South of Russia, Azerbaijan is on the west coast of the Caspian Sea; the Caucasus Mountains define the northwestern border of this republic. South and west of Baku, the oil-rich capital, there are extensive lowlands, often below sea level. To the west, separated from the main part of the country by Armenia, is the autonoumous region of Naxçivan with about 300,000 people.

From the 10th to the 12th century, Turkic tribes migrated into the area. By the 1400s the Shiite sect of Islam linked the people more closely to Persians than to their Turkic kin. Russia dominated the region in the 19th century, which also saw the emergence of a national consciousness and the development of an oil industry. Azerbaijan briefly gained independence in 1918—terminated by the Red Army in 1920. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Azerbaijan was one of the first to declare independence; but independence escalated the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominately ethnic Armenian region within Azerbaijan. A cease-fire was reached in 1994 after some 30,000 deaths with at least 900,000 Azeris and 300,000 Armenians displaced by the conflict. Ten years later, Armenian forces still control Nagorno-Karabakh—and about 16 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory remains occupied.