Azerbaijan - a nation with a majority-Turkic and majority-Shia Muslim population - was briefly independent (from 1918 to 1920) following the collapse of the Russian Empire; it was subsequently incorporated into the Soviet Union for seven decades. Azerbaijan has yet to resolve its conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, a primarily ethnic Armenian-populated region that Moscow recognized in 1923 as an autonomous republic within Soviet Azerbaijan after Armenia and Azerbaijan disputed the territory's status. Armenia and Azerbaijan reignited their dispute over the area in 1988; the struggle escalated militarily after both countries attained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. By May 1994, when a cease-fire took hold, ethnic Armenian forces held not only Nagorno-Karabakh but also seven surrounding provinces in the territory of Azerbaijan. The OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by the US, France, and Russia, is the framework established to mediate a peaceful resolution of the conflict.Corruption in the country is widespread, and the government, which eliminated presidential term limits in a 2009 referendum and approved extending presidential terms from 5 to 7 years in 2016, has been accused of authoritarianism. Although the poverty rate has been reduced and infrastructure investment has increased substantially in recent years due to revenue from oil and gas production, reforms have not adequately addressed weaknesses in most government institutions, particularly in the education and health sectors, as well as the court system.
Prior to the decline in global oil prices since 2014, Azerbaijan's high economic growth was attributable to rising energy exports, and some non-export sectors also featured double-digit growth. Oil exports through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline, the Baku-Novorossiysk, and the Baku-Supsa Pipelines remain the main economic driver, but efforts to boost Azerbaijan's gas production are underway. The expected completion of the geopolitically important Southern Gas Corridor between Azerbaijan and Europe will open up another source of revenue from gas exports. Declining oil prices caused a 3.8% contraction in GDP in 2016, reinforced by a sharp reduction in the construction sector. The economic decline has been accompanied by higher inflation and a weakened banking sector in the aftermath of the two sharp currency devaluations in 2015.Azerbaijan has made limited progress with market-based economic reforms. Pervasive public and private sector corruption and structural economic inefficiencies remain a drag on long-term growth, particularly in non-energy sectors, but the government has made efforts to combat corruption, particularly in customs and with the “ASAN” one-stop window concept for government services. Several other obstacles impede Azerbaijan's economic progress, including the need for more foreign investment in the non-energy sector and the continuing conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. While trade with Russia and the other former Soviet republics remains important, Azerbaijan has expanded trade with Turkey and Europe and is seeking new markets for non-oil/gas exports, mainly from the agricultural sector, for example with Gulf Cooperation Council member countries, the US, and others.Long-term prospects depend on world oil prices, Azerbaijan's ability to implement export routes for its growing gas production, and its ability to improve the business environment and diversify the economy. In late 2016, the President approved a strategic roadmap that identified key non-energy segments of the economy for development, such as agriculture, logistics, and tourism.