Alternative names: Azeris, Azeri Tatars, Azeri Turks
Location: Azerbaidjan (Caucasus, south-west USSR), other parts of USSR, Iran, Iraq
Population: 5.5 million (USSR census 1979), 6.4 million (est. 1989), 13 million (est.) in Iran
% of population: 2.1% (1979), 2.2% (est. 1989)
Religion: Muslim: Shi’ite (75%); Sunni (25%)
Language: Azerbaidjani

The Azerbaidjanis until recently did not attract anything like as much attention as their less numerous neighbours in the Caucasus — the Armenians and Georgians. Recent events in Iran (which has a substantial Azerbaidjani minority) and, in particular, Nagorno-Karabakh (the predominantly Armenian enclave within Azerbaidjan) has thrust this little-known nation into the limelight. One of the earliest nations now occupying the USSR to become Muslim they are not closely linked to the other Turkic Muslim peoples of Soviet Central Asia. However, in both the Slavic-Turkic ethnic and Christian-Muslim religious divides, the Azerbaidjanis identify with the Uzbeks and Tatars.

History and background

Many great civilizations (Median, Persian, Sassanid) and conquerors (Alexander the Great and Timur the Lame) have succeeded one another on Azerbaidjani soil. From the sixteenth century it has been the object of a tussle between Iran, Turkey and Russia. Although Peter the Great’s navy occupied the capital — Baku — in 1723 it was not until 1828 that Azerbaidjan came under Russian control. The oil reserves in and around the Caspian Sea ensured the rapid development of Baku as a major industrial centre and the Azerbaidjanis, who had long become a sedentary population, became the most advanced Muslim people in that part of the Empire. As a result, by the time of the 1917 revolutions there were in Azerbaidjan groups seeking a workers’ state (Baku Commune) or a national republic (the Musavet or Equality party). Soviet power was eventually established in 1920 and in 1922 Azerbaidjan joined the USSR as part of the Transcaucasian Federation. In 1936 the Azerbaidjan Soviet Socialist Republic was formed with jurisdiction over both the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic (a predominantly Azerbaidjani enclave surrounded by Iran and Armenia) and Nagorno-Karabakh (an Armenian enclave on Azerbaidjani territory), the two areas at the heart of the present ethnic crisis in the region.

Constitution and law

In theory the Azerbaidjan Soviet Socialist Republic (population 7 million in 1989) is a sovereign state that has freely joined the USSR federation. In reality the USSR hitherto has controlled its foreign affairs, military formations, economic and commercial relations in a highly centralized fashion. Although the Soviet Constitution of 1977 allows Azerbaidjan to elect its own legislative (Supreme Soviet), executive (Council of Ministers) and judiciary (Supreme Court), control is effectively exercised by the centralized and Russian-dominated Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) through its Republican branch. As part of the USSR, Azerbaidjan elects 11 deputies to the Council of Nationalities and five to the Council of the Union in the 542-member USSR Supreme Soviet (elections every five years).

The Constitution also allows each Union Republic to secede from the USSR, but the primacy of All-Union legislation effectively invalidates this right. Similarly, the constitutional provision that all citizens of the USSR of different races and nationalities have equal rights has been severely compromised by the domination in the USSR of Slavic (essentially Russian) political, economic and social norms.

Recent developments in political, economic and social rights

Although the clashes with Armenians over Nagorno-Karabakh have dominated recent developments, they have served as a catalyst for a more general resurgence of Azerbaidjani nationalism aimed as much against the Russians as the Armenians. National consciousness is fostered both by the concentration of Azerbaidjanis (86% of whom live in their native republic, a further 4.7% in Georgia and 2.9% in Armenia, 1979) and by the current strength of the Azerbaidjan language vis-à-vis Russian (97.9% of Azerbaidjanis normally use their native language, whereas only 1.8% recognize Russian as their first language and only 29.5% speak it well).

The traditional Azerbaidjani-Armenian hostility broke out anew in February 1988, following radio reports of Azerbaidjani casualties during ethnic clashes in Armenia. In serious disturbances in the oil town of Sumgait (north of Baku), 34 were reported killed (26 Armenians and eight Azerbaidjanis) although Armenian sources put their casualties in hundreds. This brought tension in Nagorno-Karabakh (75% Armenian but Azerbaidjani-run since 1923) to boiling point and massive demonstrations, strikes and political agitation throughout the summer of 1988 sought to have the region transferred to Armenia.

In November 1988 trouble broke out again when an Azerbaidjani convicted for murdering an Armenian in the Sumgait riots was sentenced to death. Widespread ethnic clashes led to 70 deaths and a two-way exodus of Azerbaidjanis fleeing Armenia and Armenians quitting Azerbaidjan and Nakhichevan. Demonstrations in Baku lasted for 18 days into December demanding economic sovereignty for the Republic. The Armenian earthquake of December 1988 temporarily stemmed the tide but there was profound discontent at the decision in January 1989 to place Nagorno-Karabakh under direct control of Moscow. In July 1989 two Azerbaidjanis were killed in the enclave and August saw massive demonstrations and strikes in Baku organized by the Azerbaidjan Popular Front (a movement led mainly by intellectuals) who demanded the recall of their deputies from the Soviet parliament and the restoration of Azerbaidjani control over Nagorno-Karabakh. With over 100 dead in communal clashes already and no obvious resolution to the problem, the situation remains extremely tense.

A further source of conflict is the fact that, whereas the Georgians and Armenians are represented in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on a par with or better than their proportion of the Soviet population, the Azerbaidjanis (with 293,000 or 1.6%, 1982) are under-represented and have less than their share of senior posts in political, economic and military hierarchies.

Minorities in Azerbaidjan

In 1979 Azerbaidjanis constituted 78% of the population of the Republic, which had three significant minority groups: equal numbers of Armenians and Russians (475,000 or 7.9%) and Daghestani people (205,000 or 3.4%, mostly Shi’ite Lezghins). As a result of substantially higher Azerbaidjani birthrates and the deterioration in inter-ethnic relations recently, it is anticipated that the proportion of Armenians and Russians will fall significantly.

There is also a small minority of Tats (9,000 or 0.1% 1979) or Mountain Jews, an Iranian people converted to Judaism.

(See also Armenians; Other Muslim Peoples)