Things have changed since Azerbaijan became independent in 1991, and the main reason is the treasure that lies hidden beneath the dusty street and under the dark waters of the Caspian Sea – known as ‘black gold’, oil has made a few people very, very rich and brought seeming prosperity to this small country.
About the same size as Wales and with its 8 million population just a little bigger than London’s, Azerbaijan’s ethnic origins and language go back as far as Ancient Persia and the invading Oguz from Mongolia, who eventually settled in what is now modern-day Turkey, making these neighbouring countries close relatives. Sitting on the edge of ‘Christian’ Europe and ‘Islamic’ Central Asia, Azerbaijan is a unique blend of Western globalisation and conservative Muslim tradition, with both visible and invisible traces of Soviet influence still lingering 20 years after its fall.
Under Tsarist Russian rule and then part of the Communist Soviet Union, since independence it has steadily grown in economic power after huge Western investment in its oil industry, sending oil to Europe via Georgia and Turkey. Its bright future is tarnished only by the ongoing conflict with neighbouring Armenia over the Nagorna-Karabagh region, where a quarter of its territory is occupied by Armenian forces, resulting in a million refugees and a fragile, on-going ceasefire.