Over the centuries, Azerbaijan has enjoyed only brief periods of
independent statehood, in between longer periods spent incorporated
into major regional empires.
Amongst the first to arrive were the Arabs, who marched into The
Caucasus in the 7th century and established Islam as the predominant
religion. They were followed by the Seljuk Turks who, by the 11th
century, had leveraged their growing influence on the region and made
Turkish the main language in the territory. Thereafter, Azerbaijan was
influenced by both the Ottoman Turks, lying on the border of their
empire, and the Iranians, from whom they acquired an adherence to the
Shia branch of Islam.
In 1812, the Russians, in the course of their march southwards, took
over the northern part of Azerbaijan; the southern part remained a
province of Iran. A series of wars ensued between the two powers, from
which Russia emerged victorious. But then came WWI, which, in 1917,
brought about the collapse of the Russian Empire and, consequently,
The years that followed were prosperous for the young nation. A
Caspian Sea oil boom brought great wealth to the country and
transformed its capital, Baku, into an industrial centre. But this
golden era was short lived. In 1920 the Russians returned, marching
into oil-rich Azerbaijan to establish a puppet state known as the
Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.
The most prominent politician to emerge during the Soviet period was
Heydar Aliyev, successively head of the Azerbaijan KGB, leader of the
Republic itself, and then a full member of the Soviet Politburo. He
would play a decisive role in post-Soviet Azerbaijan, the seeds of
which were sewn when the Soviet Union crumbled towards the end of the
During this time the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh – an autonomous enclave
inside Azeri territory with an overwhelming Armenian majority – proved
critical to Azerbaijan's political development. Serious internal
problems and a failure to make any progress on Karabakh led to a
military coup and paved the way for the return of Heydar Aliyev. He
succeeded in tackling the two most pressing issues: stabilising the
political situation in the country and negotiating a truce in the
The 1994 settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh did not favour the Azeris,
although they continue to make vigorous diplomatic efforts to address
the status of the territory. Aliyev was twice re-elected by huge
majorities. Elections in November 2000 gave the party two-thirds of
the parliamentary seats.
Ilham Aliyev inherited his father's office in 2003, through an
election the international community widely believed to be unfair.
While Azerbaijan remains a stable country, it is still mired in
corruption, and continues to be a dictatorship in all but name with
widespread human rights abuses.
Did you know?
• Hitler said that if he couldn’t take over the Baku oilfields, the
war would be lost. The German army was on its way there when they were
defeated by the Russians in the battle of Stalingrad in 1943.
• The name of Azerbaijan’s ‘exclave’ in Armenian territory, Nakhchivan,
means Noah’s Colony. Azeris believe survivors of the Great Flood
• Azerbaijan was the first Muslim country in the world to offer
universal suffrage, giving women the vote in 1918.
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