Accessibility links

Breaking News

Twenty Years After 'Black January,' Azerbaijan Still Struggles For Freedom

The bodies of protesters slain by Soviet troops, January 20, 1990
The bodies of protesters slain by Soviet troops, January 20, 1990
Twenty years ago today, on January 20, 1990, Soviet troops stormed Baku by order of the Kremlin in an ultimately failed attempt to save Communist rule and put down Azerbaijan's independence movement.

For several days, those 26,000 troops cracked down on protesters, firing into crowds without warning and killing more than 200 people. At least 700 were injured. Moscow declared emergency rule, which lasted for more than a year. Thousands of Popular Front members and sympathizers were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured.

I remember that cold, windy January night well. I was keeping vigil with some friends on one of the main roads leading from the airport into the city. I couldn't get in touch with my parents, who had gone into the city in hopes of finding me. Later I saw my father's tears for the first time in my life; he and my mother had gone to the morgues in search of me, finding instead the bodies of dozens of dead lining bloodstained corridors. They saw the bodies of women and children, of Azeris, of Tatars, of Armenians, of Jews, of Lezgins, of Russians. All of them ordinary citizens of Baku.

I remember walking the streets as the sun rose that morning, seeing tanks and armored personnel carriers topped with young soldiers with guns at the ready. The country was in a state of disbelief: no one thought that, after the bloody events in Tbilisi on April 9, 1989, Moscow would dare to use the army against civilians again. We were still gripped by the "Tbilisi syndrome" -- the naive belief that such a tragedy could not happen again.

Later, I remember the mass burial of hundreds of victims at Baku's Shehidler Khiyabani (Martyrs' Alley). Millions attended the funeral. The harbor was clogged with small private boats blaring their horns. Azerbaijan was united like never before. The era of the Soviet Union was over.

The traditional 40-day mourning period was marked by a national strike in honor of those who had stood up and sacrificed their lives for freedom. Factories ground to a standstill and people stayed home from work.

Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov explained the attack saying, "We came to destroy the political structure of the Popular Front to prevent their victory in the upcoming elections scheduled for March 19, 1990," he said.

Other Soviet officials were less blunt and tried to spin the tragedy. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev defended the invasion by citing the supposedly imminent danger of Islamic fundamentalism in Azerbaijan.

Other officials used tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region as a pretext for the occupation. Indeed, violence against ethnic Armenians in Baku had erupted one week earlier on January 13, killing around 50 people. Thirteen thousand Interior Ministry troops that were stationed in Baku did not nothing to stop the violence.

Still Hoping For Freedom

The invasion did not turn out as the Soviet leadership intended. The Red Army killed the last shreds of hope among Azerbaijanis that the Soviet Union could somehow be reformed and preserved. Twenty months later, Azerbaijan declared its independence. Hundreds of thousands of people made the symbolic gesture of burning their Communist Party cards.

Looking back on those events 20 years later, the feeling of pride remains. Azerbaijan is an independent country. It has its own military and currency. It is an important player in regional energy and security issues. It is a major Caspian-region transit hub.

But while independence has been established, freedom has been more elusive. The crowds that faced down the Soviet tanks, after all, were crying out mostly for freedom.

"Not free" is Freedom House's terse assessment of Azerbaijan today. The NGO cites the country's lack of democratic institutions, free media, and an independent judiciary. The Council of Europe decries the detentions of political prisoners and journalists. Transparency International, an NGO that monitors corruption, says the government is "highly corrupt."

Free states are stronger than authoritarian ones because they are accountable to the people and rule with popular consent. Baku's current rulers should remember that even Soviet tanks could not keep the Communist bosses in power for long after popular will turned decidedly against them.

In the first week after the 1990 invasion, local state television was shut down. Soviet agents had blown up the Baku broadcast transmitters hours before the tanks rolled in. Only the Azeri-language programs of Radio Liberty, broadcasting from Munich, broke through the media blackout. The short-wave broadcasts of Radio Azadliq were a lifeline to the outside world, and a symbol of hope and the dream of freedom for the protesters.

It is sadly ironic that now -- 20 years later -- the Azerbaijan government has banned international broadcasting in the country and Radio Azadliq, its mission far from accomplished, is again broadcasting only on short-wave frequencies and satellite.

Could Azerbaijan witness another "Black January"? Russia's military intervention in Georgia in August 2008 gives new meaning to the term "Tbilisi syndrome" and suggests that anything is possible.

Moscow's growing ambitions in what it still calls "the near abroad" should not be underestimated. The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh remains unresolved and continues to afford the Kremlin an excuse for meddling in the region. If a crisis comes, can the government in Baku count on the support of its citizens?

January 20, 1990, was a crucial trial by fire for Azerbaijan as a nation. Today's anniversary reminds us that the struggle for what the protesters then demanded remains unfinished.

Kenan Aliyev is the director of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
This article was originally published in 2009.