boiled over in World War I. After the October Revolution, Bolshevik-aligned leaders declared Azerbaijan to be a Soviet Republic. However, Muslim Azeri nationalists separately and simultaneously declared the "Azerbaijan People's Democratic Republic" and formed the "Army of Islam" to defend it.
The Army of Islam proceeded to forcibly occupy Baku, oust the Bolsheviks, and set up its own government. During this time, Azerbaijan became the first Muslim-majority country to create a parliamentary republic as well as the first Muslim-majority country to grant women legal equality with men. All was not well, however, as political struggles between the nationalists and Bolsheviks as well as racial tensions led to a mass slaughter of about 25,000 people, mostly Azeris.
Things got even worse when it became clear that the Soviet Red Army was preparing to invade Azerbaijan. Although this was technically an act of imperialism, Vladimir Lenin justified the attack by stating, truthfully, that the Red Army couldn't win the ongoing Russian Civil War without access to Azerbaijan's oil fields. With Azerbaijan too busy dealing with Armenian separatists and other internal threats, the Azeri army couldn't mount a successful defense. The Azeri army was tenacious, but the situation was hopeless for them, and they suffered about 20,000 deaths during the short war of reconquest. Azerbaijan became part of the new Soviet Union.
In mid-1920 the Red Army occupied Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani enclave between Armenia and northwestern Iran; in 1921 a referendum confirmed that its residents wished to be a part of Azerbaijan. That's why, when you look at the map on the top of this page, there's a chunk of Azerbaijan just floating by itself. That's Nakhichevan.
During the harsh rule of Joseph Stalin, Azerbaijan suffered alongside the other Soviet republics from purges, massacres, and the consequences of forced collectivization. However, like the other Soviet republics, this period saw Azerbaijan make impressive gains in literacy and industrialization. It was just too bad that so many people didn't live to see these improvements.
When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Azerbaijan became one of the most important places in the entire world. Throughout the 1930s, Azerbaijan produced more than half of the Soviet Union's oil. Since the USSR was heavily dependent on this oil to fuel its war machine and since the Germans were looking for their own sources of oil, it was only natural that Hitler's armies would target the region for conquest. Hence Operation Fall Blau, the Wehrmacht's name for the 1942 strategic summer offensive in southern Russia, which had the ultimate goal of seizing Azerbaijan's oil fields. This operation led to the Battle of Stalingrad, where the Soviets won a decisive victory that turned the tide of the eastern war.
After the war, though, Azerbaijan's importance to the Soviet Union started to decline. Soviet oil production moved on to other regions, and the region's economic growth thus slowed down considerably starting in the 1960s. With the economy going into the toilet (a situation that only got worse during the Brezhnev stagnation period), Azeris and Armenians had no better activities than returning to inter-ethnic conflict. Hoo-boy. The main stressing issue this time was, as ever, the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which had a majority Armenian population but had been placed under the administration of the Azerbaijan SSR. Ethnic clashes escalated rapidly throughout the decades, peaking in the 1980s. The Soviet government, weakened by decades of stagnation and weakened again by the liberalization reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, proved unable to manage the situation.
Independence and war
In this atmosphere of race war and government inaction, radical Azeris launched multiple pogroms of ethnic Armenians, killing many thousands of people. In 1990, the situation had become so bad that Gorbachev ordered a direct intervention. Soviet tanks and troops stormed the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, killing between 130 and 300 people. Soviet troops reportedly shot people at point-blank range, run over cars with tanks, bombarded hospitals, prevented the medical personnel from helping the wounded, and literally bayoneted the survivors. This event completely broke any remaining loyalty Azeris had to Moscow.
In 1991, Azerbaijan didn't hesitate to make a break for the door alongside Armenia and the other disloyal Soviet republics. The Soviet Union had collapsed, but that wasn't the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. Azerbaijan wanted to keep its old Soviet borders while Armenia wanted to annex Nagorno-Karabakh in the name of irredentism. This situation escalated into a full war in 1991.
Although Azerbaijan on paper had the superior military forces, they were fatally weakened by the need to deal with Armenians who already lived in their borders. For this reason, they were unable to prevent Armenia's invasion and occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territory. As is often the case in wars based on ethnic hatred, the Nagorno-Karabakh War was exceptionally violent and featured atrocities by both sides. In the village of Maraga, for instance, Azeri soldiers indiscriminately murdered civilians and burned the entire village. In Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh's largest city, Azeri forces besieged the city and bombarded it with artillery, killing and injuring many thousands of people. The Armenians weren't much nicer. In Garadaghly, Armenian troops killed about 20 civilians to "avenge" the death of one of their fallen comrades. In the Khojaly massacre, Armenian troops committed a mass murder of between 200 and 600 Azeri civilians.
In 1994, both sides agreed to a cease-fire, effectively a peace of exhaustion, that froze the war and the issue. And that's basically where it stands: a cease-fire which is fragile and often breached, but no full war and no resolution, either. Hooray?
Although Azerbaijan is secular and ostensibly a democracy, it has all but become a one-party state at this point, with the authoritarian statist New Azerbaijan Party being the only party with any real chance of taking power. The former president of Azerbaijan and the person who started the NAP, Heydər Əliyev, has a significant cult of personality that extended to his son (the current president) upon his death. The government of Azerbaijan has made arbitrary arrests and taken political prisoners, and the conditions within prisons are awful. Elections tend to use the same tactics as Vladimir Putin, ensuring that the New Azerbaijan Party stays in power. Sound familiar?
Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute
Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenian: Լեռնային Ղարաբաղ, Azeri: Dağlıq Qarabağ) is a disputed territory in western Azerbaijan. Although Azerbaijan technically owns it and is internationally recognized as the rightful owner, the de facto owner of most of the territory is Artsakh, a primarily Armenian (ethnically and linguistically) state with limited international recognition. Armenia has aided Artsakh in its secession from Azerbaijan, and some consider it to essentially be a territory of Armenia, despite Armenia keeping its distance from the idea of uniting the two. Several US states and subdivisions of other countries have recognized Artsakh, but no UN member states have recognized it as independent aside from Armenia. So far, there has been no compromise, though not for lack of trying.
Following the transfer of power from Serzh Sargsyan to Nikol Pashinyan as PM, Pashinyan said he would make Nagorno-Karabakh part of Armenia. He expressed interest in three-way diplomatic discussions between Artsakh, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, but Azerbaijan was opposed to Artsakh being part of the discussions.
Fighting recently flared up again on 27 September 2020 when Azerbaijan attacked again and began the worst bout of fighting yet, leaving hundreds dead and cities on both sides bombed.
|—Hacıbala Abutalıbov, mayor of Baku, while in Bavaria (2005)|
Armenophobia (anti-Armenian sentiment) is prevalent in Azeri society, with hate speech toward and stereotypes about Armenians being commonplace. This is primarily due to ethnic Armenians being used as a scapegoat for the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, and many Armenians have fled Azerbaijan as a result. At the start of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute in 1988, the problem was even worse: an extremely violent pogrom took place in the city of Sumgait in late February, and at least 53 people were killed (exact counts vary) while others identified as Armenians were raped and tortured. Soviet authorities were slow to react to the massacre, while Azerbaijani officers were even worse at responding. In 2004, an Azeri army lieutenant murdered an Armenian lieutenant in his sleep at a NATO program in Hungary; he was given a presidential pardon, promoted to the rank of major, and given all of the pay that he lost. People may be turned away from Azerbaijan for having Armenian-sounding names, even if they aren't actually Armenian.
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