844 days, 20,256 hours, 1,215,360 minutes, or 72,921,600 seconds. That is the approximate duration of my world tour. I never wanted it to end and now, in a manner of speaking, I suppose it never has to. If you wish to go by country do so by clicking on one above. They are numbered in the order I visited them, more or less. If you enjoy reading about it even a tenth as much as I enjoyed living it then you will not have wasted your time. Grab a refreshing beverage, settle in a comfortable chair, and make a journey across the world, experiencing it as I did. Then get off your ass and check it out for yourself. You're not getting any younger.

Azerbaijan Facts (U.S. Department of State)

Location: South Caucasus; bordered by Russia to the north, the Caspian Sea to the east, Iran to the south, and Georgia and Armenia to the west.
Area: 33,774 sq. mi. (includes Nakhchivan and Nagorno-Karabakh enclaves); slightly smaller than Maine.
Terrain: Caucasus Mountains to the north, lowland in the central area through which the Kura River flows.
Climate: Dry, subtropical with hot summers and mild winters; forests, meadows, and alpine tundra in the mountains.

Noun--Azerbaijani(s), Azeri. Adjective--Azerbaijani, Azeri.
Population (April 2010): 9.077 million. (State Statistical Committee of Azerbaijan (SSCA))
Population growth rate (2009): 1.1%. (SSCA)
Net migration rate (2009 est.): -1.4 migrants/1,000 population.
Ethnic groups (1999 census): Azeri 90.6%, Dagestani 2.2%, Russian 1.8%, Armenian 1.5%, other 3.9%. Note: the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region is populated almost entirely by ethnic Armenians.
Religion: Muslim 93.4% (majority Shi'a), Russian Orthodox 2.5%, Armenian Orthodox Church 2.3%, and other 1.8%.
Languages: Azeri 89%, Russian 3%, Armenian 2%, and other 6%. (Much of the population, particularly in Baku, is bilingual--Azeri and Russian.)
Literacy rate--99.5%. (2010 UN Human Development Report)
Infant mortality rate (2010)—52.84 1,000 live births. Life expectancy (2009 est.)—71.34/62.53 years (women/men).
Work force (April 2010): 4.333 million. 
Agriculture and forestry--38.3%; wholesale and retail trade; repair of motor vehicles, personal and 

household goods--16.1%; education--8.5%;public administration and defense, social security--6.8%.

Type: Republic.
Constitution: Approved in November 1995 referendum; amended August 2002 and March 2009.
Independence: August 30, 1991 (from Soviet Union).
Executive--president (chief of state), prime minister (head of government), Council of Ministers (cabinet). Legislative--unicameral National Assembly (parliament).Judicial--Supreme Court, Economic Court, Constitutional Court.
Administrative subdivisions: 66 rayons, 77 cities, and 1 autonomous republic.
Political parties: New Azerbaijan Party, National Revival Party, Azerbaijan Democratic Reforms Party, Civil Solidarity Party, Umid (Hope) Party, Justice Party, Ana Vatan (Motherland) Party, Azerbaijan Social Welfare Party, Citizens’ Union Party, Great Establishment Party, and United Azerbaijani Popular Front Party hold seats in Parliament. The Musavat Party, Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, Liberal Party, Democratic Party, Modern Musavat and others do not hold seats in Parliament. There are more than 40 registered political parties in Azerbaijan and many small, unregistered parties.
Suffrage: 18 years of age; universal.

GDP (2011 est.): $57.8 billion. (Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU))
GDP real growth rate: .1% (2011); 5% (2010); 9.3% (2009); 10.8% (2008) (EIU)
Per capita GDP (2011 est. PPP): $13,044 (EIU)
Inflation rate (2011): 8.1% (EIU)
Unemployment rate: 5.4% (2011)
Natural resources: Petroleum, natural gas, iron ore, nonferrous metals, aluminum.
Products--cotton, tobacco, grain, rice, grapes, fruit, vegetables, tea, cattle, sheep, goats.
Types--petroleum and natural gas, petroleum products, oilfield equipment, steel, iron ore, cement, chemicals, petrochemicals.
Exports—$26.57 billion (2011): crude oil, oil products, natural gas, ferrous metals, fruits and vegetables. Imports-- $9.76 billion (2011): vehicles, machinery and parts, consumer durables, foodstuffs, textiles. Major trade partners--Italy, Russia, Turkey, France, Germany, U.S., other EU, and other countries formerly part of the Soviet Union. (Government of Azerbaijan)

Azerbaijan combines the heritage of two venerable civilizations--the Seljuk Turks of the 11th century and the ancient Persians. Its name is thought to be derived from the Persian phrase "Land of Fire," referring both to its petroleum deposits, known since ancient times, and to its status as a former center of the Zoroastrian faith. The Azerbaijani Republic borders the Iranian provinces of East and West Azerbaijan, which are predominantly populated by ethnic Azeris.

Little is known about Azerbaijan's history until its conquest and conversion to Islam by the Arabs in 642 AD. Centuries of prosperity as a province of the Muslim caliphate followed. After the decline of the Arab Empire, Azerbaijan was ravaged during the Mongol invasions but regained prosperity in the 13th-15th centuries under the Mongol II-Khans, the native Shirvan Shahs, and under Persia's Safavid Dynasty.

Due to its location on the shore of the Caspian Sea and astride the trade routes connecting Europe to Central Asia and the Near East, Azerbaijan was fought over by Russia, Persia, and the Ottomans. Finally, the Russians split Azerbaijan's territory with Persia in 1828 by the Treaty of Turkmenchay, establishing the present frontiers and extinguishing the last native dynasties of local Azerbaijani khans. The beginning of modern exploitation of the oil fields in the 1870s led to a period of unprecedented prosperity and growth in the years before World War I.

Following the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, an independent republic was proclaimed in 1918 after an abortive attempt to establish a Transcaucasian Republic with Armenia and Georgia. The first democratic republic in the Muslim world, it gave women the right to vote in 1919. Azerbaijan received de facto recognition by the Allies as an independent nation in January 1920, an independence terminated by the arrival of the Red Army in April. Incorporated into the Transcaucasian Federated Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, Azerbaijan became a union republic of the U.S.S.R. (Soviet Union) in 1936. The late 1980s were characterized by increasing unrest, eventually leading to a violent confrontation when Soviet troops killed 190 nationalist demonstrators in Baku on January 19-20, 1990. Azerbaijan declared its independence from the U.S.S.R. on August 30, 1991.

Although the Government of Azerbaijan consists of three branches, Azerbaijan has a strong presidential system in which the president dominates the legislative and judicial branches. The executive branch is made up of a president, his administration, a prime minister, and the cabinet of ministers. The legislative branch consists of the 125-member parliament (Milli Majlis). Members, all of whom are elected from territorial districts, serve 5-year terms. The judicial branch, headed by a Constitutional Court, is only nominally independent.

Azerbaijan declared its independence from the former Soviet Union on August 30, 1991, with Ayaz Mutalibov, former First Secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party, becoming the country's first President. Following a March 1992 massacre of Azerbaijanis at Khojali in Nagorno-Karabakh (a predominantly ethnic Armenian region within Azerbaijan), Mutalibov resigned and the country experienced a period of political instability. The old guard returned Mutalibov to power in May 1992, but less than a week later his efforts to suspend a scheduled presidential election and ban all political activity prompted the opposition Popular Front Party (PFP) to organize a resistance movement and take power. Among its reforms, the PFP dissolved the predominantly Communist Supreme Soviet and transferred its functions to the 50-member National Council.

Elections in June 1992 resulted in the selection of PFP leader Abulfez Elchibey as the country's second President. The PFP-dominated government, however, proved incapable of either credibly prosecuting the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict or managing the economy, and many PFP officials came to be perceived as corrupt and incompetent. Growing discontent culminated in June 1993 in an armed insurrection in Ganja, Azerbaijan's second-largest city. As the rebels advanced virtually unopposed on Baku, President Elchibey fled to his native province, the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. The National Council conferred presidential powers upon its new Speaker, Heydar Aliyev, former First Secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party (1969-81) and member of the U.S.S.R. Politburo and U.S.S.R. Deputy Prime Minister (until 1987). Elchibey was formally deposed by a national referendum in August 1993, and Aliyev was elected to a 5-year term as President in October with only token opposition. Aliyev won re-election to another 5-year term in 1998, in an election marred by serious irregularities. A presidential election that took place on October 15, 2003 resulted in the election of Ilham Aliyev, the son of Heydar Aliyev. The election did not meet international standards. Ilham Aliyev assumed the office of president on October 31, 2003. Heydar Aliyev died December 12, 2003.

Ilham Aliyev won re-election on October 15, 2008, taking 88.7% of the vote in an election boycotted by the major opposition parties. While the presidential election marked progress toward meeting Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) commitments and other international standards with regard to some technical aspects of election administration, the election process failed to meet some OSCE standards, according to the final report of the OSCE/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election monitoring mission. In December 2008, the Azerbaijani parliament approved a measure calling for the abolition of presidential term limits. After limited public debate, the measure passed in a March 18, 2009 referendum on constitutional amendments. Observers noted serious shortcomings in voting procedures, and in the counting and tabulation process.

Azerbaijan's first parliament was elected in 1995. The present 125-member unicameral parliament was elected in November 2010 in an election that did not meet a number of international standards. 70 elected parliamentarians are from the President's New Azerbaijan Party, 10 are from various other political parties that largely support the President, and 42 claim no party affiliation, but consistently vote with the ruling party. Traditional opposition parties Musavat and the Popular Front are not represented in parliament. The November 2010 parliamentary elections were marred by a deficient candidate registration process, limits on freedom of assembly and expression, a restrictive political environment, unbalanced media coverage of candidates, and problems in vote counting and tabulation. Under the 1995 constitution, the speaker of parliament stands next in line to the President. However, constitutional amendments approved in a flawed process in August 2002 included a provision replacing the speaker of parliament with the prime minister in the line of succession to the presidency. The parliament remains a weak body with little real influence that votes nearly unanimously on all the executive government’s initiatives.

The human rights situation in the country remains poor, especially with respect to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, the administration of justice, and the respect of property rights. In 2011, several political protests calling for democratic reform and the government's resignation were forcefully dispersed and 15 protesters were sentenced to 18 months to three years of incarceration for their participation in such protests. Applications to hold protests in Baku were repeatedly denied throughout the year. Local NGOs have reported forced evictions on dubious eminent domain grounds, inadequate compensation, and unclear property registration regulations. Restrictions on the freedom of religion also remain a problem. Corruption remains pervasive in all aspects of society.

Principal Government Officials
President--Ilham Aliyev
Prime Minister--Artur Rasizade
Foreign Minister--Elmar Mammadyarov
Ambassador to the U.S.--Elin Suleymanov
Ambassador to the UN--Agshin Mehdiyev

Azerbaijan's Embassy in the United States is at 2741 34th Street NW, Washington, DC 20008; tel. (202) 337-3500; fax (202) 337-5911; Consular tel. (202) 337-5912; Consular fax (202) 337-5913; 

Over the past few years, the Government of Azerbaijan has worked to integrate the country into the global economic marketplace, attract increased foreign investment, diversify its economy, and maintain positive growth during the global financial crisis.

Wide-ranging economic reforms implemented by Azerbaijan during the past five years have resulted in notable progress to improve regulatory efficiency and encourage domestic economic diversification, especially in the areas of agriculture, tourism, and information and communications technology. In particular, the substantial economic reforms implemented in 2007 and 2008 led the World Bank to name Azerbaijan as one of the top ten global reformers for 2009 in its annual Doing Business report. Azerbaijan has enjoyed measurable success in diversifying its economy outside of the energy sector, with the non-oil portion of the economy growing by almost ten percent in 2011, while energy sector growth was flat.

In the past few years, the overall regulatory reform process has slowed in comparison to 2007-2009. While many of the reforms adopted were designed to facilitate Azerbaijan’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), as of March 2012, Azerbaijan still is not a WTO member.

Azerbaijan has a liberal exchange rate system and, in general, there are no restrictions on converting or transferring funds associated with an investment into freely usable currency at a legal market-clearing rate. No systematic difficulties exist in obtaining foreign exchange. The official currency reserves of the Central Bank of Azerbaijan, previously the National Bank of Azerbaijan, increased from 6.4 billion USD at the end of 2010 to 10.48 billion USD at the beginning of 2012. Reserves had decreased in 2009 primarily in response to the global financial crisis, which facilitated a decline in hard-currency reserves in Azerbaijan’s commercial banks, prompting the Central Bank of Azerbaijan to expend reserves to maintain the convertibility rate of the Azerbaijani Manat in direct support of the Azerbaijani economy. The average annual inflation rate for 2011 was 8.1 percent (EIU). In March 2011, the Central Bank increased its interest rate to avoid inflation; however, in late 2011, the Central Bank urged commercial banks to decrease their interest rates in order to stimulate non-oil sector growth.

In December 2011, Standard & Poor’s upgraded the sovereign credit rating of Azerbaijan to BBB- investment grade and concluded that the rating had a stable outlook. Fitch Ratings affirmed the long-term sovereign rating of investment in foreign and domestic currency for Azerbaijan at BBB- and upgraded the outlook for Azerbaijan from stable to positive in September 2011. Fitch Ratings first assigned Azerbaijan the BBB- rating in May 2010. Additionally, Moody’s Investor Service upgraded the outlook on Azerbaijan’s sovereign rating from stable to positive and confirmed the issuer rating for government debt at Ba1 in March 2011.

The State Oil Fund (SOFAZ) – with assets totaling 29.8 billion USD in reserves at the end of 2011 – operates as a sovereign wealth fund for Azerbaijan. It was established in 1999 and reports directly to the President of Azerbaijan through its Executive Director. SOFAZ manages all state revenue from oil and natural gas, and is charged with preserving Azerbaijan’s economic stability, helping diversify the economy, and preserving the nation’s wealth for future generations.
Importantly, the higher inflation also reflects customs restrictions that are in place due to supply constraints that limit import competition and to monopolies that continue to control many sectors of the economy. The national currency, the Manat (AZN), is artificially stable and was allowed to appreciate against the dollar by 6.1% in 2005, 5.4% in 2006, 3.4% in 2007, and 1.1% in 2008. By early 2009, one AZN was worth $1.24, an exchange rate that has remained steady ever since, increasing only slightly since late 2010.

The 2012 consolidated state budget sets spending at 17.1 billion AZN, an increase of about 5% over 2011. The budget funds an ambitious program of infrastructure investments, focusing on transportation and water and irrigation. About three-quarters of the budget is funded by transfers from SOFAZ and taxes on oil companies. This degree of reliance on hydrocarbon revenues has led the IMF to express concerns about the economy’s stability and vulnerability to inflationary pressures. While a significant drop in oil prices would likely require some curtailment of the government’s investment program, to date, inflationary pressures have been manageable.

Azerbaijan is considered one of the most important spots in the world for oil exploration and development. Proven oil reserves in the Caspian Basin, which Azerbaijan shares with Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, are comparable in size to North Sea reserves several decades ago. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which opened in May 2005, has a maximum capacity of one million barrels per day. While oil and gas production in Azerbaijan has been steady for the past few years, imminent large-scale investments in the oil and gas sector (most notably, a $20 billion investment for the second stage of the Shah Deniz gas project) are likely to cause energy production to climb over the next decade. Negotiations are ongoing over different gas pipeline options for transporting Caspian gas to Southern Europe.

Despite substantial progress in stabilizing the economy and reducing poverty over the past few years, substantial medium-to-long term economic challenges for Azerbaijan still remain, particularly with regards to the implementation of institutional and systemic reforms that are critical to strengthening the foundations for economic freedom. Although Azerbaijan has continued to attract significant foreign investment to further develop its energy sector throughout the past decade, inefficient government bureaucracy, weak legal institutions, requests for illicit payments for cross-border transactions, and predatory behavior by politically connected monopolistic interests continue to hinder investment outside of this sector and present challenges for foreign investors.

Environmental Issues
Azerbaijan faces serious environmental challenges. Soil throughout the region was contaminated by DDT and toxic defoliants used in cotton production during the Soviet era. Caspian petroleum and petrochemicals industries also have contributed to present air and water pollution problems. Several environmental organizations exist in Azerbaijan, yet few funds have been allocated to begin the necessary cleanup and prevention programs. Over-fishing by poachers is threatening the survival of Caspian sturgeon stocks, the source of most of the world's supply of caviar. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has listed as threatened all sturgeon species, including all commercial Caspian varieties. CITES imposed a ban on most Caspian caviar in January 2006, but lifted the ban a year later in favor of quotas. A March 2010 CITES conference labeled Caspian beluga sturgeon as 'critically endangered,' but as of yet no changes have been made to current sturgeon fishing quotas.

In July 1992, Azerbaijan ratified the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which establishes comprehensive limits on key categories of conventional military equipment and provides for the destruction of weaponry in excess of those limits. Although Azerbaijan did not provide all data required by the treaty on its conventional forces at that time, it has accepted on-site inspections of forces on its territory. Azerbaijan approved the CFE flank agreement in May 1997. It also has acceded to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state. Azerbaijan participates in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) Partnership for Peace, and maintains a presence of over 90 troops in Afghanistan. Azerbaijan also maintained a peacekeeping deployment in Iraq until November 2008.

Azerbaijan is a member of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), NATO's Partnership for Peace, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership, the World Health Organization, the GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) Organization for Democracy and Economic Development, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Council of Europe, the International Monetary Fund, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Nonaligned Movement, and the World Bank. Azerbaijan is an observer at the Community of Democracies. In 2011, Azerbaijan was elected to the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member, representing the East Europe Group for the 2012-2013 term.

The major domestic and international issue affecting Azerbaijan is the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian region within Azerbaijan. The current conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh began in 1988 when ethnic Armenian demonstrations against Azerbaijani rule broke out in both Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, and the Nagorno-Karabakh Supreme Soviet voted to secede from Azerbaijan. In 1990, after violent episodes in Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku, and Sumgait, the Soviet Union's Government in Moscow declared a state of emergency in Nagorno-Karabakh, sent troops to the region, and forcibly occupied Baku. In April 1991, Azerbaijani militia and Soviet forces targeted Armenian paramilitaries operating in Nagorno-Karabakh; Moscow also deployed troops to Yerevan. Azerbaijan declared its independence from the U.S.S.R. on August 30, 1991. In September 1991, Moscow declared it would no longer support Azerbaijani military action in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian militants then stepped up the violence. In October 1991, a referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh approved independence.

More than 30,000 people were killed in the fighting from 1992 to 1994. In May 1992, Armenian and Karabakhi forces seized Shusha (the historical Azerbaijani-populated capital of Nagorno-Karabakh) and Lachin (thereby linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia). By October 1993, Armenian and Karabakhi forces controlled almost all of Nagorno-Karabakh, Lachin, and large adjacent areas in southwestern Azerbaijan. As Armenian and Karabakhi forces advanced, hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees fled to other parts of Azerbaijan. In 1993, the UN Security Council adopted resolutions calling for the cessation of hostilities, unimpeded access for international humanitarian relief efforts, and the eventual deployment of a peacekeeping force in the region. The UN also called for immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces from the occupied areas of Azerbaijan. Fighting continued, however, until May 1994 when Russia brokered a cease-fire.

Negotiations to resolve the conflict peacefully have been ongoing since 1992 under the aegis of the Minsk Group of the OSCE. The Minsk Group is currently co-chaired by Russia, France, and the U.S. and has representation from several European nations, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Despite the 1994 cease-fire, sporadic violations, sniper fire, and landmine incidents continue to claim many lives each year.

Since 1997, the Minsk Group Co-Chairs have presented a number of proposals to serve as a framework for resolving the conflict. One side or the other rejected each of those proposals, but negotiations have continued at an intensified pace since 2004. In November 2007, on the margins of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Madrid, the ministerial-level representatives of the three Co-Chair countries presented the sides with a proposal on the “Basic Principles for the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.” In 2008, Azerbaijani President Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sargsian signed a declaration expressing their intent to seek a political settlement to the conflict, to resume confidence-building measures, and to intensify negotiations within the Minsk Group framework on the basis of the Madrid proposal. 

The Co-Chairs have continued their intensive consultations with the sides to narrow differences on the revised Basic Principles, including through two meetings between the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2011. In a joint statement issued during the December 2011 OSCE Ministerial Council Meeting in Vilnius, Foreign Ministers Mammadyarov and Nalbandian reaffirmed the importance of reaching a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno- Karabakh conflict based on the principles and norms of international law, the United Nations Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, and the previous joint statements by the Presidents of the Minsk Group Co-Chair countries. In a joint statement with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Sochi, Russia in January 2012, Presidents Sargsian and Aliyev expressed their readiness to accelerate reaching agreement on the Basic Principles.

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