Capital: Baku
Area: 33,400 sq. miles
Population: 7,781,000 (2001 estimate)
Language(s): Azeri - 89%; Russian - 3%; Armenian - 2%; other - 6%.
Ethnic Groups: Azerbaijani - 90%; Dagestani - 3.2%; Russian - 2.5%; Armenian - 2.3%; other - 2%.
Religions: Muslim - 93.4%; Russian Orthodox - 2.5%; Armenian Orthodox - 2.3%; other - 2%.
Diaspora: Iran (12 million, vs. 7 million in Azerbaijan), Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia.

The Azerbaijani people, living at the junction of three different historical empires (Persia/Iran, the Ottoman empire/Turkey and Russia/Soviet Union), evolved from the intermingling of Persians and Turks, and their culture has important traits from both. The Azerbaijanis have been ruled alternately by the Persians, Turks and Russians, with interludes of British occupation. Persian culture dominated from the 6th to the 9th c., then Turkish culture became dominant, except when it came to religion, as the majority of Azerbaijanis remained Shiite Muslims unlike the Sunnite Turks. Persia regained control in the 11th c. and kept it until 1723, without ever fully integrating the Azerbaijani land into Persia. In 1724, Peter the Great annexed the Baku and Derbent regions to Russia, but them lost them to Persia again two years later. The last half of the century was a time of relative independence for the Azerbaijanis, but power within the area was fragmented. Russia continued their campaign of conquest all through this period, but it was not until 1806 that it had control over Baku and the rest of Northern Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani land was divided between Persia and Russia by the treaties of Gulistan in 1813 and Turkmanchay in 1828. Still, it took until the 1860s for the Russians to annex all Northern Azerbaijan.

Russia's objective was to extract wealth from the area, not to build the economic infrastructure of the country, and the economy stagnated. Towards the end of the century, tsarist leaders began a program of assimilation ("Russification"). The Azerbaijanis for the most part reacted with passive resistance. Following the 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre in St. Petersburg, however, riots erupted in Baku and spread throughout Transcaucasia. Riots continued through 1906 in what has been called the "Tatar-Armenian War", leaving resentments and hostilities that still endure.

Towards the end of World War 1, Persia tried to reunify Azerbaijan by taking control over Northern Azerbaijan, but failed. Britain and the Ottoman enpire also at times occupied parts of the area. There was also a brief attempt at Azerbaijani independence (1918 - the Arak republic), before Northern Azerbaijan was incorporated into the Soviet state in 1920, and the Azerbaijan SSR was formed. Then, in 1922, the Transcaucasian Federation was established, uniting Azerbaijan with Georgia and Armenia. In 1923, the Nakhichevan region on the border with Iran was made an autonomous republic, and the year after, the Armenian enclave Nagorno-Karabakh was made an autonomous oblast within Azerbaijan. This gave Stalin a better opportunity to control the area by "divide-and-rule", but it has deeply embittered the relationship between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. The Transcaucasian Federation lasted until 1936, when Stalin reestablished the three separate union republics.

Despite of efforts by the Communist party to recruit Azerbaijani leaders, the leadership of Azerbaijan SSR was predominantly non-Azerbaijani, with Russians, Georgians and Armenians holding most leading positions. The Azerbaijanis' resistance to Russification was strong, and collectivization, forced transition to cotton as the main cash crop of the republic together with campaigns against islam, increased the conflict potential between Azerbaijanis and Soviet planners.

In World War 2, the Soviets occupied northern Iran from 1941 to 1946, including "southern" Azerbaijan, thus controlling the whole Azerbaijani area. Russian hopes for an Azerbaijani uprising in Northern Iran after 1946 with demands of Azerbaijani unification under the Soviet flag, did not succeed.

In the 60s and 70s, Azerbaijan had a weaker growth than other Soviet republics. Within Azerbaijan, the Russians and Armenians held most of the higher posts in industry and politics, and differences were not decreasing. Together with sharp population growth among the Azerbaijanis and widespread corruption, this led to tensions and stagnation. Heydar Aliyev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan and the only Azerbaijani to have achieved political prominence in the Post World War 2 Soviet Union, launched an anti-corruption campaign sending many managers to prison and even resulting in death penalty for five. Economic revitalization was more difficult, but Aliyev's success brought him into the Politburo as part of the inner circle around Andropov. He did not fit in with Gorbachov's plans, however.

Throughout the 80s, the tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the predominantly Armenian Nagorno-Karabagh-enclave in Azerbaijan were increasing. In 1988, the ruling council (Soviet) of Nagorno-Karabakh demanded that the area be "transferred" to Armenia. The proposal was rejected by the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan, later by the Central Committee. The situation got explosive after the murder of about 30 Armenians in Sumgait in February, and ethnic tensions continued to increase both in Armenia and Azerbaijan. A nationalist organisation, the Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF) had been able to build mass appeal in Azerbaijan for demands for total Azerbaijani sovereignty over both Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan. There was little room for the Moscow-appointed "separate government administration", led by Arkadiy Volskiy, to mediate the conflict.

In August 1991, the independent Republic of Azerbaijan was proclaimed, after months of confrontation between the President, who was a hardline communist, and the APF. In early 1992, Armenia took control over a corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and full war broke out. The President of Azerbaijan, Mutalibov, fell victim to a coup, made a come-back, but was removed again in May 1992 and the APF took power. In 1993, Armenia took full control over both Nagorno-Karabakh and sizable territory around the enclave, civil war broke out in Azerbaijan, and the APF president, Elchibey, was ousted. Aliyev became president, the situation stabilized and closer ties to Moscow were re-established.

Source: Norwegian Institute of International Affairs [NUPI] - Centre for Russian Studies
Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO)
Photos: Azerbaijan Ministry of Culture

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