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Azerbaijan. The history

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In ancient and early medieval times eastern Transcaucasia was populated by Iranian speakers, nomadic Turkic tribes, Kurds, and the Caucasian Albanians, who converted to Christianity in the 4th century and came under the cultural influence of the Armenians.

After Arab incursions in the 7th century, Islamic polities were established under local rulers called shahanshah. The Seljuq invasions in the 11th century changed the composition of the local population and resulted in the linguistic dominance of Oguz Turkic dialects. But, unlike the Ottoman Turks who came to dominate Anatolia, the Caucasian Muslims of Azerbaijan in the early 16th century became Shiite, rather than Sunnite, Muslims, and they continued to develop under Persian social and cultural influence.

Persian-ruled khanates in Shirvan (Samaxi), Baku, Ganja (Ganca), Karabakh, and Yerevan dominated this frontier of Safavid Iran.

Russian suzerainty

After a series of wars between the Russian Empire and Iran, the treaties of Gulistan (1813) and Turkmenchai (1828) established a new border between the empires. Russia acquired Baku, Shirvan, Ganja, Nakhichevan, and Yerevan. Henceforth the Azerbaijani Turks of Caucasia were separated from the majority of their linguistic and religious compatriots, who remained in Iran. Azerbaijanis on both sides of the border remained largely rural, though a small merchant class and working class appeared in the second half of the 19th century.

As Baku became the major source of oil for Russia, tens of thousands of Iranian, Armenian, and Russian workers streamed to the Apsheron Peninsula in search of employment, and Russian economic and political influence could be felt in both parts of Azerbaijan.

As the source of employment and the home of the nascent Azerbaijani intelligentsia and revolutionary movement, Baku radiated its influence in Iranian Azerbaijan as well as north of the Araks River. No specifically Azerbaijani state existed before 1918, and, rather than seeing themselves as part of a continuous national tradition, like the Georgians and Armenians, the Muslims of Transcaucasia saw themselves as part of the larger Muslim world, the ummah. They were referred to as "Tatars" by the Russians; the ethnonym Azerbaijani (azarbayjanli) came into use in the pre-revolutionary decades at first among urban nationalist intellectuals. Only in the Soviet period did it become the official and widely accepted name for this people.

Incorporation into the Russian Empire provided a new outlet for educated Azerbaijanis, some of whom turned from their religious upbringing to a more secular outlook. Prominent among the early scholars and publicists who began the study of the Azerbaijani language were Abbas Qoli Agha Bakikhanov, who wrote poetry as well as histories of the region, and Mirza Fath Aly Akhundzada (called Akhundov in Russian), author of the first Azerbaijani plays. Though eventually these figures would be incorporated into a national narrative as predecessors of the Turkic revival, a variety of conflicting impulses stimulated early Azerbaijani intellectuals-loyalty to the tsarist empire, Persian culture, and a longing for Western learning. Although no single, coherent ideology or movement characterised the Azerbaijani intelligentsia, by 1905 a growing number of writers and journalists adopted the program of the nationalist intellectual Alybay Huseynzada: "Turkify, Islamicise, Europeanise".

The town of Baku, which by 1901 produced more than half of the world's output of petroleum, was complexly segregated, with Russians and Armenians in the central part of the town and Muslims clustered in distinct districts.

As social resentments festered, particularly in times of political uncertainty, ethnic and religious differences defined the battle lines; bloody clashes between Azerbaijanis and local Armenians took place in 1905 and 1918. A hierarchy of skills, education, and wages placed Muslims on the bottom and Christians at the top.

By virtue of a quota on non-Christian representation and a system of suffrage based on property holdings, the Baku city legislative council remained in the hands of wealthy Armenians and Russians. Azerbaijanis remained on the fringe of the labour movement and were indifferent to or ignorant of the aspirations of both their socialist and nationalist intellectuals. None of the small parties and political groups that arose after 1905 commanded much of a following beyond the intelligentsia, though Musavat ("Equality"), founded in 1911 and led by Mehmed Emin Rasulzada, proved most enduring.

Anxiety about the Armenian "threat," a perception of their own distance from and hostility to this privileged element within their midst, and a feeling that Azerbaijanis were connected in important ways to other Muslims, particularly Turks, became part of an Azerbaijani sense of self.

Independent Azerbaijan

With the Bolshevik victory in October 1917 and the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Caucasian front, Azerbaijani leaders joined Armenians and Georgians in a brief experiment in Transcaucasian autonomy (February to April 1918). An even briefer attempt at unity in an independent federative republic of Transcaucasia (April to May) fell apart, and finally three separate independent republics were established. Azerbaijan was declared an independent state on May 28, 1918, but Baku remained in the hands of a communist government, assisted by local Armenian soldiers, who had put down a Muslim revolt in March. Allied with the advancing Turkish army, in September 1918 the Azerbaijani nationalists secured their capital, Baku, and engaged in a massacre of the Armenians.

However, even as they secured control of Baku, the Azerbaijani nationalists were faced with a mixed population of Russian, Armenian, and Muslim workers who had undergone a long socialist and trade-unionist education. Among the peasantry on whom they depended, national consciousness was still largely absent, and the nationalists were never fully secure in Baku, where Bolshevism had deep roots. With the end of World War I the Turks withdrew; they were replaced by the British, who remained until August 1919. The fragile republic received de facto recognition from the Allies on Jan. 15, 1920, but when the Red Army marched into Baku in April 1920 there was little resistance.

The Soviet and post-Soviet periods

The Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic lasted 71 years. It was part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic from 1922 until 1936 and, like Georgia and Armenia, it experienced considerable economic development, urbanisation, and industrialisation. Although education in Azerbaijani was promoted and Azerbaijanis were placed in positions of power, the republic was tightly controlled by Moscow, especially during the years of Stalin's rule (1928-53) when M.A. Bagirov headed the Azerbaijani Communist Party.

Becoming a more urban, educated, and socially mobile society, Azerbaijan was divided between more traditional, backward rural areas and the cosmopolitan city of Baku. After the death of Stalin, the republic enjoyed somewhat greater autonomy, and the national political and intellectual elites flourished.

When conflict with the Armenians of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region within Azerbaijan exploded in February 1988, these elites provided the leaders both for the oppositional Azerbaijan Popular Front and for their communist opponents. Violence directed against Armenians in Sumgait in 1988 and in Baku in 1990 and continual warfare between the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azerbaijanis led to military action by Moscow against the republic in January 1990.

Until 1992 the Communist Party of Azerbaijan retained its power. After the abortive coup against the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow in August 1991, Azerbaijan declared itself independent, and the head of the party, Ayaz Mutalibov, was elected its first president. In May 1992 the Azerbaijan Popular Front overthrew Mutalibov and forced new elections, in which its candidate, Abulfez Elchibey, emerged victorious on a platform of separating from the Commonwealth of Independent States and maintaining control over Nagorno-Karabakh. Elchibey was himself overthrown in June 1993 by Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB official and leader of the Azerbaijani Communist Party who had adopted the rhetoric of Azerbaijani nationalism.

Ilham Aliyev took over as president from his father, Heydar, following elections in October 2003. Heydar Aliyev had been a candidate for re-election but deteriorating health led him to pull out of the race just a couple of weeks before the vote in favour of his son whom he described as his "political successor".

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