Background: Azerbaijan – a nation on the rise

Baku is undergoing a massive face-lift, with ornate skyscrapers quickly replacing the decrepit three-story apartment blocks built with oil money.

October 5, 2010 05:16
2 minute read.
Azneft Square, Baku

311_ Baku. (photo credit: Ben Hartman)

BAKU, Azerbaijan – Oil, and lots of it. That’s the first thing you notice when you land in this country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. On the way into the capital from the airport, the sweet smell of petroleum permeates the air as you drive past an abundance of refineries – some new, and some old, dating back to when oil was first discovered here over 100 years ago.

The second thing that sticks out is the affluence oil has brought in recent years. Baku is undergoing a massive face-lift, with ornate skyscrapers quickly replacing the decrepit three-story apartment blocks. Whole neighborhoods have been razed to make way for the new.

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But while oil has benefited the elites, it has yet to trickle down and create a large middle class. On Baku’s congested roads, battered Soviet-era Ladas still outnumber flashy new Mercedes two to one.

Like the rest of the former Soviet republics with Muslim majorities, Azerbaijan has had diplomatic ties with Israel since it declared independence in the early 1990s.

Hebrew University Prof. Raphi Yisraeli, who teaches courses on Islamic, Middle Eastern and Chinese history, as well as on the Islamic countries of the former Soviet Union, described Israel-Azerbaijan relations as being the byproduct of the country’s desire for modernization and diplomatic relations with the West.

“When Azerbaijan and the Islamic countries of Central Asia became independent after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the thing they needed was help. Many of these countries figured that Israel was the best conduit through which to get close to America,” said Yisraeli.

“These countries wanted to... develop themselves in all types of fields, like military, hi-tech, agriculture – fields in which they could find great help from Israel,” he continued.

“One of the differences between Israel and other countries such as France or Germany is that those countries ask for countries that they assist to maintain certain standards of human rights, something Israel doesn’t ask for.”

He said that while these countries were Muslim, they remained largely secular as a result of the suppression of religion by the Soviets. In addition, he said, the totalitarian regimes that control them ensure that radical Islam is quashed, preventing serious threats to the relations with Israel.

Regarding Azerbaijan’s ties to Iran, Yisraeli said the country found itself in a complicated position.

“About two-thirds of the world’s 25 million Azeris live in Iran, while only about seven million live in Azerbaijan,” he said.

“The proximity of Iran and the ties they maintain due to their Azeri population is something that the government of Azerbaijan needs to watch closely.”

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