Azerbaijan is a multiparty democracy and presidential republic with a separation of the executive and legislative bodies. It is among the region’s most stable countries and has a good human rights record.

The area of present-day Azerbaijan was settled beginning in about the 8th century BC by the Medes, an ancient Aryan tribe. It became part of the Persian Empire in the 6th century BC, and the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism was introduced. From the 4th century BC until the 9th century AD the state of Caucasian Albania (Aghvan) existed in eastern Transcaucasia. In the 4th century AD, that state adopted Christianity.

A much-disputed area, eastern Transcaucasia was conquered in the late 7th century AD by Arabs and Islam predominated thereafter. In the mid-11th century Seljuk Turks under Togrul Beg conquered present-day Azerbaijan as well as most of Iran and Iraq. Turkic tribes migrated to the area from the east and came to influence the linguistic and cultural development of the Azerbaijanis.

With the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, the area fell under the domain of Mongol khans. In the 16th century Azerbaijan again came under the control of Iran (formerly known as Persia), which was ruled by the Safavid dynasty, and the Shia doctrine of Islam was established as the official religion. The Osmans, who were Sunni Muslims, went to war with Iran and held Azerbaijan from 1578 to 1603, but the Safavids continued to reign over the area until their dynasty fell in the early 18th century. Turkic Muslim khanates were then established in Baku, Nakhchivan and other areas.

Russian conquest

Imperial Russia conquered the Caspian coast in the early 18th century, but soon relinquished the territory to the Muslim khans. In the early 19th century Russia again sought control of the area. In 1801 some western territory of present-day Azerbaijan was annexed to the Russian Empire along with adjacent territory in Georgia. Russia and Iran then engaged in war between 1804 and 1813 and again from 1826 to 1828. The treaties of 1813 and 1828 ceded Iranian territory north of the Aras River (present-day Azerbaijan) to Russia.

During the latter half of the 19th century, oil was discovered in Azerbaijan and by the turn of the century the Abseron Peninsula supplied most of Russia’s oil. Baku experienced rapid industrialisation and population growth as the centre of Russia’s oil industry. The influx of Russians and Armenians resulted in a highly segregated city and violent clashes erupted in 1905 between the city’s Azerbaijani and Armenian communities. Azerbaijanis were edged out of the highest-paying positions in the oil industry and wealthy Russians and Armenians gained control of local government.

The Soviet period

The Russian Empire collapsed in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and militant socialist revolutionaries called Bolsheviks (later called Communists) seized power in Russia. This upheaval gave Azerbaijani nationalists the opportunity to assert control over local government and in May 1918 they declared Azerbaijan an independent republic. Bolshevik supporters (mainly Russians) resisted the nationalists in Baku and armed conflicts took place in the city in March and September 1918, resulting in thousands of deaths. In 1920 the Bolshevik Red Army invaded Azerbaijan and the rest of Transcaucasia, establishing Bolshevik control in the region. In December 1922 Azerbaijan was incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (‘USSR’) as part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (‘SFSR’), which also included Georgia and Armenia. When the Transcaucasian SFSR was dissolved in 1936, Azerbaijan became the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (‘SSR’) within the USSR.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Soviet government created a Soviet Azerbaijan culture, fought illiteracy and promoted local people into state and party positions. At the same time the Soviets persecuted those Azerbaijani nationalists and intellectuals whom the government considered a threat to Communist rule. Many of these Azerbaijanis were deported to gulags (Soviet concentration camps) or simply executed. Religious leaders also suffered severe persecution and many mosques and religious centres were closed and in some instances destroyed.

During the early 1930s the Soviet regime began the forced collectivisation of agriculture, combining private holdings into large state-operated farms. Azerbaijani farmers rose up in protest, but they were brutally suppressed by Soviet troops. In the mid to late 1930s, Communist Party officials throughout the Soviet Union were purged and executed as part of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s campaign to wipe out all opposition to his rule (Great Purge). The Stalinist purges also came to include rank-and-file citizens and by 1940 an estimated 120,000 Azerbaijanis had died from Soviet acts of repression. The purges were directed in Azerbaijan by first secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party, Mir Jafar Bagirov, who was arrested and executed after Stalin’s death in 1953.

Azerbaijan developed economically and became more industrialised under the Soviet planned economy, especially after World War II (1939-1945). It remained one of the least urbanised republics of the USSR, however, and agriculture continued to be an important part of the local economy. The further development of local oil reserves was put on hold in the 1960s when larger deposits were discovered in the Russian region of Siberia.

In 1969 Heydar Aliyev, chief of the Soviet secret police in Nakhchivan, was appointed first secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party. He became the most influential of the republic’s Communist leaders in the period after World War II. However, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev dismissed Aliyev in 1987 following an investigation into charges of widespread corruption in Aliyev’s administration.

In February 1988 a conflict surfaced in Azerbaijan’s autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians had long constituted a majority of the population. The Armenian-dominated regional council requested that the territory be transferred to Armenia, but the Soviet authorities in Moscow ultimately rejected the request. Armenians staged massive demonstrations in the region and in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. In Sumgait, an industrial city in eastern Azerbaijan, organised attacks against Armenians took place. Armed conflicts between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh triggered a large-scale exodus of Azerbaijanis from Armenia and Armenians from Azerbaijan. In early 1989 some 5,000 Soviet troops were sent into Nagorno-Karabakh and the Soviet government assumed direct control of the region through most of the year; nevertheless, the situation remained highly volatile. Later that year Azerbaijan imposed a rail blockade of Armenia, followed by a full economic blockade in 1990.

Beginning in the late 1980s, meanwhile, the Soviet government allowed political groups other than the Communist Party to function openly for the first time. The Communist Party leadership in Azerbaijan was reluctant to observe this political liberalisation. The Communist-controlled Azerbaijan Supreme Soviet (national legislature) conceded official recognition to the newly formed nationalist group called the Popular Front of Azerbaijan (‘PFA’) only after the PFA organised a national strike in September 1989.

The PFA sought to maintain Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, which made the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh even more bitter. Interethnic tensions continued to increase and violent riots targeting ethnic Armenians erupted in Baku in January 1990. The PFA effectively took control of the city, leading the government to declare a state of emergency. The city’s Armenian inhabitants were hastily evacuated. The Soviet government immediately dispatched troops to Baku in an attempt to reestablish government control. During the intervention of Soviet troops, more than 100 people were killed and more than 700 injured, according to official reports. To enforce the state of emergency, the government banned all public demonstrations, outlawed radical nationalist organisations and arrested leading PFA members. Because of the Azerbaijan Communist Party’s failure to maintain stability, the Soviet government dismissed the head of the party, Abdul Vezirov, and appointed Ayaz Mutalibov in his place.

Relative order was restored in Azerbaijan by the end of January. Elections to the Supreme Soviet, originally scheduled for February, were postponed until September. Although they were the republic’s first multiparty elections, the continued state of emergency limited campaigning by opposition groups and Communist Party candidates won a majority of seats.

In August 1991 Communist hardliners attempted to seize control of the Soviet government in Moscow. Although the coup attempt failed, it instigated large demonstrations in Azerbaijan calling for the republic’s independence. Demonstrators also called for an end to the state of emergency, the resignation of Mutalibov and the postponement of presidential elections scheduled for September. The elections were held as scheduled, however, and Mutalibov won as the only candidate because the PFA and other opposition groups boycotted the elections.

On August 30, meanwhile, the Azerbaijan Supreme Soviet voted in favor of independence and Azerbaijan’s status as an independent republic was formalised in October. A new 50-member legislature, the Milli Majlis (National Assembly), subsequently replaced the Supreme Soviet. In December the USSR officially collapsed.

Independent Republic

After Azerbaijan gained independence, the government abolished Nagorno-Karabakh’s autonomous status. The Armenian leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh responded by declaring the region’s independence. The conflict continued to plague Azerbaijan during its first years of independence. President Mutalibov was forced to resign in March 1992 after he was held directly responsible for the death of several hundred Azerbaijanis killed by Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. The interim president, Yagub Mamedov, was unable to control the political situation and Mutalibov was reinstated in May. He was immediately deposed, however, when the PFA seized control in a nearly bloodless coup with the support of military units.

The leader of the PFA, Abulfaz Aliyev Elchibey, was elected president in June. However, Elchibey soon lost popularity because of his inability to end the war in Nagorno-Karabakh or improve Azerbaijan’s war-ravaged economy. Pressure on Elchibey increased when he attempted to disarm a disobedient military garrison based in Gäncä in June 1993. The garrison, led by Colonel Surat Huseinov, marched on Baku and seized control and Elchibey fled to Naxçivan. The Milli Majlis voted to transfer Elchibey’s powers to former Communist Party official Heydar Aliyev, who had been elected chairperson of the assembly earlier that month. A national referendum supported Elchibey’s removal and, in October 1993 Aliyev was elected president in a virtually uncontested election. The Milli Majlis appointed Huseinov as prime minister and he took over the coordination of the military effort in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Meanwhile, the government of Armenia continued publicly to support the Armenian secessionists in Nagorno-Karabakh. By August 1993 Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, with reinforcements from Armenia, gained control of the enclave as well as some 20% of adjacent territory in western Azerbaijan, including a corridor linking the enclave with Armenia. Azerbaijanis fled the Armenian-controlled territory to other parts of Azerbaijan, resulting in 100,000 new refugees in the country. In December 1993 Azerbaijani forces began a renewed offensive in the region, recapturing some areas while suffering heavy casualties. By early 1994 an estimated 18,000 people had been killed and 25,000 wounded since the conflict began in 1988. The massive relocation of population had produced an estimated 1 million refugees and displaced persons (primarily Azerbaijanis and Armenians) in Azerbaijan alone. Initial cease-fire agreements failed to hold and fighting continued in Nagorno-Karabakh until May 1994, when both sides agreed again to cease hostilities. Subsequent negotiations failed to achieve a final peace settlement, although the cease-fire remained in effect.

In other internal affairs, the Aliyev government faced mutinies among certain military troops (particularly the special militia attached to the Ministry of Internal Affairs) in October 1994 and March 1995. Forces loyal to Aliyev quickly crushed the revolts and reestablished government control. After the October revolt, Aliyev dismissed Prime Minister Huseinov as well as several high-level government and military officials, charging they had supported the mutinous forces. Aliyev declared a state of emergency and banned demonstrations. After the March revolt, which Aliyev described as part of another plot to oust him, the PFA was accused of involvement and banned by the government.

In November 1995 Azerbaijan held its first legislative elections since independence, for a new 125-seat Milli Majlis. The New Azerbaijan Party (NAP), aligned with Aliyev, won a majority of seats. Two opposition parties were allowed to participate-the PFA, which had been officially reinstated, and the National Independence Party (NIP)-and both won seats.