Azerbai – what?

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This issue we continue our series of reports on countries where expats who used to live in Russia, or perhaps would have gone to Russia in other times, now live and work. Welcome to Azerbaijan.

Facts and Figures:

Population: 9.5 million up from 6.1million in 1980.

GDP Growth in 2014: 2.8%.

Territory: 86.5 thousand square kilometres.

Capital: Baku.

Currency: Azerbaijani manat.

President: Ilham Aliyev.

Religion: All major political forces in the country are secularist, but the majority of people and some opposition movements adhere to Shia Islam. Azerbaijan was the first Muslim-majority country after Egypt to have operas, theatres and modern universities.

Politics: Azerbaijan is a unitary constitutional presidential republic. With an eye on trade and energy exports to Europe, the country is a member state of the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) program. Azerbaijan has not joined the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement, and has also reclined to join the CSTO, and the Eurasian Economic Union. The country is relatively stable but Azerbaijian’s politics will ultimately be determined by what happens in its much larger, turbulent neighbours: Iran to the south and Russia to the north, Georgia and Armenia then Turkey to the west as well as Central Asia to the east across the Caspian Sea.

Russia, because of its size and population tends to overshadow a whole group of countries to the south and southeast. Exactly where are the Caucuses? Chances are, unless you have been to Azerbaijan who won’t know where it is. Wedged down on the left hand side of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is surrounded by other countries that you also may never have been to: Armenia, Georgia and Iran as well as our very own endless Russia. Linguistically, but not culturally, Azerbaijani is closer to Turkish than Russian. If you speak Russian you will be able to get by though, as the country was still part of the Soviet Union like most of the other Caucasian countries up until 1991. English is not so useful here, but you will be able to survive in Baku where the language is inexorably replacing Russian as the country’s number two lingua.

Thanks to much criticized Soviet anti radicalization programmes, Islam is not at all extreme here, and officially the country is secular. The Caspian Sea separates Azerbaijan from Central Asia with its much trumpeted, and mostly non-existent troubles from ISIS infiltration.

The Azerbaijani economy has been doing well in recent years, largely thanks to large and growing oil and gas exports, but not only, as sectors such as construction, banking and real estate have been bubbling along as well thank you. As long as fossil fuels remain important for the world economy, (which will probably be longer than most of us think) Azerbaijan will survive, along with all the industries, which feed off the considerable currency stream that exploiting fossil fuels generates. Economic migrant expats from Russia can still find pastures in the hot cities to teach English, build real estate, bore oil wells and construct pipelines. Here they can spend their manat, convert some into the currency of their choice and generally maintain their expat lifestyles, until it becomes possible for them to return home – in some cases, to Russia.

The cities of Azerbaijan are hot pots of culture. Many are seriously pretty, standing at the crossroads of old world charm while not being too badly off for modern western conveniences. Baku, for example, has an ample number of shopping malls whilst at the same time harbouring remnants of a cobbled stoned ‘old city’ with 12th century castle turrets hidden away between the Four Seasons hotel; Dior and Tiffany’s, oh and the designer shops for children.

The climate is bizarre, as Azerbaijan encompasses nine of eleven known climate zones. But that only means that you will never run out of excuses for ‘essential’ shopping sprees. Don’t worry, clothes are cheap here, as long as you can pretend not to be an expat whilst shopping.