A country slightly smaller than Maine, Azerbaijan still is the largest republic in the Caucasus region, to the southeast of Russia. Its history starting in the seventh century followed a remarkable boom-and-bust pattern under successive empires — its location astride important trade routes made it prosperous, which also made it a tempting target. For a brief period it was a democratic republic — the first among the Muslim nations — but like its neighbors Georgia and Armenia, the once autonomous republic was incorporated into the Soviet Union.
On this day, October 18, in 1991, after a decade of unrest and calls for separatism, and with the Soviet Union now effectively dissolved, Azerbaijan declared independence.
Azerbaijan’s name may come from the Persian phrase “Land of fire,” an appropriate name for a country whose lands since the earliest times were known for oil. Just as that oil was an important asset to the Soviet economy, independent Azerbaijan relies on exports for the bulk of the country’s economy. In 2009, oil exports accounted for $26 billion, about half of Azerbaijan’s total GDP.