The Republic of Azerbaijan comprises the Transcaucasian or northern part of the historic region called Azerbaijan. Long inhabited, it is the site of archaeological remains dating back over a million years. Known to the ancients as Albania, the area was located at the crossroads of East and West on the historic Silk Road. Conquered by Alexander the Great and later by the Roman Pompey, it was linked to the history of Armenia and Persia, particularly after its conquest (4th cent.) by Shapur II. The area was invaded by Muslim Arabs in the 7th cent. and was a province of the Arab caliphate for the next two centuries. In the 11th cent. it became part of the Turkish Seljuk Empire. Overrun by Mongols in the 13th cent., it was divided after the fall (15th cent.) of Timur into several principalities (notably Shirvan).
At the beginning of the 19th cent. Russia began its occupation, acquiring the territory of the present Azerbaijan from Persia through the treaties of Gulistan (1813) and Turkamanchai (1828). By the latter date, the territory had been split into two parts, the N portion of which constitutes modern Azerbaijan. The area became a major oil producer in the middle of the 19th cent.
Soon after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 (see Russian Revolution), Russian Azerbaijan joined Armenia and Georgia to form the anti-Bolshevik Transcaucasian Federation. After its dissolution (May, 1918), Azerbaijan proclaimed itself an independent state with a democratic and secular government, but it was conquered by the Red Army in 1920 and made into a Soviet republic. In 1922, Azerbaijan joined the USSR as a member of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Republic. With the administrative reorganization of 1936, it became a separate republic. Immediately after World War II, Azerbaijan was used as a base for Communist rebels in Iranian Azerbaijan; Azeri nationalists still press claims to Iran's Azerbaijan province.
Azerbaijan declared itself independent of the USSR in Aug., 1991, and became a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States. In 1992, Abulfaz Elchibey, leader of the Popular Front party, was elected president, but he was ousted by the parliament a year later, after a military mutiny. Heydar Aliyev, leader of the Azerbaijan Communist party from 1969 to 1982, assumed power and was confirmed in office by an election. Aliyev promoted exploitation of the country's oil resources through agreements with Russia and several Western oil companies for development of oil fields in the Caspian Sea. In the Nov., 1995, elections, which were condemned by outside observers as rigged, voters elected a new parliament that was dominated by Aliyev's party and approved constitutional changes that expanded his power. Aliyev was reelected in 1998, and his New Azerbaijan party retained power in the Nov., 2000, parliamentary elections, which like the 1995 balloting was not regarded as free and fair.
In Aug., 2003, the ailing president appointed his son, Ilham Aliyev, as the country's prime minister. The president withdrew from the Oct., 2003, election in favor of his son, who was elected by a landslide; the balloting was criticized by independent observers as neither free nor fair. The elder Aliyev died two months after the election. Parliamentary elections in Nov., 2005, returned the governing party to power, albeit with a reduced majority, but the vote was again criticized by European observers and denounced as fraudulent by the opposition.
Prior to the vote the government had blocked the return of exiled opposition leader Rasul Guliyev by having him held in Ukraine on corruption charges, and then arrested several current and former members of the government and others, charging them with plotting a coup against the government with Guliyev. These and subsequent government changes (into 2006) were seen as attempts by the president to consolidate his power. In the 2008 presidential election Aliyev was reelected by a landslide, but the vote was boycotted by the main opposition parties and marred by irregularites. The opposition also boycotted a referendum in 2009 that ended the presidential two-term limit. In Nov., 2010, the parliamentary elections were again marred by fraud and other irregularities and were criticized by European observers; the ruling party increased its majority, and other government supporters won nearly all of the rest of the seats.
During the late 1980s ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region had pressed for its unification with Armenia, leading to a guerrilla war. A large-scale conflict broke out between the two republics in 1992; the Armenian side gained effective control of the region and adjoining Azerbaijani territory to the south and west by 1994, when a cease-fire was reached with Russian mediation. Some one million Azeris were made refugees within Azerbaijan as a result of the conflict. Attempts to resolve the conflict have proved unsuccessful, and border clashes have occurred since 1994. Azerbaijan has offered the region a high degree of autonomy, but the Armenians there have insisted on independence or union with Armenia. Following Turkey's signing of protocols with Armenia that called for the establishment of relations between the two nations, Azerbaijan's relations with Turkey became strained. Though Turkey seemed unlikely to ratify the protocols in the absence of progress toward resolution the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, Azerbaijan threatened to end sales of subsidized natural gas to Turkey.
Relations with Russia and Iran have also been strained at times. Russia has forcefully sought Azeribaijan's cooperation on military and other matters, which Azerbaijan has resisted giving. Iran has supported Islamic groups in Azerbaijan and has challenged the country's right to drill for oil in parts of the Caspian.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.