Azerbaijan - A Country Overview
Information on Azerbaijan; its place geographically, history, government, climate, security, tourism and foreigners living in Azerbaijan...
Azerbaijan is a small country in southwest Asia bordering the Caspian Sea. It has borders with Iran, Russia, Georgia and Armenia.
The country has a varied terrain encompassing the large flat expanse of Kur-Araz Ovaligi, much of which is below sea level, and the Caucasus Mountains in the north. The highest mountain in the country is the 4,466m Bazarduzu on the Apsherson Peninsula, which juts into the Caspian Sea. About 60 percent of the landscape of Azerbaijan is mountainous. There are many rivers in the country, fed by snow and rain in the high mountains; many of them are important for hydroelectricity and irrigation.
Azerbaijan is one of the countries to border the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest enclosed inland body of water. It is home to numerous endemic species; many of which are rare and endangered, such as Caspian salmon, sea pike-perch and the Caspian seal, the smallest seal in the world.
Severe air, water and soil pollution have led many scientists to consider the Apsheron Peninsula to be one of the most ecologically devastated areas in the world. This region encompasses Baku, the country’s capital city and cultural, industrial and scientific centre. Baku is a very old city; it was first mentioned by the Egyptian Pharaoh Minesan in the Book of the Dead in 3,500 BC.
Azerbaijan has been home to humans for many thousands of years; archaeological remains indicate that people have been in the area for more than 1.7 million years; it is considered to be one of Europe’s ancient settlements. The Azeri people, who have made the country home, date back 5,000 years and the ancient state played a major role in the politics of the larger surrounding region.
By the first century AD Turkic people were the most numerous in the country, but it was the acceptance of Islam during the 7th century which had a major effect on Azerbaijan. It led to the development of a unique people, language and many of the country’s traditions. Islam united all the Turkic and non-Turkic ethnic groups in their common struggle against the dominance of Byzantium.
A centralised Azerbaijani state, Safavi, was created in the 15th century; its capital was Tebriz. All the territories in the country were united under a single ruler. The state flourished under a series of Safavi rulers, whose foreign policy and internal government turned it into one of the great Middle and Near East empires. The Safavi state eventually fell into decline and in the late 18th century the country’s struggle for freedom resulted in the formation of many new states and sultanates.
Simultaneously, at the end of the 18th century, power in Iran was passed to the Gajars dynasty, which was of Azerbaijani origin. They were determined to unite all the territories that their ancestors once ruled under their government. The result was a long series of bloodthirsty wars between the Gajars and Russia, in which Azerbaijan was caught in the middle. Azerbaijan was divided between the two empires with the north of the country going to Russia and the south to the Gajar’s Iranian kingdom.
Russia resettled many Armenians into their territories in Azerbaijan, laying the foundation for a future Armenian state. Most resettlement took place in the mountainous Karabakh and Nakhchivan regions; Russia worked to make the area Armenian. The Russian Tsar armed the Armenian population and a mass genocide against the Azerbaijani and Turkic-Muslims of the southern Caucasus began. A liberty movement and Turkish intervention resulted in the country being independent briefly between 1918 and 1920, as the Russian Empire collapsed.
Independence was short lived, however. The country was attacked and occupied by Soviet forces; it was then part of the Soviet Union for seven decades, until 1991. These years were a time of repression and curtailed freedom. All of the country’s resources became state property and the economy, agriculture and industry stagnated, at best. Things improved in 1969 when Heydar Aliyev governed the country; he aimed to make Azerbaijan the most advanced of the Soviet republics. A series of reforms resulted in many new industries and factories developing during the 1970s, the building blocks to independence were being put in place.
The independent state of Azerbaijan was formed in 1991 with the break-up of the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan and Armenia have been fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh since 1988 and the conflict remains. This historical struggle over the territory intensified when the two countries left the Soviet Union.
Politics and Government
Azerbaijan declared independence from the Soviet Union on 30 August 1991; its constitution was adopted in November 1995 and modified by a referendum on 24 August 2002. The constitution established the country as a democratic, constitutional, secular and unitary republic.
The president is the country’s chief of state and the supreme head of the armed forces, elected to a five year term by a popular vote. An unlimited number of terms are allowed following the abolition of presidential term limits by the government in a 2009 referendum.
The head of the government is the prime minister, who is chosen by presidential appointment with confirmation from the National Assembly. The National Assembly, or Milli Mejlis, is made up of 125 seats, to which people are elected by a popular vote for five year terms. It has legislative power in the country. A deputy prime minister and cabinet, or council of ministers, are also chosen by the president and confirmed by the National Assembly. The cabinet is accountable to the president and submits to him.
Azerbaijan experienced a period of high economic growth between 2006 and 2008 as a result of its large and expanding oil exports. Other areas of the economy that are tied to oil also boomed: banking, real estate, and construction. This economic growth had slowed by 2012 as oil production reached a plateau. The economy currently lacks diversity and its performance is very dependent on highly volatile oil prices.
Azerbaijan’s mainly semi-arid climate is influenced by its landscape and the Caspian Sea. In contrast to the overriding dryness, the Caucasus range is an area of temperate climate with very low temperatures at altitude. The mountains also experience much higher rainfall amounts than the plains.
The level of crime targeting foreigners tends to be low, though muggings are not uncommon in Baku; it is wise to take standard precautions, particularly at night in poorly lit areas. Pick-pocketing and vehicle break-ins are a problem in popular tourist spots.
The Nagorno-Karabakh region and the military area around it are best avoided due to the continuing conflict with Armenia over the area. Gunfire is a regular occurrence despite a ceasefire and some areas may have land mines.
People should not try to leave, or enter, the country via the land border with Russia; it is closed to foreigners. It is possible to cross the Iranian border at Astara with the appropriate visa.
Foreigners Living in the Country
Foreigners make up a very small percentage of Azerbaijan’s population, around 0.5 percent. Most foreigners live in Baku where there are international schools and many English-speaking families. The oil and gas industry led economic growth in the country has brought a number of foreign workers there; good statistics on the number of foreigners are not currently available. Most foreigners work in oil and gas, construction or trade.
Tourism is now recovering after years of instability; more and more people visit the country each year. The government is now investing much time and effort into promoting Azerbaijan to foreign visitors. The country has much to offer: prehistoric remains, beautiful countryside, ancient towns and cities, particularly Baku, and many national parks and scenic areas. Many tourists visit Azerbaijan to explore the country’s numerous mud volcanoes, both active and dormant; around half of the known mud volcanoes in the world are found in the southern Caucasus, many in Azerbaijan.
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Acquiring a tourist visa to visit the country is not always easy; a letter of invitation from a licensed Azeri travel agency is needed.