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Oil-rich Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 amid war and political turmoil.
The south Caucasus country became a member of the Council of Europe in 2001 and is now struggling to build a democratic, law-governed and secular state.
What is now Azerbaijan has been famed for its oil springs and natural gas sources since ancient times, when Zoroastrians, for whom fire is an important symbol, erected temples around burning gas vents in the ground.
In the 19th century this part of the Russian empire experienced an unprecedented oil boom which attracted international investment. By the beginning of the 20th century Azerbaijan was supplying almost half of the world's oil.
In 1994 Azerbaijan signed an oil contract worth 7.4bn-dollars with a Western consortium led by British Petroleum. Since then western companies have invested millions in the development of the country's oil and gas reserves. However, the economy as a whole has not benefited as much as it might have.
BP is leading a consortium of companies building a pipeline which will carry Caspian oil from Baku through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Oil is due to be pumped along it by summer 2005 and the West hopes to gain ready access to a vast new source of supply. Environmental groups have protested that the cost of this advantage is unacceptable.
Often accused of rampant corruption and election-rigging, Azerbaijan's ruling circles are walking a tightrope between Russian and Western regional geostrategic interests and struggling to redefine the nation's economic priorities.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, the predominantly Armenian population of the Nagorno-Karabakh region stated their intention to secede from Azerbaijan. War broke out. Backed by troops and resources from Armenia proper, the Armenians of Karabakh took control of the region and surrounding territory. In 1994 a cease-fire was signed. About one-seventh of Azerbaijan's territory remains occupied, while 800,000 refugees and internally displaced persons are scattered around the country.
Population: 8.4 million (UN, 2003)
Major language: Azeri, Russian
Major religion: Islam
Life expectancy: 69 years (men), 75 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 manat = 100 qapik
Main exports: Oil, oil products
GNI per capita: US $710 (World Bank, 2002)
Internet domain: .az
International dialling code: +994
Azerbaijan's state-run press, television and radio compete with private and opposition publications and an increasing number of private broadcasters. The private media received a boost in early 2002 when five regional TV licences were awarded.
Freedom of speech in Azerbaijan is guaranteed by the constitution and the media are theoretically free. But intimidation and violence against journalists and media outlets critical of the government occur periodically. A new media law introduced in March 2002 removed the need for publications to be licensed by the state.
Russian TV channels are relayed in Azerbaijan, though some have called for them to be curbed, accusing them of bias in their coverage of Azerbaijani issues.
TV stations from Turkey are widely available, and in parts of the country broadcasts from Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh can be picked up. The BBC operates BBC Baku FM in the capital.