With the fall of the Soviet Union, the initial euphoria and national glory of independence gave way to a search for what it meant to be Azerbaijani, and which direction the country itself was headed. Was it a secular Islamic state, a new democracy with a market economy or an outpost of dictatorship on the edge of Europe? Pressed between the competing geopolitical interests of the West, Russia and Iran, for years the Azerbaijanis have been struggling with the question of just who they are. A war with neighboring Armenia further exacerbated the challenges of new statehood and polarized national identity. Being Azerbaijani meant being a refugee. In spite of a ceasefire agreement, Azerbaijan to this day remains an occupied state where frontline villagers are killed by sniper fire every month. Nearly a million refugees and persons displaced by the conflict still live their shadow lives in debilitating squalor, inhabiting abandoned train carriages, mud huts and dug-out holes in the ground.
In 1994, the Azerbaijani government signed “The Contract of the Century”, with eleven oil companies led by a BP (British Petroleum) conglomerate. In the years since, those in power have received undreamed of riches, while most Azerbaijani citizens have not yet seen the promise of wealth turn into anything other than a rapidly altered Baku skyline – the product of an unregulated construction boom, which has replaced historical neighborhoods with luxury high-rise apartment buildings. Oil corporations moved into a country of rampant corruption, poverty, unemployment and postwar humanitarian disaster, and while oil investment has brought economic development, the gap between rich and poor has only widened, and job opportunities barely exist outside urban areas. While capital is poured into profitable offshore fields in the Caspian Sea, the disused turn-of-the-century oil infrastructure has collapsed, turning the environment into a nightmare wasteland. In the first years of independence, Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, was a city where a military curfew banned residents from being on the street after midnight; it is now a vibrant city with its won nightlife. With the influx of foreign culture and investment, bars and restaurants have sprung up to serve the thin layer of society that has benefited from the oil boom. However, while Baku’s nightclubs beam spotlights into the sky, in any Azerbaijani village, people live without gas and water, and have only a few hours of electricity a day.