Early history [Chris Burks]

Azerbaijan is located in the southeastern Caucasus, nestled between Russia and Iran on the Caspian coast with Georgia and Armenia to its west. It is located in a transitional zone between mountains in the north and southwest, and the hills and plains below. Due to its location at the crossroads of Europe, Anatolia, and Central Asia, Azerbaijan has been significantly molded by Turkic and Persian, in addition to Russian, influences, most notably the Shi’a Islam predominant in Persia (King, 9-11). As such, Azerbaijan’s history can be fruitfully tracked through the interactions of these three great powers.

In the early 16th century, the Caucasus was a battleground between the Persian and Ottoman Empires, with Russia largely out of the picture. The 1555 Peace of Amasya formally divided the region into spheres of influence with the Persians in the east and the Ottomans in the west (King, 22). The Persian Empire continued to dominate Azerbaijan until 1747, when the assassination of Nadir Shah ignited civil war in Persia and consummated the breakup of the Safavid Empire. The region – with the exception of Georgia, which aligned itself more closely with Orthodox Christian Russia, and Dagestan – was fragmented, and local Muslim elites independently pledged loyalty to Persia or the Ottomans (King, 24). Significant Russian involvement in Azerbaijan began with Peter the Great, who captured the eastern Caucasus from Persia and built up a large Caspian navy. He never fully brought the Caucasus under control, though and Peter’s gains were soon lost by his successors (Kappeler, 173). Alexander I expanded Russian control in the Caucasus through simultaneous wars with the Qajars in Persia and Ottoman Turks in the early 19th century. With the treaties of Bucharest and Gulistan Russia relinquished some Black Sea territories, but confirmed control of Georgia, eastern Caucasus, incorporating Azerbaijan (King, 29-31). The Russians expanded and consolidated power in the Caucasus over the first half of the 19th century under the leadership of powerful administrators such as generals Ermolov and Vorontsov, such that by 1864 open warfare in the Caucasus had more or less ceased. Azerbaijan was increasingly becoming a “Russian space” due to economic and administrative assimilation and, while the population was still mostly rural, Baku was blossoming as a regional administrative and economic center as the turn of the century approached (King, 99).

Like the rest of Imperial Russia, Azerbaijan was rocked by the Revolution of 1917. Upon seizing control of the government, the Bolsheviks pulled Russia out of World War I and withdrew troops, leaving the Caucasus exposed. The independent Democratic Federative Republic of Transcaucasia was quickly formed among Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, and continued to wage war against the Ottomans before breaking up a month later into short-lived independent states along former provincial lines. Despite many common interests, there was significant tension, even warfare, among the new states, all of which were recognized at the Paris Peace talks in 1920. Independence, however, was short-lived, as Bolshevik forces soon swept through the Caucasus, establishing Russian control over what would be known as the United Soviet Socialist Republic of Transcaucasus, which at the time was technically just an ally of Russia (King, 161-171). The redrawn boundary lines incorporated Nakhichevan, an exclave that during the 1920s Armenia had claimed. Resistance continued until 1925, even as the USSR of Transcaucasus became the Transcaucasus Soviet Federative Socialist Republic with the establishment of the USSR in 1922 (King, 187). Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia become separate union republics fourteen years later, in 1936, and the republics subdivided, for the most part along legitimate ethnic and linguistic boundaries, into units closely resembling those present today (King, 187-188). After enduring Stalin’s purges, the Caucasus, Azerbaijan included, enjoyed a period of relative stability in the 1970s and 1980s. The period was marked by capable leadership, modernization and industrialization, infrastructure development, and social change (King, 201). By the end of the decade, however, the Soviets began to lose their grip on Azerbaijan and the rest of the Caucasus, as liberal reforms and bureaucratic ineptitude combined to give way to a growing dissident movement and a general weakening of the Communist Party (King, 212). A few short years later it all came crashing down.

Azerbaijan declared independence in 1991, but it bore little resemblance to the short-lived independent country of the same name that was absorbed by the Soviet Union about 70 years earlier (King, 211). For one, the past century had seen a dramatic demographic shift in Azerbaijan that saw the nation’s post-Soviet population overwhelmingly concentrated in and around Baku (King, 221). Furthermore, the Caucasus uniquely experienced high levels of violence during the breakup of the USSR, with Azerbaijan at the center of it. This post-independence tension is best exemplified by the Nagorno-Karabakh secession movement which also provoked war with neighboring Armenia (King, 211). In other ways, not much changed. Azerbaijan was led by former Communist Party secretary Heydar Aliyev until he passed power to his son in 2003. His tenure has been marked by economic prosperity due to a booming petroleum industry, as well as the corrupt, personalistic, patron-client relationships that have often defined politics in the Caucasus (King, 226-228).

Azerbaijan post Independence [Aaron Chivington]

Azerbaijan has been at the crossroads of empires for centuries. Even after declaring independence on August 30, 1991, it still falls under the influence of foreign powers; most notably the Russian Federation. Beginning in the middle of 1993, Heydar Aliyev had for the most part consolidated power in the office of the presidency. He had been speaker of parliament, vice-president and then president (Leeuw, 184). The pressures from Moscow became evident as Aliyev began to stabilize the Azerbaijani government.

Aliyev posed big problems for Russian interests in the region. He was a proponent of an independent foreign policy, after he had established legitimacy through popular vote (ibid., 185). Moscow had other ideas about the fate of Azerbaijan. Kremlin officials under Pavel Grachev wanted to place Russian troops along the Karabakh war front in the south of Azerbaijan. They hoped to reintegrate Azerbaijan’s oil production back into Russia’s, and put in place a govern-ment in Baku that would be friendly and under the control of Moscow (ibid., 185). Along with these concerns, Russians had other reasons for maintaining control of the former republic. Azer-baijan manufactured pipes, valves, compressors and other equipment, which were vital for the success of oil and gas installations (ibid., 185). The loss of these supplies would negatively im-pact Russian oil and gas production, which remained central to their economy. In the past, Russia had threatened to send military forces to Baku in order to protect its interests there (ibid., 185).

Azerbaijan’s fate was not just tied to Russian success, but also to the failure of the Kremlin’s enemies. Directly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan continually ran a trade surplus. Benefitting from a newly available Western market with cash-paying clients, the Azer-baijani trade surplus amounted to roughly half a billion dollars in 1992 (ibid., 185). To counteract this, the Russian government in 1993 made a pipeline between Baku and Novorossisk off limits to foreign purchasers; this had a devastating effect on the economy of Azerbaijan, which began to run trade deficits as high as $1.2 billion in 1998 (ibid., 185). Where Russia had resisted using military force in influencing the newly independent state, it decided to make economic decisions, which would nearly destroy the Azerbaijani state.

Central to Moscow’s actions were the negotiations between the Azeri government and Western oil companies, like BP, which was interested in helping develop oil blocs in the Caspian Sea (ibid., 185). The contract was signed, and public opinion polls in Russia called for military involvement in the region, which had just sold its oil to the West. With no other option, the Kremlin helped to organize the overthrow of Aliyev’s government (ibid , 186). Although it failed, it demonstrated Russia’s continual involvement and concern with what occurred within the borders of the former Soviet Socialist Republic. This victory for the Azeri people aligned them with the West, both politically and economically, and put further distance between Baku and Moscow. Now allied with Georgia and Turkey, Azerbaijan joined other states in the Caucasus that were looking forward from a Russian-dominated past.


Works cited:

  • Charles King, The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  • Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History (New York: Longman, 2001).
  • Charles van der Leeuw, Azerbaijan: A Quest for Identity (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002).
  • Thomas De Waal, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War (New York: New York University Press, 2003).