Though still plagued by poverty and graft, this former Soviet Caspian nation now boasts the world's fastest-growing economy, thanks to the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline that may generate $230 billion over the next 20 years.
Now, says Azerbaijan, it wants to use some of that windfall to modernize the country, which still lacks consistent water and electricity supplies in many areas. Policymakers say education will be one key focus of the reforms.
With advice from international organizations on how to mitigate some common pitfalls of fast oil wealth – often called the "resource curse" – Azerbaijan has taken steps toward reform. But some critics are skeptical about how far-reaching the changes will be, given the country's corruption problems and its mismanaged educational system.
"We want to ensure the best of human capital in the country," says Mehman Abbas, head of Azerbaijan economic ministry's development program. Azerbaijan, says Mr. Abbas, hopes to emulate other nations that are opening to the world. "We know best practices from other countries, but we're trying to adjust them to our situation," he says.
Among some of the current projects:
• A scholarship program to train 5,000 Azeri students abroad.
• A new academy to groom diplomats for Azerbaijan's growing network of embassies, which have doubled in number since 2004
• Plans to build new schools, with some 130 constructed in the last three years.
• An initiative to install one computer for every three students nationwide.
The scholarship fund, Azerbaijan's most ambitious educational reform for which a proposal was signed by the president last month, will be available to students once they graduate from secondary school. Students at the bachelor's, master's, and PhD level will be sent to study abroad over the next seven years, with the caveat that they return to work in Azerbaijan.
"The main objective of the program is providing the economy with a highly skilled labor force that [has] a significant role in the non-oil sector," Abbas says. The program, he says, was designed after consultations from the UN Development Program as one of the best uses for oil revenues.
Balancing education with loyalty
But despite what would appear to be a push for educational reform, some critics point out that Azerbaijan's investment in education presents something of a paradox. In heavily autocratic former Soviet countries such as Turkmenistan, presidents typically held onto power by denying anything but the most rudimentary education, thereby cultivating an unquestioning public.
For soft autocracies like Azerbaijan, the challenge will be to modernize the country without losing its grip on power.
Azerbaijan may already have one instructive model in China.
"China is a controlled country but is sending people all over the world and investing abroad, says Karin Lissakers, director of the Revenue Watch Institute, a program that advises governments in resource-revenue management. "I think some [leaders] in the region look at the Chinese model and think, that's the way to go – maintain political control and still modernize the economy."
Globalizing Azeri classrooms
Others say that Azerbaijan's leadership knows that a failure to educate its workforce will not only alienate its citizens, but will leave the country in the dust in an increasingly globalizing economy.
"Azerbaijan's market economy is not getting what it needs from education," says Fariz Ismailzade, the new diplomatic academy's director of training. "People aren't equipped to apply for a job. They don't even know how to write a CV."
After 32 embassies opened worldwide over the past two years – more than doubling the country's 2004 tally of 24 embassies – Azerbaijan now faces a shortage of diplomats.
To deal with the growing demand, President Ilham Aliyev tapped Azerbaijan's longtime ambassador to the US, Hafiz Pashayev, to run the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, the country's first training center for diplomats.
The program, which began in March with the academy's first 30 recruits, brought professors from Georgetown University and the Virginia-based George C. Marshall Foundation, an educational organization, to lead training on modern-day diplomatic skills.
But the school, Mr. Pashayev says, has even bigger aims. By 2008, it will offer Azerbaijan's first professional master's program at international standards, complete with an English-language and electronic library, and an online system for grades and registration.
The government has said the school will serve as a pilot for future institutes and has also suggested following Qatar's example of a "university city," where five US universities, including Georgetown, have opened satellite campuses.
"I want to create something special in education, to be able to show others that they should follow this example," says Pashayev.
But a more imminent fear may be pushing Azerbaijan's education reform – the largely secular country's concern over growing Islamism, particularly from neighboring Iran, which has been exporting a stringent form of Islam and building mosques in some of the poorest regions.
"We have to spread money as quickly as possible to prevent the danger of Islamic fundamentalism coming to Azerbaijan," says Pashayev. "In my view, education is the only way."
• Second of two articles. Tuesday: mixed blessings of Turkmenistan's gas wealth.