Azerbaijan combines the heritage of two venerable civilizations--the
Seljuk Turks of the 11th century and the ancient Persians. Its name is
thought to be derived from the Persian phrase "Land of Fire," referring
both to its petroleum deposits, known since ancient times, and to its status
as a former center of the Zoroastrian faith. The Azerbaijani Republic borders
the Iranian provinces of East and West Azerbaijan, although they have not
been united into a single state in modern times.
Little is known about Azerbaijan's history until its conquest and conversion
to Islam by the Arabs in 642 AD. Centuries of prosperity as a province
of the Muslim caliphate followed. After the decline of the Arab Empire,
Azerbaijan was ravaged during the Mongol invasions but regained prosperity
in the 13th-15th centuries under the Mongol II-Khans, the native Shirvan
Shahs, and under Persia's Safavid Dynasty.
Due to its location astride the trade routes connecting Europe to Central
Asia and the Near East and on the shore of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan
was fought over by Russia, Persia, and the Ottomans for several centuries.
Finally the Russians split Azerbaijan's territory with Persia in 1828 by
the Treaty of Turkmenchay, establishing the present frontiers and extinguishing
the last native dynasties of local Azerbaijani khans. The beginning of
modern exploitation of the oil fields in the 1870s led to a period of unprecedented
prosperity and growth in the years before World War I.
At the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, an independent republic
was proclaimed in 1918 following an abortive attempt to establish a Transcaucasian
Republic with Armenia and Georgia. Azerbaijan received de facto recognition
by the Allies as an independent nation in January 1920, an independence
terminated by the arrival of the Red Army in April. Incorporated into the
Transcaucasian Federated Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, Azerbaijan
became a union republic of the U.S.S.R. in 1936. The late 1980s were characterized
by increasing unrest, eventually leading to a violent confrontation when
Soviet troops killed 190 nationalist demonstrators in Baku in January 1990.
Azerbaijan declared its independence from the U.S.S.R. on August 30, 1991.
Azerbaijan declared its independence from the former Soviet Union on
August 30, 1991, with Ayaz Mutalibov, former First Secretary of the Azerbaijani
Communist Party, becoming the country's first President. Following a massacre
of Azerbaijanis at Khojali in Nagorno-Karabakh in March 1992, Mutalibov
resigned and the country experienced a period of political instability.
The old guard returned Mutalibov to power in May 1992, but less than a
week later his efforts to suspend scheduled presidential elections and
ban all political activity prompted the opposition Popular Front Party
(PFP) to organize a resistance movement and take power. Among its reforms,
the PFP dissolved the predominantly Communist Supreme Soviet and transferred
its functions to the 50-member upper house of the legislature, the National
Elections in June 1992 resulted in the selection of PFP leader Abulfez
Elchibey as the country's second president. The PFP-dominated government,
however, proved incapable of either credibly prosecuting the Nagorno-Karabakh
conflict or managing the economy, and many PFP officials came to be perceived
as corrupt and incompetent. Growing discontent culminated in June 1993
in an armed insurrection in Ganja, Azerbaijan's second-largest city. As
the rebels advanced virtually unopposed on Baku, President Elchibey fled
to his native province of Nakhchivan. The National Council conferred presidential
powers upon its new Speaker, Heydar Aliyev, former First Secretary of the
Azerbaijani Communist Party (1969-81) and later a member of the U.S.S.R.
Politburo and U.S.S.R. Deputy Prime Minister (until 1987). Elchibey was
formally deposed by a national referendum in August 1993, and Aliyev was
elected to a 5-year term as President in October with only token opposition.
Aliyev won re-election to another 5-year term in 1998, in an election marred
by serious irregularities. Presidential elections took place on October
15, 2003. Ilham Aliyev was elected to the presidency in an election that
did not meet international standards. He assumed office as president on
October 31, 2003. Former President Heydar Aliyev died on December
The major domestic issue affecting Azerbaijan is the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh,
a predominantly ethnic Armenian region within Azerbaijan. The current conflict
over Nagorno-Karabakh began in 1988 when Armenian demonstrations against
Azerbaijani rule broke out in both Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia and the
Nagorno-Karabakh Supreme Soviet voted to secede from Azerbaijan. In 1990,
after violent episodes in Nagorno-Karabakh , Baku, and Sumgait, Moscow
declared a state of emergency in Nagorno-Karabakh , sent troops to the
region, and forcibly occupied Baku. In April 1991, Azerbaijani militia
and Soviet forces targeted Armenian paramilitaries operating in Nagorno-Karabakh
; Moscow also deployed troops to Yerevan. However, in September 1991, Moscow
declared it would no longer support Azerbaijani military action in Nagorno-Karabakh
. Armenian militants then stepped up the violence. In October 1991, a referendum
in Nagorno-Karabakh approved independence.
More than 30,000 people were killed in the fighting from 1992 to 1994.
In May 1992, Armenian and Karabakhi forces seized Susha (the historical,
Azerbaijani-populated capital of Nagorno-Karabakh ) and Lachin (thereby
linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia). By October 1993, Armenian and Karabakhi
forces had succeeded in occupying almost all of Nagorno-Karabakh , Lachin,
and large areas in southwestern Azerbaijan. As Armenian and Karabakhi forces
advanced, hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees fled to other parts
of Azerbaijan. In 1993, the UN Security Council adopted resolutions calling
for the cessation of hostilities, unimpeded access for international humanitarian
relief efforts, and the eventual deployment of a peacekeeping force in
the region. The UN also called for immediate withdrawal of all ethnic Armenian
forces from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Fighting continued,
however, until May 1994 when Russia brokered a cease-fire.
Negotiations to resolve the conflict peacefully have been ongoing since
1992 under the aegis of the Minsk Group of the OSCE. The Minsk Group is
currently co-chaired by Russia, France, and the U.S. and has representation
from Turkey, the U.S., several European nations, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
Despite the 1994 cease-fire, sporadic violations, sniper-fire, and land-mine
incidents continue to claim over 100 lives each year.
Since 1997, the Minsk Group Co-Chairs have presented three proposals
to serve as a framework for resolving the conflict. One side or the other
rejected each of those proposals. Beginning in 1999, the Presidents of
Azerbaijan and Armenia initiated a direct dialogue through a series of
face-to-face meetings, often facilitated by the Minsk Group Co-Chairs.
Most recently the OSCE sponsored a round of negotiations between the Presidents
in Key West, Florida. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell launched the
talks on April 3, 2001, and the negotiations continued with mediation by
the U.S., Russia, and France until April 6, 2001. The Co-Chairs are continuing
to work with the two Presidents in the hope of finding a lasting peace.