Tragic and Heroic Page of Azerbaijan History
As years go by, many memorable events throughout history remain in people's minds. The bloody tragedy perpetrated against the people of Azerbaijan on January 20, 1990 is forever etched in memories. Though it is painful to return to those days, every year Azerbaijani people commemorate the innocent victims of the tragedy and pay tribute to all those who died for their right of national independence.
The disintegration processes in the USSR peaked in the late 1980s, which was largely due to the revitalisation of national liberation movements in the former Soviet Union republics. 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 prevent 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 location of such an operation was not accidental, because it was the “weakest link” in the chain of republics at the forefront of the struggle for sovereignty. The point is that unlike the Baltic States and South Caucasus neighbours, Azerbaijan did not have influential benefactors in the West. At the same time, Azerbaijan was the only republic with a predominantly Muslim population. This 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.
The nights of 19 and 20 January 1990, the Soviet armed forces, as well as armored vehicles entered Baku, Sumgayit, and also other cities of the country unexpectedly. Landing troops brought by military vessels with the use of tanks and other military equipment shot at civilians. Eventually, international legal norms, the relevant provisions of the former USSR, as well as Azerbaijan SSR constitutions were severely violated and a crime was committed against humanity and the multinational people of Azerbaijan rose to defend their lands.
Military forces entered the city of Baku and killed 147 unarmed civilians including the elderly, women and children mercilessly regardless of their nationality, age and sex. In addition to those killed, 744 innocent people were injured in the capital city and surrounding settlements and districts, hundreds went missing and 841 people were unlawfully imprisoned. Even ambulances and physicians carrying the injured were also shot at; as a result, medical staff became martyrs. After a declaration of a state of emergency on 20 January an additional 21 people were killed. Prohibited weapons and supplies were used during these attacks, causing immeasurable destruction. The energy bloc of the state television was bombed in order to hide from the population the official information about the entrance of the armed forces into the city.
Immediately after the tragedy, on January 21, 1990, national leader Heydar Aliyev and his family members visited the office of Azerbaijan`s permanent representation in Moscow. He expressed solidarity with his people, sharply condemned the Soviet leadership for committing the bloody tragedy and exposed those who led the operation: “I consider the events that took place in Azerbaijan as a violation of law, democracy, and of humanity… and the principles of constitutional state building… Had necessary measures been taken by the top party leadership at the beginning of the Nagorno-Karabakh events, we would not have faced escalated tensions that led to the deadly military assault launched on civilians on the night of 19 to 20 January 1990. Everyone involved in this crime must be appropriately punished.”
Of course, the USSR leaders did achieve certain tactical successes by managing to temporarily destabilise 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. However, 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 civilised democratic state and led to a mobilisation 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 their fellow countrymen who were killed. People were moved not only by grief and pain but also by the desire to show that their spirit was still strong.
The first political-legal recognition of the 20th of January tragedy came on 29 March 1994, when Azerbaijan’s legislative body Milli Majlis adopted a relevant resolution on national leader Heydar Aliyev`s initiative. The resolution read: “The deployment of the Soviet troops in the city of Baku and several other regions and the brutal killing of civilians, with the intent to suppress, to break the confidence and will of a people who by peaceful means demanded a new democratic and sovereign state and to humiliate their national identity as a show of Soviet army power must be regarded as a military aggression and crime of the totalitarian communist regime against the people of Azerbaijan.”
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 legitimised what was achieved in January 1990.
The people of Azerbaijan continue to hold the memories of the martyrs dear to their hearts. On January 20 of each year, thousands of people visit the Alley of Martyrs to pay their tributes by laying flowers, say prayers for the victims and express their condemnation of the perpetrators of the tragedy. Each year at midday on January 20, a nationwide moment of silence is observed to commemorate the 20 January martyrs. Ships, cars, and trains sound sirens throughout the country, commemorative events are held in all cities and towns, and the national flag is lowered on all buildings. 20 January 1990 remains a day which went down in history as a heroism page of the struggle for the freedom and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.