Azerbaijan Unitary state

History and trends

Azerbaijan is a semi-presidential republic. Its constitution was adopted on 12 November 1995 and amended in March 2009. Azeris (Muslims) make up more than 80% of the population.

The present-day republic lies in the northern part of the much larger, historical region of Azerbaijan, which also encompasses the north-western area of Iran. Azerbaijan (Adurbadagan or Atropatene) was a province of the Achaemenid Empire. It was named after Atropates, a Persian general who founded a kingdom to serve Alexander the Great (in around 328 BC).

The territory was ruled first by the Parthian Empire and then by the Sasanian Empire, which imposed Mazdeism and established Farsi as the official language, leading to gradual Iranisation of the country. Islam became the dominant religion in the seventh century following the Arab conquest. The Turkish language was introduced following the Turco-Mongol invasions, which began under the Seljuq dynasty in the 11th century.

Between the 16th and the late 18th centuries, the Ottoman Turks claimed the territory – which crumbled into a patchwork of feudal states (Khanates of Shamakhi, Baku, Ganja, etc.) – from the Safavid dynasty, and occupied it on several occasions. During one of these Ottoman-Safavid Wars (1604-1605), the Armenian population of Nakhchivan – a former province of historical Armenia – was displaced by Abbas I of Persia to Isfahan and replaced by Turkish and Kurdish tribes.

In 1722, Tsar Peter the Great seized the opportunity presented by the collapse of the Safavid dynasty and the Ottoman-Hotaki War to advance as far as Baku. The country was returned to Persia in the Treaty of Ganja (1735). A century later, following a new series of wars between Russia and Persia, the Russian Empire annexed the territories to the north of the Aras, which henceforth marked the boundary with Iran, cutting Azerbaijan in two (Treaty of Gulistan, 1813, and Treaty of Turkmenchay, 1828). The Caspian Sea became a Russian lake and was closed off to Persian war ships. The Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 also placed Azerbaijan within the sphere of influence of the Russian Empire, and Tsarist troops were stationed there until 1917.

The 1917 Russian Revolution and the collapse of the Russian Empire triggered a period of turbulence, sparking conflicts between nations. An initial attempt to set up a Bolshevik government – the “Baku Commune” – in April-July 1918, led by Armenian Stepan Chahoumian, ended in failure.

Following the collapse of the Transcaucasian Federation, the national liberal party Musavat proclaimed an independent state, under the modern name of Azerbaijan, on 28 May 1918 in Tbilisi.

The Republic of Azerbaijan was occupied successively by the British (August-September 1918), then by the Turks (September-October) who had an interest in Baku’s oil reserves. It then entered a war with the independent Republic of Armenia for control over Karabakh and Nakhchivan, before falling to the Red Army in April 1920. It subsequently regained its claimed territories but experienced a long period of history under Soviet rule.

Azerbaijan was a member of the Transcaucasian Federation and the USSR (1922). Nakhchivan (an autonomous republic) and Nagorno-Karabakh (an autonomous region) were annexed to Azerbaijan by Stalin. The 1936 Soviet constitution, which dissolved the Transcaucasian Federation and established Azerbaijan as a Soviet Socialist Republic, consolidated the country’s domestic administrative boundaries.

In 1988, ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast sought to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia – a move that called into question the imperial administrative boundaries and sparked an Azeri nationalist counter-movement. The Azerbaijani Popular Front Party was founded in 1989. The radical, Islamist wing of the party called for an independent, reunified Azerbaijan, while the moderate, secular wing favoured remaining in a reformed Soviet Socialist Republic.

The Red Army moved into Baku in January 1990 amid anti-Armenian progroms, quashing the nationalist movement in the process. It was only revived after the attempted coup d’etat against Mikhail Gorbachev.

Azerbaijan declared independence on 30 August 1991. Nagorno-Karabakh followed suit on 2 December 1991, and Baku failed to regain control of the region. As Moscow and the Red Army pulled out of Azerbaijan following the collapse of the USSR, the Armenians scored their first victories (taking Shusha and the Lachin corridor to create a territorial link with Armenia in May 1992).

Nagorno-Karabakh, part of Azerbaijan but a landlocked exclave within Armenia with a majority ethnic Armenian population, has been under Armenian control since 1993. As yet, no negotiated settlement to the conflict has been found. Azerbaijan is at odds with Russia and other neighbouring states over the legal status of the Caspian Sea (international lake or closed sea). The answer to this question determines the limits of each state’s sovereignty and, consequently, ownership of the natural resource deposits (joint ownership or sovereign ownership within each state’s territorial waters).

Azerbaijan joined the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) in 2000, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2001, and the Council of Europe in 2001.