Education, Health, and Welfare
When the Soviet Union crumbled, Azerbaijan, like other former Soviet republics, was forced to end its reliance upon the uniform, centralized system of social supports that had been administered from Moscow. In the early 1990s, however, Azerbaijan did not have the resources to make large-scale changes in the delivery of educational, health, or welfare services, so the basic Soviet-era structures remained in place.
In the pre-Soviet period, Azerbaijani education included intensive Islamic religious training that commenced in early childhood. Beginning at roughly age five and sometimes continuing until age twenty, children attended madrasahs, education institutions affiliated with mosques. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, madrasahs were established as separate education institutions in major cities, but the religious component of education remained significant. In 1865 the first technical high school and the first women's high school were opened in Baku. In the late nineteenth century, secular elementary schools for Azerbaijanis began to appear (schools for ethnic Russians had been established earlier), but institutions of higher education and the use of the Azerbaijani language in secondary schools were forbidden in Transcaucasia throughout the tsarist period. The majority of ethnic Azerbaijani children received no education in this period, and the Azerbaijani literacy rate remained very low, especially among women. Few women were allowed to attend school.
In the Soviet era, literacy and average education levels rose dramatically from their very low starting point, despite two changes in the standard alphabet, from Arabic to Roman in the 1920s and from Roman to Cyrillic in the 1930s. According to Soviet data, 100 percent of males and females (ages nine to forty-nine) were literate in 1970.
During the Soviet period, the Azerbaijani education system was based on the standard model imposed by Moscow, which featured state control of all education institutions and heavy doses of Marxist-Leninist ideology at all levels. Since independence, the Azerbaijani system has undergone little structural change. Initial alterations have included the reestablishment of religious education (banned during the Soviet period) and curriculum changes that have reemphasized the use of the Azerbaijani language and have eliminated ideological content. In addition to elementary schools, the education institutions include thousands of preschools, general secondary schools, and vocational schools, including specialized secondary schools and technical schools. Education through the eighth grade is compulsory. At the end of the Soviet period, about 18 percent of instruction was in Russian, but the use of Russian began a steady decline beginning in 1988. A few schools teach in Armenian or Georgian.
Azerbaijan has more than a dozen institutions of higher education, in which enrollment totaled 105,000 in 1991. Because Azerbaijani culture has always included great respect for secular learning, the country traditionally has been an education center for the Muslim peoples of the former Soviet Union. For that reason and because of the role of the oil industry in Azerbaijan's economy, a relatively high percentage of Azerbaijanis have obtained some form of higher education, most notably in scientific and technical subjects. Several vocational institutes train technicians for the oil industry and other primary industries.
The most significant institutions of higher education are the University of Azerbaijan in Baku, the Institute of Petroleum and Chemistry, the Polytechnic Institute, the Pedagogical Institute, the Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzade Pedagogical Institute for Languages, the Azerbaijan Medical Institute, and the Uzeir Hajibeyli Conservatory. Much scientific research, which during the Soviet period dealt mainly with enhancing oil production and refining, is carried out by the Azerbaijani Academy of Sciences, which was established in 1945. The University of Azerbaijan, established in 1919, includes more than a dozen departments, ranging from physics to Oriental studies, and has the largest library in Azerbaijan. The student population numbers more than 11,000, and the faculty over 600. The Institute of Petroleum and Chemistry, established in 1920, has more than 15,000 students and a faculty of about 1,000. The institute trains engineers and scientists in the petrochemical industry, geology, and related areas.
Azerbaijan's health care system was one of the least effective in the Soviet republics, and it deteriorated further after independence. On the eve of the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the number of physicians per 1,000 people in Azerbaijan was about four, the number of hospital beds about ten, and the number of pharmacists about seven--all figures below average for the Soviet Union as a whole. According to reports, in the late 1980s some 736 hospitals and clinics were operating in Azerbaijan, but according to Soviet data some of those were rudimentary facilities with little equipment. Medical facilities also include several dozen sanitoriums and special children's health facilities. The leading medical schools in Azerbaijan are the Azerbaijan Medical Institute in Baku, which trains doctors and pharmacists, and the Institute for Advanced Training for Physicians. Several research institutes also conduct medical studies.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan's declining economy made it impossible for the Azerbaijani government to provide full support of the health infrastructure. Shortages of medicines and equipment have occurred, and some rural clinics have closed. In 1993 a Western report evaluated Azerbaijan's sanitation, pharmacies, medical system, medical industry, and medical research and development as below average, relative to similar services in the other former Soviet republics.
In 1987 the leading causes of death in order of occurrence were cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory infection, and accidents. The official 1991 infant mortality rate--twenty-five per 1,000 population--was by far the highest among the Transcaucasian nations. International experts estimated an even higher rate, however, if the standard international definition of infant mortality is used.
The traditional extended family provides an unofficial support system for family members who are elderly or who are full-time students. The official social safety net nominally ensures at least a subsistence income to all citizens, continuing the practice of the Soviet era. Stated benefits include old-age, disability, and survivor pensions; additional allowances for births and supported family members; sick and maternity leave; temporary disability and unemployment compensation for workers; food subsidies; and tax exemptions for designated social groups. Most of these benefits are financed by extrabudgetary funds; in 1992 more than 4.2 million rubles were transferred from the budget to the State Pension Fund, however.
The actual effect of the social welfare system has differed greatly from its stated goals. During the late Soviet period, Azerbaijanis complained that their social benefits ranked near the bottom among the Soviet republics. The economic dislocations that followed independence eroded those benefits even further. In December 1993, the government estimated that 80 percent of the Azerbaijani population was living below the poverty level, even though about 15 percent of the gross domestic product was spent on social security benefits.
The minimum monthly wage is set by presidential decree, but several increases in the minimum wage in 1992-93 failed to keep pace with the high rate of inflation. Retirement pensions, based on years of service and average earnings, also fell behind the cost of living in that period.
In the postcommunist era, government price controls have also been used to ease the transition from the centrally planned economy. In 1992 subsidies were introduced to keep prices low for such items as bread, meat, butter, sugar, cooking oil, local transportation, housing, and medical care. At that point, the price-support safety net was expected to absorb at least 7 percent of the projected national budget. At the end of 1993, major increases in bread and fuel prices heightened social tensions and triggered riots because compensation to poor people, students, and refugees was considered inadequate.
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