Azerbaijan (Azerbaijani: Azərbaycan), officially known as the Republic of Azerbaijan (Azerbaijani: Azərbaycan Respublikası) is a Eurasian country which, 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" (more broadly, "where Europe and Asia 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). Since independence, it has been ruled by a dynasty of the Aliyevs, consisting of Heydar, its first president, and his son, Ilham, who has been ruling since 2003 and maintaining power through what most foreign observers like Freedom House would objectively call 'rigged' elections.
The country is one of the few whose population are overwhelmingly Shia Muslim, but more than a century of Russian rule has completely secularized the population to the point that very few currently practice their faith. This makes it somewhat of an oddball when compared to its fellow Caucasian neighbors, Armenia and Georgia, and its former colonizer, Russia, whose churches have considerable influence on national politics, as has the theocratic Iran across the border. This is attributed to the ancient times where Azerbaijan belonged to the Safavid Empire and its founder Ismail I implemented a policy of obligatory conversion from Sunni to Shia Islam in order to solidify Persian identity, which also explains why Iraq is also a Shia-majority country.
The titular ethnic group of the country, the Azerbaijanis, despite being linguistically Turkic, are an example of what ethnologists call "Turko-Persian"; their culture is highly Persianized, and their people identify themselves more as part of the Iranian world than with Central Asia, where the Turks originally came from. Compare the national dress of Azeris◊ with the Parthians◊ as contrasted with the Kazakhs◊. This is supported by genetic and historical evidences, which showed that there was no large-scale immigration in the historical period, suggesting that local Iranians adopted the language of the Turkic conquerors while retaining their base culture. Meanwhile, the former Iranians in turn were assimilated ethnic Caucasians (i.e. people who came from the Caucasus Mountains, not an alternative term for white people) related to the Georgians, the Chechens, the Lezgians, etc.
Note regarding the naming of the country. Despite being in its name, only a small part of the country occupies the historical region of Azerbaijan. Instead, most of it is in present-day Iran, where ethnic Azeris are more numerous than in the Republic. The current country of Azerbaijan is largely on top of the former duchy of Shirvan, a powerful Persian vassal who held tributaries within the Caucasus during its golden days. Their existence is the reason why the Azeri language used to be the lingua franca of the Caucasus before the Russian invasion and why there exists a large diaspora of Azeris in Russia's Dagestan, Georgia, Eastern Turkey and formerly Armenia (before the 1992 war forced them out, see below). Meanwhile, this reason is also why Iranians still popularly call Azeris as "Tork" instead of the politically correct "Azari". Long story short, before the 20th century, Azeris were still considered an eastern extension of the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. When Shirvan gained independence from Russia (the latter had annexed it after a war with Qajar Iran in 19th century), they decided to name themselves after the region of the south and invented the Azeri appellation to gain a new identity of their own. Iran has several reasons to object to this, but mostly because it implies that Azeri Turks are always a distinct nation, rather than a subdued vassal (though a very powerful and numerous one; the current Supreme Leader of Iran is half-Azeri).
Azerbaijan's foreign relations, and 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 out, while the Armenian minority in the rest of Azerbaijan also fled 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 the Republic of Artsakh 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 Armenia also has good relations with the US and Israel.
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, with the song "Running Scared" by Ell & Nikki, and then 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.note
- 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 final two episodes of Six take place in Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani flag