By Aydin Balayev, Doctor of History
The developments of 20 January 1990 are considered a watershed in Azerbaijan’s modern history. They were the result of complex geopolitical processes that were unfolding in the USSR at the time. The Avenue of Martyrs www.irs-az.com 11 Disintegration processes in the USSR peaked in the late 1980s, which was largely due to the revitalization of national liberation movements in former Soviet Union republics. The said movements were particularly active in Baltic and Caucasus republics, including Azerbaijan, and in Moldova. Their key objective was to achieve sovereignty. On 23 September 1989, Azerbaijan became the first USSR republic to adopt the Constitutional Law “On sovereignty of the Azerbaijan SSR”, which established the priority of the republic’s own laws over the Union’s. That decision by the Azerbaijani parliament was a major step towards sovereignty.
It was getting increasingly obvious that Soviet leadership would be unable to reverse the centrifugal processes in the country using political methods. Under such circumstances, the government apparently decided to use force as the last resort to pre-vent the break-up of the USSR. According to the plan, a local military operation was meant to serve as “an act of intimidation” for all Union republics trying to break away. The choice of Azerbaijan as a venue of such operation was not accidental because it was the “weakest link” in the chain of republics at the fore-front of the struggle for sovereignty.
The point is that unlike the Baltic States and South Caucasus neighbors, Azerbaijan did not have influential benefactors in the West. At the same time, Azerbaijan was the only republic with a predominantly Muslims population, which provided the USSR government with the ammunition for speculating on “Islamic fundamentalism” in justifying its military operation against civilians. M.Gorbachev subsequently maintained that troops were brought into Baku to prevent the ascent of “Islamic fundamentalists” to power in Azerbaijan.
Soviet leaders were influenced by the fact that the national liberation movement in Azerbaijan was unfolding during the Karabakh conflict which broke out in the wake of Armenia’s claims on Azerbaijani lands in Nagorno-Karabakh. This justified the possible use of force because situation around Karabakh dramatically exacerbated in 1989. The escalation of tensions in the region was triggered by a decision of the Supreme Council of the Armenian SSR from 1 December 1989 on Armenia’s reunification with Nagorno-Karabakh. The ensuing activity of Armenian militants developed into an all-out war against Azerbaijan. For the first time since the outbreak of the Karabakh conflict, Armenian armed forces together with separatists were also targeting Azerbaijani districts outside the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region (NKAR).
The actually contemplative position of the USSR government and its failure to take adequate steps to thwart anti-constitutional actions of Armenia led to a further deterioration of the political situation in Azerbaijan. The then leaders of Azerbaijan’s Communist Party, completely unable to make independent political decisions, continued to follow the orders of the center even in such a critical situation. By early 1990, Azerbaijan’s leadership had fully discredited itself and lost control over the situation. Under such circumstances, the victory of opposition forces led by Azerbaijan’s Popular Front, which advocated secession from the USSR, in the parliamentary election due in April 1990 was now beyond doubt. All this served as a pretext for the military operation in Baku.
Interestingly, in this dramatic situation the republic’s previously inactive leaders suddenly became “brave” and started advocating the establishment of an armed militia. Speaking to workers of the Baku refrigerators plant in early January, the then leader of Azerbaijan A.Vezirov called on young people to join the militia and promised to provide it with arms.
It was obvious that the USSR government was masterminding a major provocation. Indeed, attacks on Armenians in Baku, orchestrated by USSR secret services and talked about from late December, were launched on 13 January 1990. Back on 30 December 1989, opposition newspaper “Azadlig” had warned the government of the possibility of unlawful acts against the Armenians living in Baku. However, the authorities, aware of the attacks being planned, did nothing to prevent them. Law-enforcement agencies and the 12,000-strong contingent of the USSR interior troops stationed in Baku at the time failed to act even after the attacks were launched. There is undeniable evidence that the troops received an order not to intervene– the USSR leaders were quite happy with the way developments were unfolding. Only thanks to the efforts by Popular Front activists was it possible to stop the attacks on 16 January.
The already precarious situation in Azerbaijan was aggravated even more by the order of the USSR Supreme Council dated 15 January 1990 “On the introduction of a state of emergency in the NKAR and several other districts”, especially its Clause 7 which stipulated the introduction of a curfew in Baku and Ganja. The order was seen in Azerbaijan as further manifestation of the center’s pro-Armenian stance because the document did not say a word about Armenia, the direct source of instability in the region.
On 16-19 January 1990, a 50,000-strong task force was set up comprising servicemen from military units of the Caucasus, Moscow, Leningrad and other regions. There were quite a few reservists in it, including those of Armenian origin who proved particularly active when the troops were brought into Baku. In fact, the biggest number of civilian victims was registered in places where reservists were deployed. Prior to the attack, the reservists were brainwashed into hating Azerbaijanis. Besides, there were many criminals among them.
The concentration of such a sizable military contingent outside Baku even after the attacks on Armenians had been stopped was evidence of the seriousness of the center’s intentions. Despite public protests and without any prior warning, Soviet troops rolled into Baku in the early hours of 20 January 1990. The advancement of troops was accompanied by firing to kill, which led to numerous civilian casualties. According to an official report of a parliamentary commission on the 19-20 January 1990 events, 131 civilians were killed and 744 wounded during the military operation in Baku.
Of course, the USSR leaders did achieve certain tactical successes by managing to temporarily destabilize the situation in Azerbaijan through the introduction of the state of emergency and installing yet another puppet in the job of the first secretary of the local Central Committee. But strategically the central government suffered a complete fiasco because 20 January 1990 signaled the beginning of the end of Soviet communist rule in Azerbaijan. The events exposed the impossibility of reforming the USSR into a civilized democratic state, led to a mobilization of national identity sentiments and encouraged people to struggle for sovereignty. This was confirmed by the funerals for the victims held on 22 January 1990. Only a day after the dreadful night, the whole of Baku took to the streets literally at gunpoint to bid farewell to the killed fellow countrymen. People were moved not only by grief and pain but also by the desire to show that their spirit was unbroken and they were ready to continue the struggle for the ideas of national freedom.
In essence, this manifestation and the subsequent 40-day nationwide strike served as an expression of national support for Azerbaijan’s state independence and as a sign that the days of the Soviet empire were numbered. In comments about the Baku developments for Sunday’s TV program Vremya, political analyst A. Tikhomirov said, “This Empire cannot be saved by the stick or the carrot.”
Despite attempts to portray 20 January 1990 as a black day, it is perhaps the most glorious date in the history of modern Azerbaijan. It was during that tragic night that unarmed Azerbaijanis, faced with armed-to-the-teeth soldiers of one of the world’s strongest armies, safeguarded their right to independence. The adoption by the Azerbaijani parliament on 18 October 1991 of a constitutional act on independence only legitimized what was achieved in January 1990.
One may also draw a parallel with the developments of the early 20th century. The declaration of independence by the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic on 28 May 1918 also followed tragic events of March – murderous attacks on civilian Azerbaijanis in Baku, Guba, Lenkoran, Goychay, as well as Karabakh and Zangezur. The attacks were perpetrated by armed units of the Baku council made up of Red Army and Dashnak Armenian militants. Thousands of women, children and old people were brutally killed. As we can see, history repeats itself not only in terms of the sequence but also in terms of participants in the events. Freedom can only be achieved at the expense of human life…