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As a political or administrative entity, and indeed as a geographic notion, Azerbaijan's confines were changing throughout history. Its northern part was known at times under different names; in the pre-Islamic period it was called Caucasian Albania, and, subsequently, Arran. From the time of ancient Media and the Achaemenid Kingdom, Azerbaijan shared its history with Iran. According to widely accepted etymology its name derives from Atropates, an Iranian satrap who remained in power under Alexander the Great and eventually established a dynasty of local rulers.

Azerbaijan shared its destinies with Iran, and maintained its Iranian character after the conquest by the Arabs in the mid-seventh century and its subsequent conversion to Islam. Only in the 11th century, with the influx of nomadic Oghuz tribes under the Seljuk dynasty, did the country acquire a significant proportion of Turkic-speaking inhabitants. The original population began to mix with immigrants, and the native idiom of the Iranian family of languages was gradually replaced by a dialect that evolved into a distinct Azeri-Turkish language.

The process of Turkification was long and uneven, sustained by successive waves of incoming nomads from Central Asia. After the Mongol invasions in the 13th century, Azerbaijan became a part of the empire of Hulagu and his successors, the Ilkhanids. Subsequently it passed under the rule of the Turkmen who founded the rival Aq-Qoyunlu and QaraQoyunlu states. The post-Mongol period brought the first flourishing of Azeri Turkish as a literary language that was used far beyond Azerbaijan, a process that culminated in the poetic works of such writers as Nesimi (d. 1418), Khatai (d. 1525), and Fuzuli of Baghdad (d. 1556).

At the end of the 15th century Azerbaijan became the power base of the native dynasty, the Safavids. Through a vigorous policy of expansion and consolidation they built a new Iranian Kingdom. Shah Ismail I (1501-1524) known also as a poet under the pen name Khatai, elevated the Shi'a branch of Islam to the status of the state religion of his empire, an act that reinforced its internal cohesion and set the Azeris firmly apart from the ethnically and linguistically close Ottoman Turks. Under the early Safavids their homeland was frequently the battleground in the wars between Iran and Sunni Turkey. Because of the threat of Ottoman incursions, the capital of Iran was moved from Tabriz to Qazvin, and then, under Abbas the Great (1588-1629), to Isfahan. A strategically vital province, Azerbaijan remained under the authority of a governor, who usually combined his administrative position with the highest military rank. Safavid rule, gradually shedding its Azeri character, lasted for more than two centuries. Undermined by internal strife and an Afghan invasion, it came to an end in 1722.

The second half of the 18th century saw a period of decline of central authority in Iran, a condition that allowed the emergence of indigenous centers of power in the Azerbaijan periphery. These took the form of khanates (principalities), including Karabagh, Baku, Shirvan, Ganja, Derbent, Kuba, Talysh, Nakhichevan, and Erivan in the northern part of the country, and Tabriz, Urumiyeh, Ardabil, Khoi, Maku, Karadagh, and Maragin in the south.

Political fragmentation led to internecine warfare among the khanates and also facilitated interference from outside powers, Turkey and Russia, which competed for domination over the region south of the Caucasus Mountains. Toward the end of the century, as the Ottoman State sank deeper into decline, the shadow that Russia cast over Transcaucasia lengthened ominously.

Russia's interest in the land beyond the Caucasus was long-standing and had diverse motivations, but the overriding attraction was the strategic value of the isthmus between the Caspian and Black Seas. Russian military involvement dated back to the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725), whose unsuccessful Iranian Expedition aimed at projecting the Russian presence in the direction of the Indian Ocean. The southward drive resumed in a more sustained and systematic manner under Catherine II (1762-1796), and Russia began to throw its weight into the politics of the Transcaucasian states, notably through extending its protection to the Christian rulers of Kakheti-Kartli and Imeretia. With time, hegemony turned into direct rule when Tsar Alexander I (1801-1825) proclaimed the creation of the guberniia (province) of Georgia, consisting of the lands of the former Kakheti-Kartli kings.

The Conquest by Russia and a Century of Tsarist Rule

To secure a strategic hold on Georgia, the Russian high command of the Caucasus extended its control over the Azerbaijani khanates eastward to the Caspian coast and southward to the Araxes River by imposing vassalage treaties. The Russian conquests met with a challenge from Iran, now recovered from its weakness under the new dynasty of the Turkmen Qajar tribe. There followed two Russo-Iranian wars, both of which Russia won. The first of the wars ended in the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan awarding Russia most of Azerbaijan north of the Araxes River. The second war (1826-1828) ended with the Treaty of Turkmanchai, completing the conquest and establishing the Araxes River as the boundary that permanently divides Azerbaijan in two.

During the two centuries that followed, under the tsarist empire and the Soviet system alike, Azerbaijan oscillated between three models of foreign rule: dependency, colony, and organic merger. Each of these models was related to the stakes that Russia had in the region, and the resources it was willing to commit. The dependency model reflected almost exclusively Russia's strategic interests in Azerbaijan as a corridor for the penetration of Iran and as a position from which to outflank Turkey. In practical terms, it amounted to the bare minimum of expenditure in funds and manpower. This meant that the government, administrative, and judicial powers were all left in native hands and that the khanate system remained essentially unchanged, even if a khan himself was replaced by a Russian military commander. The prevailing model, colonialism, consisted of a Russian administrative structure and top echelon local bureaucracy, yet it also featured implicit recognition of regional autonomy and ethnocultural identity.

In contrast, the organic merger aimed at the fullest possible integration with Russia, not only administratively, but also economically and culturally. Under this policy, Azerbaijan experienced rapid, if lopsided, industrialization focused on the extraction of oil and limited to the metropolitan area of Baku. The oil revolution in turn brought the influx of immigrants, mainly Russian and Armenian, accompanied by a growth in intercommunal tensions, which erupted in violence when the empire entered its period of crisis.

The Age of Revolution and Political Awakening

The Russian Revolution of 1905-1907 was closely followed by the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911 and the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. Each of these three upheavals left its impact on Azerbaijan and involved some Azeri participation. At home, bloody confrontations between Armenians and Azeris produced a feeling of unity above regional, sectarian, or kinship loyalties. The weakening of government controls made possible the flourishing of the Azeri language press, an intellectual ferment, and the rise of political associations. Of these, the Musavat (Equality) party, formed clandestinely in 1911, became the largest political force in Azerbaijan after the overthrow of the monarchy in Russia in February 1917, assuming the character of a liberal-secular, nationalist movement.

Experiment in Nation-State Independence

After the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd, Transcaucasia refused to recognize the new regime and in the winter of 1918 formed a regional legislative body called the Seim (Diet). In the spring, the Seim proclaimed the creation of the Transcaucasian Federation consisting of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. However, the attempt at regional federalism proved to be short-lived. The Federation broke up within four weeks of internal strife and external pressures from Turkey and Germany. On May 28, 1918, the Azerbaijani National Council declared the creation of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic with the provisional capital in the city of Ganja. The hitherto seldom used term ''Azerbaijan" became the name for the state of the people who had previously been called Tatars, Caucasian Turks, or Caucasian Muslims.

The Democratic Republic lasted 23 months. The period of its existence can be divided into three distinct phases. The first was that of the Ottoman occupation whose military authorities tended to regard Azerbaijan as a land to be one day united with Turkey. Ottoman occupation was replaced by the British whose forces arrived in Baku in November 1918. In the second phase the British presence provided Azerbaijan with temporary security from the conflagration of the Russian Civil War, and indirectly it encouraged the political development of the country along the lines of a parliamentary system of government.

The phase of full independence that followed the British withdrawal in August 1919 was clouded by a growing sense of insecurity and isolation. The survival of the Democratic Republic hinged on the stalemate in the civil war that would keep the Red and White Russian armies occupied far from Azerbaijan. By the spring of 1920 the Red Army had achieved victory, and on April 28 its troops invaded Azerbaijan, meeting with almost no resistance as the Azerbaijani forces were trying to put down an Armenian uprising in Nagorno-Karabagh. Before the end of the month the Azerbaijani Soviet of People's Commmissars was formed in Baku.

The Early Soviet Period

The new chapter in Azerbaijani history opened with the suppression of armed uprisings that kept breaking out in various parts of the country. With some degree of internal peace established, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia were once again united into a regional grouping, the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (Zakfederatsiia), which was jointly admitted to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The official Soviet policy toward non-Russian nationalities in the 1920s was korenizatsiia (nativization), under which the native element was to be given preference in appointments to positions in the government bureaucracy. The Azeri intelligentsia found it an opportunity to pursue some of its favorite programs of an enlightenment/educational nature. By the end of the decade, militant secularism had become the government policy, which soon led to excesses and brutalities. Although Islam was greatly weakened as a religion it retained much of its strength among the population as a way of life, with its traditional customs and prohibitions generally observed. The Soviet anti-Islamic drive and the collectivization campaign in the countryside were only the prelude for a more violent and all-encompassing upheaval in the 1930s.

Stalin's Great Terror and World War II

Few other Soviet republics suffered proportionately greater human losses than Azerbaijan through mass killings, deportations, and imprisonment in this period. A special target of the purges was the intelligentsia, as well as the old-guard native communists, especially those who had been active in the independent republic or had contacts with revolutionary movements in neighboring Muslim countries. Typical accusations were for the crime of Pan-Islamism, Pan-Turkism, Musavatism, or bourgeois nationalism, but these often served for settling personal, family, or clan accounts. The old-time communists were replaced by newcomers to the ruling elite, from the ranks of youth raised under the Soviet regime.

In the year before the purges reached their height, the Stalin Constitution of 1936 was declared. One of its effects was the dissolution of the Transcaucasian Federation, after which Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia became constituent republics of the USSR. In tune with the restructuring of the Soviet Union, the republics were now discouraged from direct relations with each other. Azerbaijan had to shed any residual ties to the Turkic and Islamic world. The official name of its inhabitants now became Azerbaijanis instead of Azeri-Turks. Likewise the national language was to be called Azerbaijani instead of Turkish, Azeri-Turkish, or Azeri. The years of the great purges also marked the onset of a vigorous drive for assimilation to the Russian language and culture, an effort to reinforce Soviet unity in the face of the approaching Second World War. Although many Azeris fought well in the ranks of the Red Army, tens of thousands of prisoners of war joined the German forces.

At the onset of the war, inward-looking, isolationist Soviet Azerbaijani nationalism was faced with the ripple effects of the Soviet occupation of Iranian Azerbaijan. Under Soviet military rule, the revival of Azeri as the literary language (which had largely been supplanted by Persian) was promoted with the help of writers, journalists, and educators from north of the Araxes. In November 1945, with Soviet backing, an Autonomous Government was proclaimed in Tabriz under Sayyid Jafar Pishevari, the leader of the Azerbaijani Democratic Party. Cultural institutions and education in the native language blossomed throughout Iranian Azerbaijan, and speculations grew rife about a Greater Azerbaijan that might result from unification of the two parts of the country under the Soviet aegis.

As it turned out, the issue of Iranian Azerbaijan was an opening skirmish of the Cold War, and under American and British pressure, the occupation army was withdrawn. The central government of Iran recovered its control over Azerbaijan by the end of 1946, and the Democratic Party leaders took refuge across the Soviet border. Pishevari, who was never fully trusted by the Soviets, soon died under mysterious circumstances.

Imperial Stagnation and Decline

The death of Stalin in 1953 was followed by the "Khrushchev Thaw," a period of relaxation of controls over literature, scholarship, and even the press. On the other hand, the thaw brought a new anti-Islamic campaign, and then a new Russification drive under the Sblizhenie (Rapprochement) policy that was to lead to the eventual amalgamation of all peoples of the USSR into one Soviet nation.

During the 1960s, signs of a structural crisis in the Soviet colonial empire began to surface. The Azerbaijani oil industry lost its relative weight in the economy of the Soviet Union, partly because of the shift to other regions, and partly because of the depletion of the easily accessible, onshore oil fields. The decline of the oil industry led, in turn, to reduced investments in Azerbaijan by central planning in Moscow. In the 1960s Azerbaijan ranked lowest in productivity growth rate and economic output among all Soviet republics, but it retained a high rate of population increase. The rapidly growing mass of white-collar workers saw little chance for fulfillment of their expectations, and ethnic tensions between the Azeris and Armenians were reawakening.

In an attempt to deal with the deteriorating condition of Azerbaijan, Moscow appointed Haidar Aliyev the head of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan (CPAz) in 1969. Aliyev temporarily reversed the economic downdrift and promoted alternative industries to the extraction and refining of oil. He also consolidated the republic's ruling elite, which was now composed almost entirely of ethnic Azeris. The echoes of the Islamic revolution in neighboring Iran stimulated the process of a religious revival, to which the Soviet reply was the nationalist-sounding slogan "one Azerbaijan"promoted in literature and scholarship rather than in political action.

Decolonization and Its Crises

Although Azerbaijan lagged behind neighboring republics in raising a dissident movement, with the violent renewal of ethnic antagonism it experienced a sudden political awakening, comparable to that of 1905-1907. The new epoch began in February 1988 when Armenia formally raised its own claim to Nagorno-Karabagh. The conflict revealed the unsuitability of the Communist Party as the champion of national interests, and in the spirit of glasnost, independent publications and associations began to emerge. Of the latter, the largest was the People's Front of Azerbaijan (PFAz), which by the autumn of 1989 seemed to be poised for a takeover of power from the tottering Communist Party. To forestall this prospect, Soviet troops were dispatched to Baku, ostensibly to restore order after anti-Armenian riots in January 1990. The end of the regime came formally with the breakup of the USSR and the declaration of Azerbaijan's independence on August 30, 1991.

The Second Independent Republic

Among the issues facing the newborn Republic of Azerbaijan was the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict, which had grown into a prime national concern. The inability to deal with the war brought down the first president of independent Azerbaijan, ex-Communist Party leader Ayaz Mutalibov, in 1992. The same justification served as a pretext to overthrow his successor, democratically elected president Abulfaz Elchibey of the People's Front of Azerbaijan, in a military coup of June 1993.

The geopolitical aspect of oil deposits became an additional dimension of post-Soviet instability in Azerbaijan, its ramifications overshadowing the ethnic strife. The agreement with a consortium of Western companies on exploration of the rich Azerbaijani offshore oil fields displeased Moscow, and was seen as the deeper cause for the overthrow of the Elchibey regime by a military coup. His successor, former Communist leader Haidar Aliyev, renegotiated the oil agreement in 1994 and soon saw himself threatened by a series of attempted coups and separatist movements among ethnic minorities, the Lesgins and Talyshis, in addition to the Karabagh Armenians. His reply was strong-arm government policy, although tolerance for opposition groups was maintained.

Succeded by his son Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan is now de-facto under a totalitarian regime similar to Middle East oil monarchies with no opposition allowed and severe repressions against civil society.