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Reviewed by:
  • Azerbaijan Since Independence
  • Michael B. Bishku (bio)
Azerbaijan Since Independence, by Svante E. Cornell. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2011. 483 pages. $99.95 cloth; $39.95 paper.

Svante E. Cornell provides a comprehensive and well-documented resource for both scholars and the general public of contemporary developments in what he regards as the most important of the three countries in the South Caucasus. At the same time, Cornell highlights important comparisons with the other two states in that region, Georgia and Armenia. Azerbaijan Since Independence offers more than the title suggests as the initial three chapters are devoted to Azerbaijan’s history prior to that time: first, primarily as a part of the Russian Empire, later within the Soviet Union, and last the Azerbaijani national revival during the late 1980s and early 1990s, respectively. The next three chapters analyze developments under the Popular Front rule of Abulfez Elçibey (1992–1993), Heydar Aliyev (1993–2003), and the latter’s son and current president, Ilham Aliyev. Subsequent treatment is thematic, dealing in succession with the conflict over the Karabakh region — a territory under Armenian control and the reason why one in ten Azerbaijanis are internally displaced persons — the dynamics of politics and power in Azerbaijan; the primacy of oil in that country’s economy; the interaction of identity, modernity, and tradition in Azerbaijani society; and the formulation of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy. Last, there are individual chapters concerning the specifics of relations with Azerbaijan’s powerful neighbors, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the West (i.e., the United States, NATO, and the European Union), respectively. There is also a short “Epilogue,” which should be titled a “Conclusion.”

Cornell not only acknowledges in his bibliographical essay, but also heavily cites the important English-language contributions of Tadeusz Swietochowski and Audrey Altstad on the Russian and Soviet periods of Azerbaijan’s history, respectively, as well as other works by Azerbaijani and foreign scholars. For the period of independence, he relies on a wide array of primary sources ranging from government documents and personal interviews with politicians, including Ilham Aliyev, to journalistic firsthand accounts as well as important recent scholarly works.1

Cornell draws parallels between Azerbaijan’s first period of independence in 1918–1920 and the Azerbaijan Popular Front government following the collapse of the Soviet Union: “the intelligentsia was simply not sufficiently trained or experienced to administer a state, and the internal and external challenges — such as conflict with Armenia … internal elite dissent, and dealing with vestiges of the old regime — were more than the democratic but novice forces could manage” (p. 60). Hence, it took a former Soviet official, Heydar Aliyev, to restore stability by establishing “semiauthoritarian” rule based on a patronage system, agreeing to a ceasefire in the Karabakh conflict, and using oil wealth for development and foreign policy goals designed to maintain as much political and economic independence as possible. Ilham has continued these practices, though the ceasefire agreement with Armenia cannot continue indefinitely, while the West is losing patience with the lack of democratic reform. It is also imperative that Azerbaijan do much to develop the non-energy sector of its economy. As Cornell points out, Azerbaijan’s energy sector produces one-third of the country’s GDP, but only provides 1% of the employment. In addition, oil and gas reserves will most likely be depleted by 2025 (p. 240). Azerbaijan also needs to do a better job addressing the problem of corruption. [End Page 369]

Cornell devotes much attention to the place of Islam in Azerbaijan, a state committed to secularism and cautious of external influences. He also laments that “the media situation is perhaps the most depressing development in Azerbaijan in the past decade.” Indeed, in Europe and Central Asia, only Uzbekistan has jailed more journalists (pp. 294 –295). On a positive note, however, and with the exception of the conflict with Armenians, the “minority situation” — which includes Lezgins, Talysh, Avars, Kurds, and Jews — “is relatively benign by regional standards, and certainly compared to that in both Iran and Russia, and even Georgia” (p. 261).

As mentioned earlier, a number of chapters are devoted to Azerbaijan’s foreign relations. Cornell’s focus on Turkey...


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