January 20 is a very important day for Americans because that is the day every four years when the President is inaugurated. But it is also one of the most important, if not the most important, date in the history of Azerbaijan.
It was on Saturday, January 20, 1990, that 26,000 Soviet troops under orders from Mikhail Gorbachev invaded Baku, killed one hundred forty innocent civilians, and set in motion the events which led to Azerbaijan’s independence a year and a half later. The significance of the events in Baku on January 20, 1990 cannot be overestimated. Peaceful demonstrations had been taking place for several weeks in downtown Baku, protesting Soviet control of Azerbaijan and the arbitrary decisions (dictated by Moscow) of local communist officials.
In fact, Azerbaijan was the first of the former Soviet republics to mount a serious move toward independence, and it was the prospect of a breakup of the Soviet empire that prompted Gorbachev to send both armored troops and KGB officials into Baku. He succeeded temporarily in preventing independence, but he was unable to stop the quest for freedom, and, in fact, accelerated the process by enhancing nationalistic feelings among all Azerbaijani people.
It is interesting now, seven years later, to look back at those events and the world’s reaction at the time. Gorbachev, of course, was something of a hero in the West because of his policies of glasnost and perestroika. But, in fact, Gobachev had no intention of breaking up the Soviet Union he merely wanted to “reform” communism to extend its life.
The Washington Post reported on January 21, 1990 that the situation in Azerbaijan had “presented Gorbachev with his ’gravest crisis’ since taking power in March 1985.” On January 23, The Washington Times reported that some Soviet experts warned “that Azerbaijan could become Moscow’s next Afghanistan, but some U.S. experts believe that it might become the Kremlin’s Northern Ireland.”
Throughout the 70 years of Soviet reign, Moscow used ethnic differences and tensions to maintain internal control. Stain was master of the divide and conquer game. He transplanted thousands of people of various ethnic backgrounds to either dilute their strength or to counter other ethnic groups. In Azerbaijan’s case, he expelled several hundred thousands Azerbaijanis from Armenia and gave a strip of land to Armenia that separated Azerbaijan from its region of Nakhichevan, both to internally divide Azerbaijanis and to prevent a direct link between Azerbaijan proper and Turkey.
In 1988, the ethnic conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan began when ethnic Armenians in the Azerbaijani region of Nagorno Karabakh unilaterally declared their independence. While neither the Soviet Union nor any other nation gave recognition to this unilateral declaration of independence, reactionary forces used the conflict to keep Armenians and Azerbaijanis divided and, therefore, under tight Soviet control.
Soviet army and Spetznaz troops fired indiscriminately at civilians, some of whom were merely watching events from their windows or the sidewalks. Ambulances carrying the wounded were fired upon. The Washington Post reported January 22 that Russian photographer told Western reporters in Moscow, who were banned from travelling to Baku, that “Soviet soldiers fired at almost anything that moved in the early hours of their occupation.” Again in classic Soviet fashion, Soviet military authorities announced on January 23 that no one had been killed in Baku since the Saturday invasion, while at the same time more than one million Azerbaijanis gathered to mourn the dead who were buried in a park overlooking Baku, now known as the Martyr’s Cemetery.
The West, fearful of undermining Gorbachev, was very circumspect in its reaction. The press reported January 26 that President Bush said Gorbachev had done a “remarkable job” in handling the situation in Azerbaijan and that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told the House of Commons she had “great sympathy” for Gorbachev as “he tries to keep his nation from unravelling.” The Washington Post reported on January 21 that the White House “expressed regret at the ’already heavy loss of life’ in Azerbaijan, and called ’upon all involved to act with restraint in the use of force and to show respect for the rule of law and the rights of individuals concerned.”
A more candid assessment of the West’s reaction came in a January 21 Washington Post dispatch: “As ethnic strife and secessionist pressures buffet the Soviet Union, U.S. officials have been forced to acknowledge that the United States has a stake in President Mikhail Gorbachev’s survival that now outweighs the old Cold War hope that the U. S. S. R. might fragment or fall apart.” What the West failed to comprehend was that the events in Baku that January seven years ago were for Azerbaijan no different from what happened in Budapest, Hungary in 1956 and Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1968.
While some in the West may have been fooled by Gorbachev’s justifications, the Azerbaijani people were not fooled. They instinctively knew – as did the people of Hungary and Czechoslovakia — that what was happening was the destruction of their freedom. That’s why thousands of Azerbaijanis surrounded Communist Party headquarters demanding the resignation of the republic’s leadership. That’s why thousands of Azerbaijanis in Turkey rallied near Turkey’s border with Azerbaijan. That’s why the Baku City Council demanded that Soviet troops be withdrawn. That’s why even the Soviet legislature in Azerbaijan condemned the occupation as “unconstitutional” and threatened to call a referendum on secession unless Soviet troops were withdrawn within 48 hours. That’s why there were reports of mutiny by Soviet Azerbaijani military cadets, and why Azerbaijani oil tankers blocked Soviet naval vessels from reaching the Baku harbor.
Despite a news blackout, hundreds of Azerbaijanis in Moscow used short-wave radios to listen to Voice of America and BBC to learn what was happening in Baku. Many of these Azerbaijanis gathered in Moscow seeking information and demanding explanations. At that point, on the day after the invasion, Azerbaijan’s current President Heydar Aliyev – who was living in retirement in Moscow – made his first public appearance since his resignation from the Soviet Politburo and Government in 1987. He broke the information blockade in Moscow concerning the Soviet attack, and strongly urged international condemnation of the invasion.
Soviet troops were eventually withdrawn from Baku, but political control was maintained for almost another two years until Azerbaijan’s parliament declared independence in October, 1991. Azerbaijan has maintained its independence for five years, despite lingering economic and social problems from the Soviet era, and despite the military occupation of 20 percent of Azerbaijan by Armenia. The Republic of Azerbaijan has a freely elected president and parliament, the beginnings of free market reforms led by the energy sector, and, most importantly, no foreign troops on its soil.
Yes, January 20 is an important date in American political history. It symbolizes American democracy and freedom. By the same token, January 20 is perhaps the most important date in the history of the new Republic of Azerbaijan. For it was on that date that the citizens of Azerbaijan stood up to Soviet bullets and tanks; martyrs gave their lives to begin the struggle for freedom from communism and dictatorship. Indeed, January 20, 1990, in Baku, Azerbaijan, the fate of the Soviet empire was sealed, because it quickly became apparent that even the might of the Soviet military could not extinguish the hopes and dreams of a people seeking freedom and independence.
Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan – Washington, D.C. – January 20, 1997
Hafiz M.. Pashayev
JANUARY 20, 1990 IS A SPECIAL DAY IN AZERBAIJAN’S HISTORY