This southwest Asian locale is one of the countries that declared independence from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Like many countries in this position, Azerbaijan remains in flux on many levels.
The most contentious issue to date in this country is the separatist republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. The struggle to control it began even before Azerbaijan separated from the U.S.S.R. when the ethnic Armenians who mostly populate the area lashed out against Azerbaijani rule. The conflict has been marked by fighting, violence and instability that continue in fits and starts to this day despite a 1994 ceasefire.
Attacks by insurgents, sniper shootings and landmines can present serious risks to both locals and tourists, and the latter group is advised to stay clear of the area altogether.
Because of the general instability in some parts of Azerbaijan, crossing in and out of its borders can be problematic. If you travel to Nagorno-Karabakh and get your passport stamped, you will not be able to enter Azerbaijan, even with a valid visa. However you can be a bit sneaky and enter Nagorno-Karabakh with a separate piece of stamped paper.
Only foreign nationals can cross the land borders into Russia, and you can only go into Iran at Astara if you have the right visa. Unfortunately, if you are from Armenia, have Armenian blood or possess an Armenia surname, you will not be allowed into Azerbaijan. A stamp in your passport from a visit to Armenia can also bar you from entering Azerbaijan, so it's better to visit the former after the latter. Travellers say to double-check the duration of your visa, as you might mistakenly get one that only lasts a few days.
In addition to all this red tape regarding passports and visas, border officials can be a little sensitive about any guidebooks or travel books that include information about Nagorno-Karabakh. Travellers have reported that books like Lonely Planet, which make mention of Nagorno-Karabakh as being separate from Azerbaijan, particularly stoke the ire of stiff security guards. The worst that will happen is that you'll have these books taken from you.
Due to all the turmoil the country is still recovering from and experiencing in certain areas, the human rights situation in Azerbaijan is not the best. Freedom of politics and religion, and sometimes freedom of speech, can still be squashed, with results including the arrest or detention of outspoken people.
People who participate in "unregistered" religious practices may also be apprehended. Widespread corruption exists, and journalists, demonstrators and individuals detained for whatever reason may be subjected to violence without question. Azerbaijan has made efforts to bring its economy up to modern speed and has received praise for its work, but it has a long way to go in many other areas.
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