Mention the name Azerbaijan, and a number of images come to mind: reminders of Soviet occupation - both blatant and subtle; flavors of the Middle East; mosques; deserts; and oil. Oil is usually uppermost in the minds of expatriates moving to Azerbaijan, as it is the industry most likely to relocate people there.
Agriculture employs about one-third of the country's workers; this sector contributes between 20 and 30 percent of the GDP and employs more than 30 percent of the workforce. Fishing is another important industry. Azerbaijan was once the world's largest producer of sturgeon, though supplies of the fish have dwindled somewhat.
Oil has attracted people to Azerbaijan for centuries. The Soviets were just one example, when they claimed the land in 1920. Oil reserves were exploited, plants and refineries were built at the expense of the environment around Baku.
Since independence in 1991 Azerbaijan has faced many challenges, but it is hoped the oil that once drew invaders will now be the country's salvation. Transitioning to a market economy from one run by the state is a task faced by other former Soviet countries, but Azerbaijan at least has tremendous natural resources at its disposal.
Some 70 percent of state-owned enterprises have been targeted for privatization, among them banking, electricity, and agriculture.
Economic reforms and foreign investment in oil, natural gas, and chemicals are seen as necessary to stabilize and grow the economy.
Instability in the Nagorno-Karabakh region - an area fought over by Azeris and Armenians - continues to deter foreign investment and dampen expectations for a swift improvement in economic conditions.
Still, improvements have come. A group of foreign oil companies signed a US$7.4 billion, 20-year deal with Azerbaijan in 1994. While most people have not benefitted yet from this deal (45 percent of the population lives below the poverty line) the government is pinning its hopes of economic stability on this long-term investment in the country.
Inflation, over 1600 percent about 10 years ago, has since reached a low as less one percent, but has climbed again to 15 percent. In 2004, GDP growth was over 10 percent. In the same year, foreign investment - mainly in the hydrocarbon industry - swelled to US$4.4 billion. The country has also drawn significantly on funds from an IMF program aimed at poverty reduction.
A Soviet Republic since the 1920s, Azerbaijan came to Joseph Stalin's attention during World War II. In 1945 Stalin attempted to join Azerbaijan with northern Iran, which has a large population of Azeris. Rebuffed by Allied forces, Stalin retreated.
A Communist party first secretary at the time, Heydar Aliyev would become the country's longest-standing elected official. President Aliyev took over the presidency for the fleeing Abulfaz Elchibey in 1993, and was elected to a second term in 1998. He is credited with making strides toward peace in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The last presidential election was in 2003, when Ilham Aliyev was elected to succeed his father, Heydar, although there were questions about the standards of the election process. Again, in the parliamentary election of November 2005, disputes arose about election results.
As a republic, Ajerbaijan has an elected president and prime minister. The president is elected for a five-year term; all citizens age 18 and over may vote. There is a 125-member National Assembly, Milli Majlis. One hundred members are elected to five-year terms; 25 members are elected by proportional representation.
Several political parties are represented. Among them are the current president's New Azerbaijan Party (NAP), a reform party; the Azerbaijan Popular Front (APF), Musavat Party, and Azerbaijan Communist Party.