Azerbaijan is an ancient, majority Turkic, majority Shia Muslim nation that for centuries was
under Turkic, Persian and then Russian rule. When the ruling Russian Empire collapsed during World War I the Azeris joined the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic but when that failed Azerbaijan declared itself independent–the first secular, democratic republic in the Muslim world. Unfortunately for the Azeri independence movement, in 1920 the newly-formed Soviet Union invaded, taking Azerbaijan and its substantial oil fields, into the USSR. Azerbaijan had to wait until 1991 to go out on its own.
After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 Azerbaijan declared independence but at the same time escalated a complicated war with Armenia. The war was over a mainly Armenian region within Azerbaijan called Nagorno-Karabakh. The war was a messy, ethnically and religiously fueled conflict–the Muslim Azeri’s and the Christian Armenians each accused the other of ethnic cleansing. Today there is a tense cease fire and Nagorno-Karabakh remains occupied by Armenian troops. The Azeris, with their oil wealth and their increasing military might, may one day have something to say about that.
Today Azerbaijan is ostensibly a democratic republic but remains under the rule of Ilham Alyev, who in 2009 abolished presidential term limits and limited freedom of the press. (In 2010 Azerbaijan ranked 135 out of 167 countries in The Economist’s “Democracy Index.”) Protests in 2011 calling for democratic reforms effectively ended after a crackdown by Ailyev’s security force.
For better or worse, Azerbaijan still has oil, and a lot of it. With a Trans-Caucasian oil pipeline in the works, Azerbaijan will be an economically important (and likely politically complicated) nation for decades to come.