The Nagorno Karabakh Dispute.



This is a disputed region. It is legally part of Azerbaijan but has been under Armenian control since 1991. Azerbaijan borders Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Iran and Russia. The Azerbaijani language is 80% the same as Turkish. The rest is Persian or Arabic. Even the word Azerbaijan is Persian in its etymology meaning ”Land of Fire.” A little of the lexis is sui generis. Azerbaijan retain most Farsi words since Turkish purged itself of Persian and Arabic loanwords in the 1930s. Therefore Azerbaijani is more or less Old Turkish. Azerbaijani always had more Persian words than even Old Turkish because Azerbaijan has a greater connection to Iran than Turkey does. Azerbaijani has adopted some Russian technical terms



Nagorno Karabakh’s chequered past is reflected in its multilingual name. The name comes from a Russian word, an Azerbaijani word and a Persian word. The names translates as ”mountain black garden” or more literally ”black garden on the mountain.”

Armenia had a long standing and cordial relationship with Russia. Armenia is the first officially Christian country in the world. Armenia was mighty in the Middle Ages. At her zenith her domains stretched from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea and to the Mediterranean. Armenian is barren and lacks natural resources. Armenians travelled abroad and became merchants. There are Armenian communities from the United States to Singapore. here are well established Armenian communities in nearby countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Iran. As Armenia grew feeble she found herself hemmed in by Muslim states. Ottoman Turkey was of course Muslim as was Azerbaijan. Persia was also a Muslim country. The only adjacent Christian land was Georgia. However, since the Middle Ages this country was under Persian and then Russian rule. Therefore for Georgia one must read either Iran or then Russia.

Azerbaijan was briefly under Persian rule. This meant the country turned to Shia Islam and most people have remained Shia ever since. Prior to that Azerbaijan was part of the Ottoman Empire. Azerbaijan and Armenia were both conquered by Russia in bygone centuries. In 1822 Persia and Russia agreed to divide Azerbaijan between them along a certain river. Azerbaijan was a cluster of two dozen khanates. Internecine warfare between them prevented Azerbaijan mounting any effectual opposition to dismemberment. Russia annexed the country piecemeal. Some states were conquered and some suborned. The southern two-thirds of Azerbaijan is part of Iran. Around 25% of the Iranian population is ethnically Azerbaijani. The ancient Azerbaijani capital of Tabriz now lies well within the borders of Iran. Azerbaijanis sometimes refer to the Republic of Azerbaijan as ”Northern Azerbaijan” in allusion to the southern two-thirds of their territory that was absorbed by Iran.

In 1917 the Tsarist state imploded.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran sent jitters through the Soviet Government. Many Azerbaijanis had relatives in north-west Iran. Azerbaijan was also Shia. In fact there was very little attraction to theocracy in Azerbaijan. The Soviet authorities remained very wary of the possibility that Islam could be used against them. Few mosques and madrassas were allowed to operate. Imams were only allowed to conduct worship if they co-operated with the KGB.

In the late 1980s the Soviet Union started to give its people a little bit of freedom. People were permitted to found non-state organisations. Communist propaganda no longer had a monopoly on the media. People were no longer sent to slave labour camps for telling the truth about the government. Political prisoners were set free.

In Azerbaijan a Popular Front was founded. It campaigned for independence. Some nationalists dropped the Russophone suffixes from their names such ”ov” and ”ev” or in the case of women ”ova” and ”eva”.



The council (soviet) in Nagorno Karabakh voted to join Armenia. This inflamed opinion in Azerbaijan. There was a considerable Armenian minority living in Azerbaijan. For instance Gary Kasparov was born in Baku and is half Armenian. There were attacks on Armenians living in Sumgayit and Baku. Dozens of people were killed. The authorities were very slow to intervene to protect the Armenian minority. Was this deliberate? At that time easily 30% of the population of Baku was not ethnically Azerbaijani. Therefore there were plenty Russian, Armenians etc… in the police and army who could have decided to step in.

In January 1990 the Red Army moved onto the streets of Baku to restore order and to protect the Armenian community from being lynched.

What happened next is disputed. The Red Army claimed to have been confronted by an armed mob manning barricades. The Red Army was fired upon and was compelled to return fire to protect itself. Some Soviet soldiers were killed. Dozens of Azerbaijani rioters were killed. Most Azerbaijanis tell a very different story. There was a peaceful protest. None of the demonstrators were armed. The Red Army reverted to its usual modus operandi for dealing with dissent and simply shot everyone. Over 140 people were killed on 20 January 1990. The Red Army announced a much lower death toll for the so-called rioters. No Red Army soldiers were killed. The Red Army falsely claimed 8 of its men were killed because this seemed to excuse the Red Army gunning down scores of protesters and made the ”riot” narrative more credible. The Red Army never released the names of its soldiers who were supposedly killed on 20 January. Azerbaijanis tend to say this is because not a single Soviet soldier was killed and the Soviet authorities did not reveal names of any putative fatalities because such information could be disproved. The victims of the massacre are buried at the highest point in Baku – near the eternal flame. 20 January is commemorated as a national day of mourning every year. This also stands for the pogrom of 1920 when thousands of Azerbaijani civilians were killed by Armenian ultra nationalists. Azerbaijan seeks to link this to the cause of genocide prevention worldwide. The closest thing to an independent investigation of the 20 January Massacre concluded that there were indeed barricades but no one manning them was armed. Guns were extremely hard to come by in the USSR for anyone not in the security forces. Guns could only have been in the hands of the National Front if Azerbaijani soldiers or police had provided them and it seems this was not the case. None of those killed was an Azerbaijani serving in the Red Army or Soviet Police.


Gorbachev is unpopular in the former USSR except the Baltic states. However, in Azerbaijan Gorbachev is particularly reviled. He is held responsible for the 20 January Massacre as well as the loss of Nagorno Karabakh.

Up until that point there had been a chance that Azerbaijan would chose to remain in the USSR. People thought that the USSR might remain united but no longer be communist. This incident killed that chance.

Heydar Aliyev resigned from the Politburo. He also left the communist party in disgust. . This was sheer opportunism. Here was a man who had joined the Soviet secret police in 1941 and been a sworn enemy of Azerbaijani nationalism. One of his main tasks had been rooting out anyone who peacefully campaigned for independence or democracy. Non-violent opposition earned years of penal servitude in Siberia. He cynically assumed the mantle of the Azerbaijani independence movement. He had supported far worse atrocities on many occasions. He returned to his native Nakhchivan and became leader there. Nakhchivan is an Azerbaijani exclave surrounded by Armenia, Iran and Turkey. Nakhchivan has a significant Armenian minority. It is the most hick area of the country. Few people there ever learnt Russian.

There was much hatred between the two ethnic groups. This had been buried for 70 years.. Azerbaijanis left Armenia and Armenians left Azerbaijan.

In late 1991 Azerbaijan and Armenian both declared independence.

They immediately started fighting over Nagorno Karabakh. Russia supported Armenia. Armenia  soon seized Nagorno Karabakh. According to Armenia Nagorno Karabakh is an independent country but is supported by Armenia. It has its own government. In reality it has been annexed by Armenia but with the active support of almost everyone who now lives there. No country besides Armenia recognises Nagorno Karabkah as an independent country.

There were several large scale massacres of Azerbaijani civilians in Nagorno Karabakh. The rest of them fled. These crimes were partly payback for the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The Azerbaijanis are almost Turkish. Azerbaijan established a very harmonious relationship with Turkey. The Turkish secret service assisted Azerbaijan. The extreme nationalist Grey Wolves moved from Turkey to Azerbaijan to lend a hand to their racial cousins. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar came from Afghanistan to assist this Muslim cause. Hekmatyar had made a name for himself fighting against the Red Army in Afghanistan. His mujahideen faction was named Hizb e Islami (the party of Islam). Ironically some of his foes from the Afghan conflict were Azerbaijanis who had served in the Red Army. But by 1991 none of that mattered. This was the cause of Islam as he saw it. This was despite being a Sunni and Azerbaijanis being mostly Shia.

Greece and Turkey had a very tense relationship at the time. The Greek secret service helped Armenia. It was good for Greece to have an ally on Turkey’s eastern border. Armenia acceded to the Commonwealth of Independent States to benefit from its defence arrangements. Azerbaijan initially refused to join. Because Armenia was in the CIS it seemed that she could rely on military assistance should her sovereign territory be attacked. This was probably the leading factor in preventing Turkey from formally attacking Armenia.

The Armenian strategy was entirely offensive minded. This was partly because Armenia has a landmass of only 29 000 kilometres squared and had little territory to retreat into. The Armenians had no margin for error. At least their mountainous topography was very defensible. The Armenians conquered some of what was indisputable Azerbaijani territory. This is not so much because the Armenians wanted it but simply to advance their war effort and induce the Azerbaijanis to sue for peace. Azerbaijan went through a political crisis more so than almost any other former Soviet country. This is because they had lost up to 30% of the territory which was worse than for any other land. They faced the same woes as other former Soviet republics – trade partners were suddenly in foreign countries. They founded a currency which soon went into hyperinflation. The oil industry was very under developed. Since 1945 the Soviets had switched most oil production to Kazakhstan. The Azerbaijani oil infrastructure needed a major overhaul. Oil prices were stubbornly low. Many technicians and professionals left the country because they were not Azerbaijani. They went through 4 presidents in 3 years. Aliyev seized power in 1994. He kept some Russians on in the Azerbaijan military because they had the expertise that his own people lacked. These Russians fought for hard cash and not ideological conviction or national identity. It was also a means of Azerbaijan trying to keep Moscow somewhat onside.

One Russian observer said the Azerbaijanis were not highly motivated. They did not throw everything into the war. Nagorno Karabakh had an Armenian majority even before the war and even back in the 1930s. Many young men avoided the draft especially if they were well off or well connected. On the other hand this conflict was crucial for Armenia. After the slayings of dozens of Armenians in Azerbaijan the Armenians perceived this as the start of a second genocide. Moreover, Nagorno Karabakh had a much stronger historic link to Armenia than to Azerbaijan.

Heydar Aliyev became president. His supporters say  he took over in a power vacuum created when President Abulfaz Elchibey fled to Nakhchivan in the face of an army mutiny. Another way of putting it is that there was a military coup. Aliyev engineered a referendum to approve his seizure of power by an improbable 99%. He was able to organise a counter attack. THE Armenians were pushed back. A ceasefire was agreed in 1994. When Aliyev took over it signalled that the ex-communists were back in the saddle. This time they were in a new guise. Elchibey had been a dissident for decades before independence. Because one of Moscow’s former collaborators was in office Russia was willing to go easy in Azerbaijan.

Armenia occupied about 20% of Azerbaijan. Some of this is Nagorno Karabakh but some of it is not.



The Armenian community in Azerbaijan fled in the early 90s. The Armenian church is Baku is now a library. Armenian monuments were razed. Even Armenian gravestones were systematically destroyed.  Stepan Shaumpanian was an Armenian communist who was active against the Tsar in Baku before the revolution. Shaumpanian was one the 26 Red Commissars of Baku in the Russian Revolution. He was later captured by White Russians and executed. He was buried in the centre of Baku and Heydar Aliyev said Shaumpanian was the son of all the people of the Caucasus. But after the Karabakh War Shaumpanian’s body was disinterred.

Azerbaijanis lament that the UN has not taken firm action against Armenia for blatant and persistent breaches of international law. Armenia has three permanent members of the UN Security Council on her side – Russia, the United States and France. Various UN General Assembly resolutions called for Armenia to pull out of the annexed territory. However, many states abstained on this question. Some countries voted against including Russia.

Russia wants to the conflict to continue since it keeps the two bidding for Russian support. Russia sells arms to both sides which is profitable. Armenia  gives unstinting diplomatic support to Russia since this is the only way the country can survive. It is not in Russia’s interests that this conflict should be resolved.

Azerbaijani became the sole official language of Azerbaijan. Many toponyms have been changed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Kirovabad has reverted to its erstwhile moniker of Ganja. Some Russian language names have simply been translated into Azerbaijani when it comes to street names.

In 2011 the Syrian Civil War broke out. The Azerbaijani Goverment soon had portraits of the president displayed in all public places. Classrooms, doctors’ waiting rooms, cafe, railway stations, private houses, offices – you name it. The portrait of Heydar Aliyev is also omnipresent. Portraits of Aliyev pere contain a caption that proclaims the lie ”founder of modern Azerbaijan”. The country became independent 3 years before his putsch. Heydar Aliyev only became a nationalist at the age of 63. For years he had been Moscow’s witchfinder general. Thousands of nationalists were sent to the gulag because of him.

The conflict is useful for the Azerbaijani Government. They call all dissident agents of Armenia. The president of Ilham Aliyev – son of the late president. His government cannot win a war against Armenia and has failed to end the dispute diplomatically.  All over Azerbaijan one sees the slogan ”don’t forget about Karabakh”. Notice they circumcise the word ”Nagorno” because that is an inconvenient reminder of the Russian role in the region’s history.

In the early 90s there was talk of constructing a pipeline so that Azerbaijan’s oil and gas could be exported without going via Russia. Russia lobbied very hard against this on the basis that Azerbaijan was in her Near Abroad. Western countries knew that Russia might never be so feeble again. Despite Russian imperialist objections the pipeline went ahead. This goes through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. This was the deal of the century. In the late 90s Azerbaijan enjoyed an oil boom. This pipeline is Azerbaijan’s corotid artery. The Armenians could easily blow it up but to do so would aggravate too many other countries.



Azerbaijan has a cordial relationship with Iran. This is despite them having radically different views of society. Iran is a theocracy whereas Azerbaijan is assertively secular. 90% of Azerbaijanis are Muslim but alcohol is legal everywhere. Ramadan is seldom observed. The state makes no allowances for those who wish to fast at that time. Ashura (the Shia month of mourning for the martyr Hussein) is not seriously marked by many people. Only a few mosques have prayer call. There are no prayer rooms in public buildings. Abortion is available on demand. Headscarves are not permitted in school. Women have complete equality before law. Friday is a working day and Sunday is not. The government even gave land for the construction of a Catholic Church. This is as far from a Shariat state as it is possible to be. The Azerbaijanis do not push their historic claim to north-west Iran. There seems little wish on the part of the Iranian Azerbaijanis to unite with Azerbaijan. Some Iranians have moved to Azerbaijan and there is a thriving commercial relationship between the two countries. Azerbaijan provides a model for secular reformists in Iran.Azerbaijan could possibly call on the aid of Iran. Both are Shia countries. There are many ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran. Azerbaijan would have to renounce any claim to its historic territory in north-west Iran. Azerbaijan needs Iran for access to Nakhchivan which is otherwise only accessible via Georgia. Azerbaijan cannot afford to irk Iran because Azerbaijan has an extremely hostile neighbour in the shape of Armenia and she can never be sure that Russia will not attack. Therefore a complaisant Iran is vital.


Azerbaijan is friendly with Western countries but cannot afford to join the Western Camp. To do so would antagonise Russia too much. If Azerbaijan proposed joining NATO or something of that nature Russia could easily go to war against Azerbaijan as she did against Georgia. This would take the form a punitive expedition and not all out conquest which would be too costly and provoke too much global outcry. Russia would have several options. She could false accuse Azerbaijan or sponsoring separatist Muslim insurrections in Chechnya or Dagestan. This would lack credibility since a secular Shia country is very unlikely to back a fundamentalist SUnni insurgency. Russia could create facts on the ground. There is a Lezghian ethnic minority in Azerbaijan close to the Russian border. The Lezghians are SUnni Muslims and have their own language. There was some separatist Lezghian violence in the mid 90s. Russia could assist a revolt and then send in its troops to occupy the Lezghian homeland and call these troops peacekeepers. This stratagem has been employed with regard to Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdnistria. A bomb exploded on the Baku Metro in the early 1990s and was attributed to Lezghian separatists. Some claim that there was no bomb and it was a fire. The government pointed the finger at Lezghian separatists in a bid to discredit them and to hide the fact that safety on the metro was atrocious.

Western leaders woo Azerbaijan for her oil, her strategic position and her example of a secular Muslim country. There are plenty of Western business executives in the country – mostly British.


Azerbaijan stresses her affinity for Turkey. Moscow was once the centre of the world for Azerbaijan now it is Istanbul for culture and business and Ankara for politics. The Turkish flag is seen almost as much as the Azerbaijani Flag. A poster showing Ataturk and Heydar Aliyev bears the legend ”two states – one nation.” There many streets named in honour of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Azerbaijan. There is no thought of amalgamating the countries but they have a very fraternal and co operative relationship. There are plenty of Turkish schools and businesses in Azerbaijan. Many people work in Turkey. There is visa free travel for citizens of the two lands. Azerbaijan uses the Turkish form of the Latin alphabet. She has also revived the Flag of 1918. The tricolour is blue, red and green from top to bottom. Ancient Turkic peoples had cerulean as a colour which represented god as it was the colour of the summer sky. Many hold it to be meaningful that green – the colour of Islam – is lowest on the flag. The flag features a mutli pronged star and moon symbol. The star is not the Islamic star. The President ceremonially kisses the flag in emulation of the Turkish Flag ritual.

There was an attempt to bury the hatchet once and for all between the two countries. The Armenian Prime Minister was Sargasyan who was unchauvinistic despite making his name as a commander in the war. Sargasyan was PM for only a few months before he made an audacious  peace initiative. That was in 1999 Then gunmen burst into the Armenian Parliament and shot dead the Prime Minister  Vazgen Sargasyan and several deputies. Five Armenian extreme nationalists killed Sargasyan because he was contemplating ceding some of the conquered territory to Azerbaijan in return for long term peace. These fanatics said that to relinquish an inch of territory was treason.  Aleksandr Litvinenko said this was the FSB’s doing. Armenian genuinely seeking peace with Azerbaijan was also a dangerous expression of independence on the part of Armenia. Litvinenko’s claim has been supported by a prominent Armenian priest but it is not necessarily true. Some obdurate nationalists needed little encouragement to do this. It would not have been easy for give men to smuggle firearms into the Parliament building especially considering one of these weapons was a Khalashnikov. Armenia is a Russian satrapy despite having a tiny ethnically Russian population. Serzh Sargasyan is Armenia’s president and a reliable yes man for Moscow. Armenia is small and poverty stricken. Per force she much rely on Russia’s largesse. Moscow wanted to scupper a permanent solution since that would redound to Russia’s disadvantage. Whilst Russia remains a regional superpower this conflict is intractable. Russia pretends to act the honest broker and talk peace. She summons the presidents of the warring counties to Moscow. Vapid gestures of goodwill are exchange and zero progress is made. If Russia wanted to tip the balance one way or other she could cut off arms sales to one side or other. Azerbaijan could easily source them from elsewhere but Armenia would find this trickier and costlier. Other countries would be reluctant to risk Azerbaijani ire.

One of the possible solutions is for Armenia to trade some of the unambigiously occupied Azerbaijani land (not Nagorno Karabakh) for an equal amount of their own territory. Azerbaijan would be compensated with land adjacent to Iran so Azerbaijan could connect its Nakhchivan to the major part of Azerbaijan. However, this would enfeeble Armenia. Armenia only has four neighbours – Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia. Armenia will probably never have friendly relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Georgia is too easily Russian dominated. Iran is a vital neutral corridor for Armenia. If Armenia has one neighbour fewer than her options narrow considerably.

Armenia remains underdeveloped. It relies on remittances from its wealthy diaspora. There are twice as many Armenians abroad as in the country. Armenia works in concert with Russia. A poll showed over 90% of Armenians consider learning Russian to be important.  Armenia is a zealous member of the Commonwealth of Independent States. What keeps Armenia up at night is the possibility that she might get dumped by Russia as not worth supporting. Armenia would be wise to curry favour with Christian fundamentalists in the United States. They could present this as a Christian v Muslim conflict. The religious right in the United States would likely fall for this narrative. This would ensure more support for the country. Armenia needs to prepare for the possibility that Russia might suddenly cut off assistance. Armenia has a defence pact with Russia. Russia can avoid formally coming to the aid of Armenia since Nagorno Karabakh is not lawfully part of Armenia. This also means that Azerbaijan will not attack Armenia proper since this would give Russia causus belli.

The only way make Moscow seek a long term solution is to have an Azerbaijani president who will take orders from Moscow as was the case prior to 1991. Azerbaijan could become something like Belarus and invite Russian troops in to be permanently stationed on their territory. Azerbaijani is too foreign to Russia, too proud and too large to do that. With oil prices very long and looking to stay that way Azerbaijan is no longer as rich as she was. 90% of her exports are from oil and gas. She is even more exposed to the cheap oil downturn than Russia was. Therefore she has less leverage with the West and less money to spend on arms. She is feebler viz Russia than before. The low oil prices in fact make like easier for Armenia. Relations between Armenia and Turkey have improved remarkably some Armenians now work in Turkey.

The bad blood between Armenia and Azerbaijan is severe. They have not had diplomatic relations since the early 1990s. The Armenian Flag is never seen in Azerbaijan. To display it would be to invite murder. Azerbaijan refuses to play sport against the other country even at school level. Azerbaijan will not let people see Armenian performing in the Eurovision song contest. Those who voted for Armenia were taken to a police station for questioning. The author once mentioned to a well educated Azerbaijani that he had spent time in Romania. The woman misheard this as ”Armenia”. She scowled and asked acrimoniously, ”why did you go there?” It is not advisable even to say the word ”Armenia” in public in Azerbaijan.

In 2004 an Azerbaijani Army officer Ramil Safarov was on a course in Hungary. He found out his classmate was an Armenian Army officer. Safarov assured that Armenian that they were in a neutral country and off duty so there need be no ill feeling. The Armenian accepted these blandishments. The Armenian officer accepted an offer to visit his classmate’s flat in Budapest. There he was murdered by the Azerbaijani. The killer was convicted in a Hungarian court and sentenced to life. In 2012 after diplomatic representations the Azerbaijani was sent home to serve the rest of his sentence in prison. Instead all the public promises were reneged on. The man was set free to a hero’s welcome. Safarov has been promoted to major and given a free house..

Armenia has some sympathy in France and the USA where there are affluent and politically influential Armenian communities. France recognised the Armenian Genocide in 2011. This was hailed by Armenia. France was execrated by Turkey for this and by Azerbaijan. Turkey retaliated by cancelling contracts with French companies. Turkey has formally accused France of genocide in Algeria in the 1950s. The Turks and Azerbaijanis are very aware that they are cousins. Azerbaijan still strives to remain on good terms with Western countries but she cannot lean too far in that direction for fear of alienating Russia and Iran.

There are over 1 000 000 Armenian citizens living in Russia. There are estimated to be about 1 000 000 Russian citizens of Armenian descent. This makes for strong familial bonds between the two countries. Armenia is very reliant on remittances from its workers in Russia. The equivalent figures for Azerbaijanis living in Russia whether Russian citizens are not is considerably lower. There is some prejudice towards people from the Caucasus in Russia particularly if those Caucasians are Muslim. In 2013 there was a murder in Moscow which Russian state media immediately decided was committed by an Azerbaijani. The suspect was arrested in a park live on national television. How did the police and television crew know where the man was? It is unusual to have a television crew accompany on an arrest. The prime suspect was handcuffed to an enormous police officer and flown by helicopter to the Minister of Justice’s house where the minister glowered at the suspect without a word. It was a zany piece of police theatre intended to turn up the heat on Azerbaijanis. Hundreds of Azerbaijanis across Moscow were arrested.

Russian nationalists and communists like to say the Nagorno Karabakh conflict is one of the baleful consequences of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This overlooks the fact that the Kremlin deliberately created this situation in the 1920s. Communists connived at anti Azerbaijani pogroms in 1918. Moreover, the Russia Government has actively fomented the conflict since.

Armenia can probably not afford the arms she buys from Russia. She is receiving them for a discount or on credit. Why does Azerbaijan purchase weapons from Russia when she could source them elsewhere more cheaply or even better quality weapons? She is effectively subsidising her deadly enemy? This is because she is trying to keep Russia on side by procuring arms from her.

Pan-Turanist oratory emanates from Ankara and Baku. Pan Turanism is the notion that all Turkic peoples should work in concert. The Turkic nations have similar languages. The Turkic nations are Turkey, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. There are Turcoman minorities in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Moldova and Russia. (Turan means ”Turkish man” in old Turkish). Despite this the other Turkic nations such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan show little sign of backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia. One Kazakh resigned from his country’s diplomatic service. He told the author, ”I do not agree with our policy of supporting Russia and therefore Armenia. I do not want to fight against Azerbaijan. They are Turks and I am a Turk.” Turkey invests heavily in Central Asian countries and there are Turkish schools in these countries. Central Asian countries mostly have defence pacts with Russia. Therefore talk of Pan-Turanism is largely hot air. It is a self aggrandising fantasy on the part of certain Turks.

The regime was very jumpy about the Arab Spring. A British teacher was deported for having worked in Qatar. Another one was sent out for having lived in Libya before the revolution.



The non Azerbaijani people have mostly left Azerbaijan. Only about 10% of the population is not of the Azerbaijani ethnicity. The ethnic minorities mostly live in Baku.  Some Azerbaijani land was given to Georgia by Stalin. There are some Georgian citizens who speak Azerbaijani but not Georgian. IF THEY move to Azerbaijan they do not get citizenship  bizarrely. An Azerbaijani Government map shows Armenia and Georgia and claims some of their land and labels much of it disputable almost all the way to Yerevan and Tblisi respectively. Azerbaijan is not very cosy with Russia. Russian Victory Day is a public holiday but there is no parade. Azerbaijan celebrates its own Army Day at the end of June.

Very few schools teach through Russian. Those who speak Russian are those of ethnic minority groups and the Baku elite. The Baku elite are the progeny of erstwhile communists. Among the upper crust many people are of mixed ancestry. Many young adults cannot speak Russian. English is the language the government uses if it uses a second language at all. There is talk of phasing out Russian as a principal language of instruction. Outside Baku very few schools use Russian as their main language.

The Nagorno Karakbakh is a useful drum to bang to divert people from their real worries. At least 7% of the population are refugees from the occupied territories. The figure is higher than 7% if you include children born to refugee parents. The final proof that the government does not care about Nagorno Karabakh is the way it treats the refugees. After over 25 years many of them are still living in shanty towns. The government would rather splurge on ostentation than provide for the war refugees.  The disadvantaged in general live in unimaginable privation. Conditions in orphanages would disgrace the poorest country. Foreign volunteers are usually not allowed to see disabled orphans because their treatment is so scandalous.

Aliyev has been provocative enough to claim that even Yerevan belongs to Azerbaijan since it was once an Azerbaijani khanate. As it is true that Yerevan once was ruled by an Azerbaijani the people of that city were always mostly Armenian. The claim that most of Armenia belongs to Azerbaijan is as logical as claiming that America still rightfully belongs to the British. Armenia in the 1st century AD ruled most of what we now call Azerbaijan. At that time many of the ancestors of the Azerbaijanis lived in Central Asia. Aliyev’s expansionist rhetoric indicates he is anything but conciliatory. Despite his irredentist and bellicose rhetoric there does not seem to be any move to wrest Nagorno Karabakh back by force.

Nepotism and corruption are rife. Foreign business executives who move to Baku are likely to be approached by senior police officers and high ranking bureaucrats after a few months. They will be informally told that a host of regulatory infractions have been found and criminal charges are being prepared. All these problems can be made to disappear for regular monthly payments. Those who refuse this shakedown will be harassed by the police and pursued through the courts. Foreign business executives are not sent to prison on trumped up charges but their permits may be revoked. At a street level there is no such problem. Foreigners are not extorted by low level police.

Ordinary Azerbaijanis find public officials demanding douceurs all the time. For instance, a bardmaid told the author that to register her children for a government school she was expected to pay a bribe. This was despite her children having the legal right to attend the school free of charge. There are of course many intelligent and industrious Azerbaijanis. Plenty of them earn their qualifications but it is very hard for them to do so without paying extra. A man known to the author passed the bar exams was not admitted to the bar because he could not pay the huge bribe demanded by the bar association.

An Iranian entrepeneur known to the author paid the police chief backhanders. In return this gentleman was allowed to break the speed limit on the road and park illegally.

Almost all the wealth is concentrated in the capital. Outside Baku living standards have barely improved since the 1980s. The Peace Corps is active and is very much needed in the countryside. Privation is widespread. By contrast the fortunes of the tiny elite are staggering. There has long been capital flight but in the last few years it has accelerated. Because the super rich have got their money out of the country very little of their lucre percolates down to the working class.

High ranking people often get their jobs as a favour and can keep their position even if grossly incompetent. The country operates on the Russian ”blat” system – exchange of favours. Your aunt gave my brother  a job so my cousin will give your niece a job. There is an extremely strong sense of family honour. People know who their second and third cousins are. People often employ distant relatives. There is no notion of right and wrong – only of family. What a member of my family did is always right. What a member of an enemy family did is always wrong.

A system of unofficial monopolies is operated. Whoever pays the government most will have that monopoly. Goods imported by a rival will be held at the border for customs inspections. These goods can be kept their for weeks or even months. This is particularly effectual with perishable commodities. This can be put down to the lassitude or inefficiency of the bureaucracy or the security services. Though official torpor is a problem in this care it is purposive. As most suppliers cannot guarantee delivery of goods on time there will be in effect only one provider of a certain product. This means that consumers end up paying over the odds even for inferior products. This is a racket for the president’s inner circle and those businesspeople who are willing to stump up the biggest bribes.

The courts are pliant. Educational qualifications are highly suspect. The country is an anti meritocracy. There are highly intelligent Azerbaijanis who study for their qualifications and earn them honestly. Their hard work is made a mockery of by those who buy their qualifications. Odlar Yurdu University was notorious for simply selling degrees. Worryingly, these included medical degrees. There is compulsory military service for 18 years. It can be delayed by attending university. The rich avoid it by bribing a doctor to rule them permanently medically unfit for the army or they get a sinecure in the civil service making them exempt from army service.

The state is sclerotic and the provision of basic services is unreliable. This is an oil rich country that regularly suffers power cuts. There are many talented people who have a terrific work ethic. However, there are also some indolent people who are grossly incompetent and they cannot be removed because they are related to the right people.

The media never criticises Aliyev of the NAP. The one English language magazine in the country is entitled  AZ which focuses on expatriate lifestyle. The secret police told the editor that they read the publication and it would be very foolish to publish anything disobliging towards the government.

The Aliyev Foundation is a charity run by Mehriban Aliyeva. This allows the ruling family to give back to the people a tiny fraction of what has been plundered. It provides good photo opportunities for the dynasts.

There is a significant expatriate community of Westerners in Baku. Many are business executives are oil workers. Quite a few are married to Azerbaijanis. It says much about Azerbaijani education that 160 after oil was first pumped the country still cannot provide enough technicians to run its oil production. Foreigner oil workers often complain about over manning. They government requires them to employ more people than they need. Most of these people stand around doing little. The workers are also unsackable. But everyone’s cousin has to be given a job. Well remunerated foreign oil workers send their salaries out of the country. These oil workers are mainly British. The fact that these Westerners have links to Azerbaijan gives the country more diplomatic clout.

There is also a notable Iranian expatriate community in the country. These Iranians are often of the Azerbaijani ethnicity. They usually appreciate the secular character of the state.

Azerbaijan faces long term decline. The economy has not been diversified at all. Much money has been squandered on the Girls’ Under 17 World Cup, the Eurovision Song Contest, the European Games, advertising for tourism and various art shows. Conde Nast has featured Baku. The average salary is about $300 a month which goes further than you might think but property is not cheap. People live with their parents until marriage. Marriage is seen as a must and having children too. Having two children is ample but a couple without a child are pitied. The government has not provided enough jobs even in times of plenty. Many people have sought work in Turkey or Russia.  Because the economies of these countries have stagnated it will be harder for Azerbaijanis to find work in these countries. Therefore unemployment will rise just as the government is less able to provide jobs for people. With the population growing fairly rapidly the prospects are worrying.

The elite have long since got their lucre out of the country. Those in the know do not trust their country’s institutions financial or otherwise. The rule of law does not exist. The courts always return a verdict that is pleasing to the plutocracy. Corruption is rampant. Anyone who can afford an education abroad gets one. The President’s son bought a house on Palm Jumeirah at the age of 10. As oil and gas prices look to stay very modest for the medium term the economic outlook is grim. The government will have to rule by more stick than carrot since it can no longer afford much carrot.

Society is fairly traditional especially outside Baku. Women rarely drink. For a woman to smoke is seen as scandalous.In Baku women often wear clothes that would be regarded as daring even by Western standards. Marriages are semi arranged. Couples often date for a few months before marriage but cohabitation is a taboo. There is a very strong societal expectation that women must marry as virgins. Among the more liberal elements and those of Russian descent these standards do not apply. Children being born out of wedlock is unheard of. Most people marry by the age of 25. Homosexuality is legal but very much frowned upon. Much of this is not down to religion. Headscarves are a rarity and veils are unknown. Very few men grow beards. Even those who call themselves Muslims often eat pork. The saying goes that an Azerbaijani Muslim prays five times a year. Prostitution is illegal but ladies of the night openly solicit in the bars of down town Baku.

The President Ilham Aliyev is son of the former president. Aliyev was born in 1961 and spent almost all his life in Moscow until 1990. This was because his father was in the Politburo. Aliyev attended Moscow University of International Relations. This was one of the most illustrious universities in the USSR. It was for brilliant minds and the well connected apparatchiki. Aliyev speaks flawless English but when he became President of Azerbaijan his Azerbaijani was not fluent. It now is. Aliyev is sincere enough not to make any pretence of religiosity. His lack of religious fundamentalism is one of his major redeeming features.

There is complete gender equality before law. In practise women almost never get to be the boss.

The New Azerbaijan Party (Yeni Azerbeycan Partiyasi) rules the country. Azerbaijan has a dominant state party system. Its ideology consists of nationalism and secularism. Apart from that it is merely a vehicle for Aliyev. It speaks of socialism but delivers extreme capitalism. It is on the model of United Russia.

There is notable opposition to the rule of the New Azerbaijan Party which is led by President Aliyev. There is a childish cult of the personality surrounding the president and his late father Heydar. Many things are named in honour of Heydar Aliyev. The personality cult reached risible levels after the start of the Syrian Civil War. The media is strictly censored even when it publishes in English. Elections are widely boycotted and seen as a charade. The New Azerbaijan Party and the Electoral Commission share a building. The opposition parties in the Majilis are dummy opposition parties on the Russian model. In presidential elections the Aliyev family has always polled over 70%. In the 2013 election the result was announced by accident one day before polling began. 72% for Aliyev. The same result was then announced after polling closed. The government explained the result being announced a day before polling commenced was a mistaken reannouncement of the previous election result. This is not true since this mistaken announcement had the names of the 2013 candidates and not the 2008 candidates. The government was at least cunning enough not to award the president an absurdly high %. The election was farcical and treated with widespread apathy. Opposition candidate posters were conspicuous by their absence. This 72% is down from 87% the time before – so perhaps even Aliyev has to admit he is less popular than before. It would be fair to say that the rule of law is unknown in this country.

In private many Azerbaijanis grudgingly accept the situation. Heydar Aliyev is appreciated for what he has not done. He has not imposed sharia law. He has kept the country safe from chaos and economic meltdown that the country experienced in the 1990s. He has avoided a full scale confrontation with Armenia. People remember the anarchy and hardship of the first years of independence.  Aliyev is not that brutal. His opponents are spied on, harassed, beaten and sometimes imprisoned. They are very rarely killed. State media has been eager to emphasise the woes that have befallen nearby countries when people have attempted to overthrow dictators.

Musavat (”Equality”) is the only party that is tolerated and is anything close to being a real opposition party. This is because Musavat was the party which founded the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918. It remained in exile in Turkey in the Soviet period. Musavat scores about 4% of the vote and has no representation in Parliament. If office were ever too change hands Musavat would be the obvious group to lead. There are dozens of independent deputies in the lower house of Parliament  – the Majilis. They are thought to be mostly worthies who are there because they are supporters of the Aliyev clan despite not being formally designated members of the NAP.

The Popular Front which won independence for the country is barely tolerated. Its leader Ali Karmanli is constantly followed and harassed. His passport has long since been confiscated.Karmanli has over 200 000 likes on facebook which is a sign of growing discontent. Anyone who has liked him on FB is unlikely to get a job in the state sector.

President Aliyev is chairman of the New Azerbaijan Party despite this being against the law. The President is required to be neutral. Some speculate that the First Lady Mehriban will serve a term as president. The President’s son Ilham is 18 and both his daughters are in their late 20s. The young Ilham is named after his grandfather the late president. It is unclear if any of them is groomed for succession. His daughters both speak fluent English. One of them was married and is now divorced. She has three children. The daughters own an array of companies and are prominently reported in local media. Ilham Aliyev the Younger as yet has no media profile. It is not known which school he attended. There are only five English speaking schools in Baku.

There is little crime in Azerbaijan but there are many police officers – almost all of them male. This is partly job creation. The police force functions as a weapon in the hands of the NAP.

Because of rock bottom oil prices the government has had to make severe cutbacks. The government will no longer be able to guarantee cheap public transport, bread, cigarettes and vodka as it does now. No more panem et circenses. This will lead to wider discontent. However, it would be very premature to forecast the downfall of the Aliyev dynasty.  The genuine opposition groups are thoroughly penetrated with informers. Demonstrators are arrested and face weeks or even months in prison. Protestors are punished informally by being sacked from their jobs or expelled from their places of education on the orders of the secret police. Their bank accounts will be emptied and the bank will tell them they only ever had a tiny deposit. Their qualifications can be found to be fraudulent and their passports will be cancelled. This is why the protestors can never mount a grave threat to the regime. There difficulties that the government faces but they can be contained.  Political Islam is not a force in Azerbaijan. Religious based parties are not permitted. There are not many mosques and these are sparsely attended. Azerbaijanis do not want to go the way of Syria with a religiously inspired uprising or become a Shariat state like Iran.

The Aliyev family is immovable.The dynasty is likely to remain in situ for decades. The real opposition is angry but impotent. Most people recognise that resistance is futile.

There is occasional shelling across the frontier. A dozen or soldiers are killed each year. Foreigners are not allowed anywhere near the ceasefire line. Foreigners are allowed to Nakhchivan but rarely go. They are treated with suspicion there and often asked if they are Armenian.



Lately there has been an upsurge in violence. This could be to pressurise Russia. Perhaps Turkey is encouraging Azerbaijan to up the ante. On the other hand is it Russia urging Armenia to raise tensions as a means of turning up the heat on Turkey?

Does the West have a dog in this fight? Not really. Azerbaijan has something to offer Western countries but Armenia has very little. Azerbaijan could be a means of opening a front on Russia or Iran. The Kremlin says that the conflict is a result of the machinations of the CIA.

Bankrolling Ukrainian rebels and the Syrian Government has blown a hole in Russia’s budget. Russia cannot afford the massive military spending increase she has made. Though oil prices have picked up a little lately there is no sign that they will go anywhere the $100 a a barrel of a few years ago. Russia can afford to be less generous to Armenia. She may be less inclined to throw her weight around. Moreover, she is facing a demographic timebomb. Those in the know in Russia say her situation is bleak.

Turkey’s economy has slowed. She seems to have failed in Syria. She faces a twin threat from Kurdish separatists and ISIS. Her neo Ottoman dreams have come to nothing.

As sanctions have been lifted on Iran her economy will pick up despite sluggish oil prices. She will be buoyed up by her success in Syria. Iran’s influence is likely to increase.

Azerbaijan has diplomatic relations with Israel. This is probably the only Muslim country where Jewish people walk around wearing the Star of David without fear. The Jewish School is protected by police as is the Baku synagogue. Azerbaijan is thought to be the site of a proxy war between Iranian and Israeli agents.

Strangely, Baku and Ankara are at odds over something. The Turkish Government detests the Ba’ath regime in Syria partly for its countless broken promises of genuine reform but also for its attacks on Turcoman militias. Baku on the other hand wants Al Assad to retain power. If the Ba’athists are overthrown in Syria this will make the Syrian Kurds virtually independent like the Iraqi Kurds. A stronger Kurdistan means a weaker Turkey. A weaker Turkey is a weaker Azerbaijan. If Assad were forced from office it would set a dangerous precedent for another  secular Shia president who inherited office from his father…. Parallels with Syria should not be over emphasised. Syria is a Sunni majority country whereas Azerbaijan is a Shia majority country. In Azerbaijan the elite is overwhelmingly drawn from the majority ethno-religious group whereas this is not the case in Syria. In Azerbaijan around 90% speak Azerbaijani as their native language whereas this is not the case with Arabic in Syria. Azerbaijan is oil rich and Syria is not. The Syrian Government has the unconditional support of several countries including neighbours. Azerbaijan does not have this situation.  Azerbaijan was until recently part of a much large country – the USSR – whereas Syria was not.

The Armenians also fully support Assad. This is partly because Russia does. Moreover, there is an Armenian community in Syria which is staunchly pro Assad.

Nagorno Karabakh matters more to Armenia than it does to Azerbaijan. Armenia has so little land to begin with. It has no room for manoeuvre if it were to cede the land and then be invaded by Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has made Armenia less amenable to concessions by making absurd claims to almost the whole sovereign territory of Armenia. There are virtually no Azerbaijanis in Nagorno Karabakh now. The Armenians there would not be safe there if the land were returned to their avowed enemy. These Armenians do not want to lose their homes. If either sides grows weary of the conflict it will be Azerbaijan.

Do not expect any dramatic developments regarding Nagorno Karabakh soon. In spite of irredentist and pugnacious rhetoric it is quixotic to imagine that Azerbaijan can resolve the situation militarily. This border conflict could well bubble on for a century. It is likely to become a long term dispute like Jammu and Kashmir.


About Calers

Born Belfast 1971. I read history at Edinburgh. I did a Master's at UCL. I have semi-libertarian right wing opinions. I am married with a daughter and a son. I am allergic to cats. I am the falling hope of the not so stern and somewhat bending Tories. I am a legal beagle rather than and eagle. Big up the Commonwealth of Nations.

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