Useful Notes / Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan (Azerbaijani: Azərbaycan), officially known as the Republic of Azerbaijan (Azerbaijani: Azərbaycan Respublikası), like neighbouring Armenia, is one of the clutch of former Soviet republics in the Caucasus region, where Russia and Turkey meet. "Where Russia and Turkey meet" applies well to the country, as it has long been under Russian rule, but speaks a language which is very close to Turkish. This can be seen in names like Aliyev ("Ali"-"ev", a typical Middle Eastern name with a Russian suffix). The country is one of the few whose population are overwhelmingly Shia Muslim, but the state, like Turkey, is strictly secular, even bordering on atheist, on par with the Scandinavian countries (Azerbaijan is the most irreligious country with a Muslim-majority population; the Islamic identification being a mere formality in most cases). This stands in contrast with its neighbors, Armenia and Georgia, which are quite religious (and Christian), and Iran, which is borderline fanatic (it is ruled by a theocracy, after all). Since independence, it has been ruled by a dynasty of the Aliyevs, consisting of Heydar, its first president, and his son, Ilham, who have been ruling since 2003 and maintaining power through what most foreign observers like Freedom House would objectively call 'rigged' elections.

The region was called Caucasian Albania during antiquity (actually, it's just Albania, but that would confuse everyone with that little country in the Balkans) and was populated by Caucasian ethnic groups (as in, people who came from the Caucasus Mountains, not an alternative term for white people). They were assimilated by the Iranians who spoke a language termed as Old Azeri, who in turn were assimilated by the arriving Turkic groups who came in the 1200s. The people adopted Islam early in the religion's founding, and during the 1500s, mass converted to the Shia branch following the precedent set by the Safavids. When Qajar Iran lost the battles with Tsarist Russia in the 1800s, the homeland of the Azeris was divided between the two empires, the north becoming the modern country, while the south remaining in Iran's hands. Azeri national identity has emerged in the 18th century as local rulers obtained autonomy from Iranian shahs and solidified in the 19th century under Russian rule and in the 20th century under independent Azerbaijani Democratic Republic and later Soviet Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan's foreign relations, and in fact much of its national self-identity, are dominated by the result of the 1992-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh War which has left the province of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas occupied by Armenian troops and local militia and its considerable Azeri minority forced to flee, while the Armenian minority in the rest of the country was forced to flee to avoid pogroms. The Azeri refugees were then settled into refugee camps where even to this day they live in horrible conditions and poverty. Before the end of the war things got increasingly ugly, with massacres on both sides note . The war itself ended in a ceasefire, not that you'd be able to tell or anything, though - skirmishes along the border are all too common. Since the ceasefire Nagorno-Karabakh, or the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh) as it calls itself (both names are used interchangeably), has declared independence and has its own democratic government in place (seen by several human rights groups as the least corrupt in the whole region, in fact; Freedom House classifies it as having better civil and political rights than both its neighbours), though every country is too afraid to recognize its independence, including Armenia itself, for fear of starting another war. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in talks meant to pursue a peaceful solution to the conflict, though neither side wants to budge or concede anything, so the talks so far have been fruitless. Azerbaijan wants the conflict settled based on the concept of territorial integrity, while the Armenians want it settled based on the right of self-determination. Whenever it finally is settled, it's more than likely going to be in a way that leaves neither side completely satisfied.

That little piece of Azerbaijan on the other side of Armenia you see on the map is called Nakhchivan (the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic), a semi-independent exclave of Azerbaijan. The reasons that bit of land belongs to Azerbaijan are complicated, but it's mostly due to the fact that Josef Stalin gave it to the Azerbaijani SSR to appease Turkey in the early 1920's, and the majority Azeri population voted for Nakhchivan to be part of the Azerbaijani SSR. Over the years of Soviet rule the Armenians were slowly forced out by discrimination; a similar process was attempted in Nagorno-Karabakh with less success. It is separated from mainland Azerbaijan by a strip of Armenia called Zangezur (or Syunik). The region is rather impoverished today since its border with Armenia is closed. This means to get to the rest of Azerbaijan its citizens have to go through Iran.

Azerbaijan's relations with Iran have become rather unstable as of late because Azerbaijan has shown itself to be pro-U.S. and pro-Israel (and both countries see Azerbaijan as a potential springboard for attacking Iran should the need arise), and Azerbaijan is angry at Iran for having good relations with Armenia, causing more problems for Nakhchivan (luckily, it just barely borders with Turkey at one little corner, so it has one friend in the region that actually borders it). This comes despite the fact that northern Iran is home to more Azeris than Azerbaijan itself, not to mention that Armenia also has good relations with the US and Israel.

The people of Azerbaijan, as noted above, are Turkic culturally and linguistically, but technically, you can tell that they're Turkicized Iranians just by virtue of their mostly Caucasoid appearance (the original Turks, believe it or not, are actually more East Asian/Mongoloid in appearance. Those features are still inherited by the majority of Central Asian and Siberian Turks, like the Kazakhs or the Kyrgyzs). Their language is very similar to Turkish (so close that it's often considered a dialect), contributing even more to Azerbaijan's close relationship with Turkey. There's also minorities of Iranians and Caucasians who settle in the southeastern and northern portions of the country, respectively. Azerbaijan has been good in maintaining its share of Jews (which are not a whole lot) compared to the other post-Soviet states; there's approximately 10,000 Mountain Jews (so-called because their homeland is in the Caucasus Mountains) left. The country's good relation with Israel definitely helps.

Azerbaijan is rich in oil and natural gas, particularly under the Caspian Sea where new technology can now reach deposits that Soviet drillers were never able to reach. The South Caucasus Pipeline carries this oil and gas to the West - a plot point in James Bond film The World Is Not Enough. Like Turkey, it also has a very shady history with regards to human rights and freedom of speech. Just be careful not to publicly insult the state or say anything positive about Armenians when within its borders; while Turkey has been slowly relaxing its rules in this regard, Azerbaijan has not. Writer Akram Aylisli, formerly Azerbaijan's "Writer of the People", found this out the hard way after his novella Stone Dreams dealt with Azerbaijani actor Saday Sadykhly and his efforts to protect his Armenian neighbors during the Sumgait and Baku pogroms as the USSR collapsed; he was stripped of his title and pension by Azerbaijan's president, forced to submit to DNA testing to see if he had any Armenian ancestry, had his wife and son fired from their jobs, subjected to protests, and given death threats by actual politicians, one of whom offered a $13.000 reward for whoever would cut Aylisli's ear off.

The name of the country is sometimes considered an Inherently Funny Word in English-speaking media, largely because it has the letters Z and J in it. It is often referenced when a 'random obscure country name' is needed in media. It has largely inherited this role from Czechoslovakia, which ceased to exist in 1993. The country's name comes from Atropates, a Persian who set up his own kingdom in the area after Alexander the Great's invasion (US Army officer training often involves planning invasions of fictional countries in the Caucasus that have the same borders as real ones, Azerbaijan is "Atropia" for presumably this reason).

In more recent news, Azerbaijan won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2011 and hosted the 2012 contest in Baku. While it went well, within a few days the European Parliament threatened sanctions if the human rights situation in the country wasn't brought up to standard, thanks to the new-found attention the country was getting. But other than that, the country's strategic position to the West, as well as its oil, has largely made it immune to criticism, even after the results of the 2013 presidential elections were leaked onto the internet before anyone ever cast a vote.

Azerbaijan in media

  • The World Is Not Enough, as mentioned.
  • Recordings of Azeri bagpipes were included on the Voyager Golden Records, currently (October 2010) 13 and 16 light-hours that away.
  • One of the missions in Modern Warfare has the SAS going to an Azerbaijani village to track down Khaled al-Asad.
  • Snap, Professor Sinister/Trevolry, and Loopin (among other characters) are apparently imprisoned here in My Immortal. It doesn't work for long.
  • It's an Azeri oil field worker and Muslim extremist who sabotages a major Soviet oil refinery at the beginning of Red Storm Rising, setting the book's plot in motion.

The Azerbaijani flag
The flag's blue, red and green stripes symbolize the Turkic peoples, progress, and the Muslim world, respectively. At the center is a crescent and star, traditional symbols of Islam, except the star is eight-pointed star to denote the Turkic peoples. The prior flag of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic was quite different looking, and very similar to that of the Ukrainian SSR (a defaced version of the USSR's flag, with a dark blue rather than lighter blue bar along the bottom).