Azerbaijan is located on the western shore of the Caspian Sea at the southeast extremity of the Caucasus. The region is a mountainous country, and only about 7% of it is arable land. The Kura River Valley is the area's major agricultural zone.
Northern Azerbaijan was known as Caucasian Albania in ancient times. The area was the site of many conflicts involving Arabs, Kazars, and Turks. After the 11th century, the territory became dominated by Turks and eventually was a stronghold of the Shiite Muslim religion and Islamic culture. The territory of Soviet Azerbaijan was acquired by Russia from Persia through the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813 and the Treaty of Turkamanchai in 1828.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, Azerbaijan declared its independence from Russia in May 1918. The republic was reconquered by the Red Army in 1920 and was annexed into the Transcaucasian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922. It was later reestablished as a separate Soviet Republic on Dec. 5, 1936. Azerbaijan declared independence from the collapsing Soviet Union on Aug. 30, 1991.
Since 1988, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been feuding over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The majority of the enclave's inhabitants are Armenian Christians agitating to secede from the predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan and join with Armenia. War broke out in 1988 when Nagorno-Karabakh tried to break away and annex itself to Armenia, and 30,000 died before a cease-fire agreement was reached in 1994, with Armenia regaining its hold over the disputed enclave. Final plans on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh have yet to be determined.
Economic Future Looks Promising
The country's economic troubles are expected to be transformed through Western investment in Azerbaijan's oil resources, an untapped reserve whose estimated worth is trillions of dollars. Since 1994, the Azerbaijan state oil company (SOCAR) has signed several billion-dollar agreements with international oil companies. Azerbaijan's pro-Western stance and its careful economic management have made it the most attractive of the oil-rich Caspian countries for foreign investment. In the years since its independence, the country has undergone rapid privatization, and the IMF gave it high marks as one of the most successful economic overhauls ever. In Sept. 2002, construction of the 1,100-mile Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline (a route through Georgia and Turkey) began. Major investors are Britain's BP (33%), Azerbaijan's SOCAR (25%), the U.S.'s Unocal (8.9%), and Norway's Statoil (8.7%). In July 2006, the pipeline opened.
In 2003, President Heydar Aliyev, who was seriously ill, chose his son as the new prime minister, paving the way for his eventual succession. The opposition protested strenuously. In October elections, the president's son, Ilham Aliyev, was elected president. Heydar Aliyev died in December.
In Nov. 2005 parliamentary elections, Aliyev's New Azerbaijan Party won the largest number of seats. International election monitors declared the election fraudulent, and opposition candidates staged protests.
On Oct. 15, 2008, in presidential elections, Ilham Aliyev won a second term with 89% of the vote. Turnout was about 75% of the population.
On Jan. 1, 2012, Azerbaijan began a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The country's standard of living and economy continues to grow, including a construction boom in Baku, the capital.
Tensions Increase with Armenia and Iran
On August 31, 2012, Armenia ended diplomatic relations with Hungary over the return of Ramil Safarov to Azerbaijan. Safarov was convicted of killing Armenian Lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan in 2004 in Hungary. The Hungarian government released Safarov to Azerbaijan on the assumption that he would serve at least 25 years of his life sentence. Upon his arrival in Azerbaijan, Safarov was pardoned. Once news of the pardon hit, protestors in Armenia burned Hungarian flags and threw eggs at the Hungarian Embassy. Demonstrations were also held in Budapest.
Safarov was welcomed back to Azerbaijan as a national hero. A lieutenant at the time of the murder, Safarov was promoted to rank of major and given eight years of back pay. His pardon and warm welcome threatened to break up the peace process between Azerbaijan and Armenia, a process that has kept the two countries from backsliding into violent feud over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory.
Tension also increased between Azerbaijan and Iran throughout 2012. Neighbors along the Caspian Sea, the two countries found themselves at odds over Israel and Armenia. Iran has long been a supporter of Armenia, Azerbaijan's enemy. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has been cooperating with Israel over military matters. In March 2012, Azerbaijan authorities arrested 22 people who were suspected in an Iranian plot to kill Israeli and American diplomats. As of September 2012, those allegations remained unproven. In May 2012, Iran Chief of State Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was forbidden entry at the Baku airport and border crossings between the two countries were closed for days. Iran sent warships into the Caspian Sea.
Aliyev Wins Third Term, but International Observes Call Election Unfair
On October 9, 2013, presidential elections were held. Incumbent Ilham Aliyev won a third five-year term, taking 84.6 percent of the vote. Jamil Hasanli, a historian and professor, was a distant second with 5.4 percent. In an interview with The New York Times, Hasanli said his chances were hindered by how quickly the election was held, not having enough funds, the state-controlled media and the lack of international interest.
International observers did become involved after the election. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) called the presidential election unfair and said that they had evidence proving voting irregularities such as ballot-box stuffing. The OSCE released a report on October 10, 2013, that said the election was “undermined by limitations on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association that did not guarantee a level playing field for candidates. Continued allegations of candidate and voter intimidation and a restrictive media environment marred the campaign. Significant problems were observed throughout all stages of Election Day processes and underscored the serious nature of the shortcomings.” However, Aliyev's government denied the accusations.
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