Tsar Nicolas Abdication and Russian Revolution

Tsar Nicholas Romanov was in control of the region of modern day Azerbaijan until the Russian revolution. As head of state, Nicholas had approved Russian mobilisation in late July 1914. The severe losses and the incompetent management of the war efforts, along with the lack of food and other supplies on the Home Front, were eventually the leading causes of the fall of the Romanov dynasty. The Russian Revolution followed the growth of Lenin’s power and the peoples investment into Communism.

Following the February Revolution of 1917 Nicholas abdicated on behalf of himself and his son. He and his family were imprisoned. However, in the spring of 1918, Nicholas was handed over to the local Soviets. He and his family were eventually executed by the Bolsheviks on the night of 16/17 July 1918. Their remains were buried in 1998.

Changes in Azerbaijan

The turn of the century was a period of significant change in the destiny of Azerbaijan. You can read more about the changes in territories in the Caucus region here.

With the welcoming of the 20th Century a new and vital factor shaped the destiny of Baku. Its oil became the subject of international conflicts.

Almost immediately after Ottoman Turkey joined World War 1. In late 1914 it launched a disastrous military offensive aimed at the Caspian coast. Baku had recently attempted to declare its independence and had moved its capital to Ganja. The Ottomans assisted in the countries liberation through military occupation for a number of weeks. The capital was later recovered back to Baku. British forces assisted in the transition late in 1918.

1918 – 1920 – Azerbaijani Democratic Republic

After the collapse of the Russian Empire, Azerbaijan, together with Armenia and Georgia became part of the short-lived Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. It was shortly followed by the March Day massacres of Azerbaijanis that took place between 30 March and 2 April 1918 in the city of Baku and adjacent areas of Baku.

When the Republic dissolved in May 1918, Azerbaijan declared independence as the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR). The ADR was the first modern parliamentary republic in the Muslim world. Among the important accomplishments of the Parliament was the extension of suffrage to women. This made Azerbaijan the first Muslim nation to grant women equal political rights with men. Another important accomplishment of ADR was the establishment of Baku State University; the first modern-type university founded in Muslim East.

Despite existing for only two years, the multi-party Azerbaijani Parliamentary Republic and the coalition governments managed to achieve a number of measures. These included: national and state building; education; creation of an army; independent financial and economic systems; international recognition of the ADR as a de facto state pending recognition; official recognitions and diplomatic relations with a number of states; preparing of a Constitution; equal rights for all; etc. additionally, this laid an important foundation for the re-establishment of independence in 1991.

The ADR government remained neutral on the issue of the Russian Civil War. It never sided with the Red or White Army. Throughout its existence from 1918 to 1920, the Republic of Azerbaijan had diplomatic relations with a number of states. Among the representation of the ADR abroad were the Azerbaijani Peace Delegation in Paris. Agreements on the principles of mutual relations were signed with some of them; sixteen states established their missions in Baku.

1921 – 1993 – Early Soviet Rule

On April 28th 1920 Lenin ordered that Baku be taken possession of, leaving only the oil fields intact. To avoid bloodshed, the deputies complied with the demand. The ADR officially ceased to exist on April 28, 1920. It gave way to the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (Azerbaijan SSR) as its successor state.

The Red Army, which entered Baku by April 30, 1920, met some resistance in Baku. As many as 20,000 died resisting what was effectively a Russian re-conquest. However, it was noticed that the installation of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic was made easier by support for Bolshevik ideology in Azerbaijan. In particular, this came from the industrial workers in Baku.

After the peaceful surrender of the national government to Bolshevik forces, Azerbaijan was proclaimed a Soviet Socialist Republic on April 28, 1920. Shortly after, the ‘Congress of the Peoples of the East’ was held in September 1920 in Baku. A Soviet government was formed under Nariman Narimanov. In addition, Russia ordered that there be a unified language – the Azerbaijani language – and a push for industrialisation.

The people of Azerbaijan were not keen on becoming part of Russia. However due to the similar ideology of the workers and those of the Bolshevik movement many welcomed this new government.

1991 – 1994 – The fall of the Soviet Union & the new Azerbaijan

During 1990–1991 Azerbaijan struggled for independence from the USSR.  During the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there was a state of emergency declared and a violent crackdown in Baku occurred. Black January was a particularly violent crackdown in Baku on January 19–20, 1990. It also known as Black Saturday or the January Massacre.

General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev and Defence Minister Dmitry Yazov asserted that military law was necessary to thwart efforts by the Azerbaijani independence movement to overthrow the Soviet Azerbaijani government.

According to official estimates between 133 and 137 Azerbaijani civilians died, 800 people were injured and 5 persons went missing. However unofficial sources put the number of victims at 300 dead.

In December 1990 Ayaz Mutalibov declared the independence of Azerbaijan from the USSR and by September 8, 1991, Azerbaijan became part of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

On October 18, 1991, the Azerbaijan parliament restored the country’s independence.

Legacy of Black January

On February 14, 1992, the Azerbaijani General Prosecutor’s Office instituted a lawsuit targeted at the individuals involved in the massacre. Gorbachev later apologised to Azerbaijan in 1995 by stating: “The declaration of a state emergency in Baku was the biggest mistake of my political career”. In 1994, the National Assembly of Azerbaijan adopted a full political and legal evaluation of the Black January events.

By decree of the President of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev from December 16, 1999, victims of the crackdown were awarded an honorary title of the “Martyr of January 20”. (Please see ‘In History’ for more information about Black January). In March 2003, a lawsuit was targeted at the ex-Soviet president Gorbachev for violating of the Soviet Constitution and the Constitution of the Azerbaijani SSR.


On 7 June 1992 Abulfaz Elchibey, the leader of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan (PFA) and former dissident and political prisoner was elected the President of Azerbaijan. He had gained 54% of votes and became Azerbaijan’s first democratically-elected, non-communist president. During the summer of 1992, Elchibey secured the full withdrawal of the Soviet army from Azerbaijan. This made Azerbaijan the first and only former Soviet republic (after the Baltic States) free of Soviet military presence.

President Elchibey came to face the same situation that had led to the downfall of Mutalibov. In June 1992, the Azerbaijani army started a counter-offensive in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, as the Azerbaijani offensive pushed further into Karabakh, it became further bogged down in controversy, mismanagement and corruption. This led to unexpectedly heavy Azerbaijani casualties, loss of heavy military equipment, and the campaign ending in failure. This ultimately hastened the replacement of Elchibey.

Heydar Aliyev and the rise of economic power

In a presidential election on 3 October 1993, Heydar Aliyev, the once, most powerful Azerbaijani in the USSR’s Moscow office, won an overwhelming per percentage vote to lead Azerbaijan. Effectively, this was a vote to bring Azerbaijan out of an economic stagnation. Read more about the process Aliyev returning from retirement to run for presidency here. By the end of 1996, the position of Heydar Aliyev as a strong leader in Azerbaijan was unquestionable.

Oil ‘Contract of the Century’

During President Hedar Aliyev’s first term, his first objective was to create an oil strategy. One of the major parts of this strategy is now coined as the ‘Contract of The Century’. In September 20th 1994 it united 11 different international oil companies in production sharing. This eventually rose to the involvement of 41 oil companies from 19 different countries.

As a result of reforms and the signing of the “Contract of The Century” in October 1994 (over the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli giant oil field) there were increased oil exports to western markets and the economy began improving.

In October 1998, Aliyev was re-elected for a second term. Likewise, his second term in office was characterised by reforms, increased oil production and the dominance of British Petroleum as a main foreign oil company in Azerbaijan.

In early 1999, the giant Shah Deniz gas field was discovered making Azerbaijan a new major gas exporter. Importantly, a gas export agreement was signed with Turkey in 2003. Work on a long awaited Baku to Tbilisi to Ceyhan oil pipeline and Baku to Tbilisi to Erzurum gas pipeline started in 2003.

The oil pipeline was completed in 2005 and the gas pipeline in 2006. Azerbaijan is also part of the proposed Nabucco pipeline.

Heydar Aliyev unfortunately fell ill during his second term and, in April 2003, collapsed on stage. As a result, he could not return to public life. By summer 2003 he was placed into intensive care in the United States. Whilst there, he was pronounced dead on December 12, 2003. Naturally, the people of Azerbaijan mourned the loss of their leader, who was perceived by many to be the saviour of the new Azerbaijan.


Azerbaijan is a secular, meaning that the Country does not have a ‘singular’ religion whose laws subject its population to. However, the majority of the country worships freely as Muslim. Typically, Shi’a Islam is practiced widely in villages around larger cities of Azerbaijan and a minority Sunni Islam worship alongside in the northern regions.

An article of Azerbaijan’s constitution: Article 48 was established to ensure the liberty of worship of its citizens and the right to choose not to worship at all.

However, while under the secular ideology of Soviet rule many religious monuments or places of worship were demolished. At this time, despite most Azerbaijanis identifying as Muslim, this was suppressed as was its cultural and ethnic affiliations.

Freedom of Faith

The law of the Republic of Azerbaijan (1992) on “freedom of faith” gives the Azerbaijani citizens the right to determine, express and execute their view on religion. Within Azerbaijan there are a number of different faiths including, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, Judaism, Protestant and Catholicism. Mainstream education is secular and politics is not influenced by religious issues or by cultural agendas within the country.

Azerbaijan is proud of its accommodation of different faiths; however strongly insist that it is something that is practiced as a spiritual individuality. Tourists visiting Azerbaijan should be aware that it is against the law to preach any one type of religion in the country or try to recruit otherwise. This is on the principle that no religion is more equal than another.

International Relations

Azerbaijan has good trade links with Europe, Turkey and the majority of its direct neighbouring countries. It continues good relations with the west and with the USA.  Of course, it has  good investment relations, with the intention to diversify oil production internationally.

Azerbaijan is part of a number of International and European bodies and organisations. Importantly, these include both the UN and The Council of Europe. It is also a member of the OSCE and the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP). Its involvement in these organisations shows the dedication of Azerbaijan to sit as a respected member within the international community.

Furthermore, the Azerbaijani Ambassador of the UK, Tahir Taghizadeh states that:

“Today the people of Azerbaijan, comprising various ethnic and religious groups, are working towards developing a modern and democratic state with free market and solid social institutions. The country’s foreign policy focuses on restoration of our territorial integrity, promotion of trans-regional economic projects, integration into European and Euro-Atlantic structures and contribution to the strengthening of global security. Azerbaijan is a member of major international organisations, including non-permanent membership at the UN Security Council and is a strategic partner in the South Caucasus region.”

A recent sign of the times is that, shopping centres have begun import from retailers from Europe and the UK. Brand names such as ‘Marks and Spencer, ‘Boots’ and ‘Ted Baker’ are now common in large cities. This changes the direction of retail which used to be very much imported from Russia.

Oil & Gas

A large part of Modern Azerbaijan impacting globally is its natural resources namely oil and gas.

As a major supplier internationally, post ‘Contract Of The Century’, more recently, on June 28, 2013, the Shah Deniz consortium of energy firms in Azerbaijan formally announced that it had chosen the Trans Adriatic Pipeline to transport gas to Italy. The consortium stated that its decision was based on a number of criteria including commercial viability, funding availability, and public policy considerations. Moreover, observers have commended that TAP will assist Europe in diversifying its supply sources beyond reliance on Russia, will help Greece to strengthen its economy, and could encourage cooperation between historic rivals Greece and Turkey.

In a speech to the general assembly of the UN in 2014, the Azerbaijan foreign minister said: ‘Azerbaijan [has] established itself as a reliable supplier of energy in the global market. A ground-breaking ceremony had recently been held launching the Southern Gas Corridor. This corridor would allow Europe to receive gas from a completely new resource base in Azerbaijan.’

Armenien – Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is historically linked to the tension caused by land ownership between Armenia and Azerbaijan. At the end of the first world war the Karabakh region of today’s Azerbaijan became under legal control of the new democratic Azerbaijan. Despite cultural tensions arising with the 50% of Armenian’s living in this region at the time, in August 1919, the Karabakh region officially laid recognition of being under the authority of the Azerbaijani government.

During soviet rule, there was a huge rise of Armenians moving and living in Karabakh. This resulted in several attempts of Armenia trying to unite the regions of Karabakh with the Armenian state. However, these moves were not supported in Moscow at the time.

There were also numerous disputes between both Armenia and Azerbaijan on the welfare of the region. This led, among other actions, a deportation of Azerbaijani’s from Armenia. Also, to the Karabakh Armenian’s partitioning to a move of the region to Armenia.

In February 1988, separatists in Karabakh made a decision to step away from Azerbaijan. As the 1989 census showed, more than 60% of the region was Armenian. This led to the illegal annexing of Karabakh by Armenia. Post the annexing of the Karabakh region, Armenia started to establish structures and military formations in the Karabakh region, importing weapons and ammunition from Armenia into the area. A full scale war broke out in the winter of 1991.

Khojaly Genocide

In February I992, due to the conflict within Nagorno Karabakh, Khojaly, an Azerbaijani town in the region, was subject to a genocide. More than 800 residents, including women and children, were killed.

Human Rights Watch outlines the attack: “A large column of residents, accompanied by a few dozen retreating fighters, fled the city as it fell to Armenian forces. As they approached the border with Azerbaijan, they came across an Armenian military post and were cruelly fired upon. At least 161 civilians are known to have been murdered in this incident, although Azerbaijani officials estimate that about 800 perished.”

Between May 1992 and May 1994, seven districts of Azerbaijan outside the autonomous region of Karabakh were occupied (Lachin, Kalbajar, Agdam, Jabrayil, Fizuli, Gubadli and Zengilan). More than 17.000 km2 was occupied. Thus, the number of internally displaced persons from the occupied region and refugees from Armenia reached circa. 1 million people.

Nagorno-Karabakh – Ceasefire & Political Intervention

Negotiation parties:

International mediation on settlement of the conflict began in February 1992: Within the framework of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk process (The Minsk group was established to negotiate political settlement of the conflict

The cease-fire regime, negotiated on May 12, 1994, has been generally observed. However, in its resolutions, the United Nations Security Council demanded the immediate cessation of armed hostilities and hostile acts, and the immediate, full and unconditional withdrawal of all occupying forces from the occupied areas of Azerbaijan. Despite the demands of the Security Council, the Republic of Armenia still occupies the territory.

Framework to peace:

In accordance with decisions of the OSCE at the Budapest Summit of1994 a legal two-stage framework of the conflict settlement process was adopted:

  1. The elimination of consequences of the armed conflict by implementation of the agreement, i.e., full liberation of all occupied territories and ensuring return or IDP’s to their homes;
  2. Elaboration and adoption of a comprehensive peace settlement at the Minsk conference.

Strongly supported by 53 state partners of the OSCE, three main principles of the settlement of the conflict were later formulated in the Statement at the Lisbon Summit in 1996:

1) Territorial integrity of Armenia and Azerbaijan;

2) Legal status of Mountainous Karabakh defined in an agreement based on self-determination, which confers on Mountainous Karabakh the highest degree of self-rule within Azerbaijan;

3) Guaranteed security for Mountainous Karabakh and its whole population, including mutual obligations to ensure compliance by all the Parties with the provisions of the settlement.

In 1997 the further process of settlement was developed:

1) Liberation of 6 occupied districts, outside MKAR (except Lachin district) and return of civilians and restoration of communication links.

2) Reaching solution on Lachin and Shusha districts and adoption of the main principles of the status of the Mountainous Karabakh region.

Currently, the Co-Chairs are pursuing their objective to present a compromise settlement plan to the conflict based on the principles of international law.

Recent events in the Nagorno Karabakh region have shown a break of ceasefire and commenced open fire between Azerbaijan military and armed forces of Armenia, in occupation of the region. Azerbaijan has called for an end to the conflict as the break of the peace has been the worst example of clashes since the ceasefire began in 1994. Criticism has been made against the OSCE Minsk group for failing to resolve the tension sooner.

UK Relations

The history of Azerbaijani–British relations dates back to the British expedition, sent from Baghdad to Baku, to prevent Azerbaijan’s valuable oilfields falling under the control of Germany and the Ottoman Empire. Nicknamed the Dunsterforce, it was commanded by General Lionel Dunsterville. The Dunsterforce arrived in Baku in August 1918.

After the Battle of Baku, the Dunsterforce withdrew to Persia in September 1918. The Dunsterforce returned to Baku after the Armistice of Mudros ended the conflict with the Ottoman Empire in November of 1918. Though the force administered the territory under martial law until 1920, the Bolshevik advance made it impossible for them to stay.

In February 2016 British political consultations have been held in the UK to strengthen political ties.

Bilateral political relations

The basis of the current state of political relations between the two countries was laid during the visits of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev to the United Kingdom in 1994 and 1998. The official visits of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev to the United Kingdom in 2004, 2009 and 2012, helped strengthen high-level political dialogue and further development of bilateral relations. The two countries are interested in the advancement of political dialogue and cooperation between their executive and legislative institutions.

UK Involvement

The United Kingdom supports the peaceful and lasting resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the basis of universally accepted principles and norms of international law. Furthermore, the United Kingdom recognises the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan and expresses its support to the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group to assist in finding a lasting solution to the conflict.

UK representative minister, David Lidington has spoken about the strategic partnership between Azerbaijan and the United Kingdom. He has made it clear that the UK attaches great importance to cooperation with Azerbaijan. He also stressed the existence of wide potential in terms of further expansion of dynamically developing bilateral cooperation.

According to the Azerbaijani news centre AzerTag, Lidington said the United Kingdom would continue to strongly support the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and emphasised the absence of any contact with the self-proclaimed regime. The UK also applauded the contribution of Azerbaijan in fighting against international terrorism.

There are a number of UK organisations operating within Azerbaijan. These include The British Council and the Angelo-Azerbaijani Society who maintain non-governmental relations between the countries. Effectively, they provide opportunities, education and support for people of both countries.

The Angelo-Azerbaijani Society, for example is chaired by both a British politician, Lord German and the Azerbaijani Society’s well respected Professor Pashayeva. Originally set up, with BP as a founding sponsor to provide humanitarian aid, the society seeks to build links between the UK and Azerbaijan, and strengthen friendship between the peoples of the countries.  It works in three ways. Firstly, through cultural understanding. Secondly, through developing the skills and talents of people. Finally, through the building business relationships. It is one of many organisations in the UK building links culturally and economically between the two countries.