Azerbaijan: Black January

This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.

As much of the world celebrated the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, Azerbaijan mourned the 19th anniversary of an event which ultimately led to its independence from the former Soviet Union. With Moscow's power over its satellites weakened, ethnic tensions in the South Caucasus would soon erupt into war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.

Many among Armenia's ethnic Azerbaijani population had already fled or been forced to leave the country in 1988 and continued to do so over the next year, and clashes in Nagorno Karabakh which left 2 Azeris dead and 50 Armenians wounded stoked existing tensions. Three days later, anti-Armenian pogroms in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait resulted in the deaths of at least 6 Azeris and 26 ethnic Armenians.

As stories of mutual violence between the two ethnic groups continued to circulate, the situation quickly escalated, and on 13 January 1990 another anti-Armenian pogram broke out in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. Figures vary, but anywhere between 48 and 66 — or possibly more — ethnic Armenians were killed.

By 19 January, most of the city's Armenian minority had fled, and the next day Soviet tanks and thousands of soldiers had already moved in ostensibly to stem the ethnic violence which had reportedly subsided. Until this day, questions linger as to why it took so long for Moscow to react, but Human Rights Watch alleges that the military incursion had been planned long before.

Indeed, the international human rights organization and other independent observers conclude that the intervention was staged not to protect ethnic Armenians, but to prevent the victory of pro-independence political forces in elections scheduled the following month. At least 130 people were killed and 700 wounded in what is now known as “Black January.”

Presently on a short visit to Azerbaijan, Anna Takes a Trip comments.

Although today was a joyful day for the U.S., it was a sad day of mourning and remembrance here in Baku. On the 20th of January (“Black January”) they remember the day in 1990 when after rumblings of possible independence Soviet troops rolled in and killed dozens of innocent civilian protestors. The entire city goes up to “Martyr’s Avenue,” an absolutely stunning and beautiful monument that ends with a perpetual fire overlooking the city and the Caspian Sea. You could actually feel the sadness in the air. In 1991 Azerbaijan successfully declared its independence from the USSR.

Learning to Walk in Stilettos also remarks on the day, coming as it did as Obama was sworn into office, while “Side-tALKS” Azerbaijan reflects on what the anniversary means for the country nearly two decades later.

Its now 19 years since the sons and daughters of Azerbaijan gave their life for freedom. These martyrs were victims of the then Kremlin aggression. A defeat on human freedom was a typical characteristic of the communism ideology. Therefore on every hint on the people’s inclination to emancipation, Kremlin had acted with severe military actions.

On that faithful, the 20th of January 1990, the Azerbaijan population woke up to witness a great number of the Russia army in their capital Baku. The direct order wasn’t exact but the consequences of the day was so clear –there were hundreds of innocent civilians -men, women and children killed particularly in the center of the capital city. There were fathers went to work and never returned; children went to school, bidding their parents good bye without realizing that that was the last good bye they will ever wish them. Women went to market and never returned; wives and husbands were separated by death prematurely.

Sheki, Azerbaijan comments from a local perspective.

USSR era ended for Azerbaijan with last massacre Soviet Army has brought upon it on 19-20 January, 1990…

In short Azerbaijan Republic had declared independence and Soviet Army entered on tanks and with Kalashnikovs in their hands to show power and who was in charge… Although USSR government knew that USSR was collapsing and Republics were going independent, government didn’t want to give away the last chance of showing its deep hatred toward free minds and people I must say in general…


I will neither go into details of wildness when tanks were going over armless people and soldiers were shooting to every window they saw light in…


I am a woman, mother, spouse and sister and I don’t believe into wars and revenge. To me the most valuable thing on planet Earth is a life of a person, of any person…We had two explosions in Baku tube during last ten years…The country is in ceasefire but now and then coffins of some young guys go back to their homes and ruin lives of their families…I am following the news from places like Gaza, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, civil wars in Africa and it is unfortunate to see what people are doing… […]

20 January is the day Azerbaijanis pay tribute to those who gave their lives for the country's independence…

Sapanov [RU], the blog of a Russian living in Baku, remembers events as they happened.

Напрямую меня те страшные события не коснулись. Но беда была вокруг. У соседского сотрудника погибла 12-летняя дочь Лариса. Погиб врач скорой помощи Александр Мархевка, выехавший к раненым… Страшная была ночь. Да и вообще времена жуткие. До сих пор помню патрульные БТР, гоняющие под окнами, военные палатки на Московском проспекте и автоматчиков, исподлобья поглядывающих на любопытных и мало что понимающих детишек.

Those terrible events didn’t effect me directly, but the evil was everywhere. Neighbor’s 12 years old daughter, Larisa was killed. Alexander Markhevka, ambulance doctor who drove out to help wounded was also killed… It was a terrible night. Even today I recall armored vehicles patrolling the streets, military tents in Moscow Avenue and soldiers with submachine guns – kids frowning at the curious and hardly understanding anything.

Meanwhile, Doctor Ziya [AZ], posts photographs of American journalist Thomas Goltz being interviewed by the Azadliq Azeri service of RFE/RL. It also quotes the well-known specialist on Azerbaijan who likens the day to 4 July in the United States.

«Əlbəttə, həmin günlərdə ölənlərə görə məyusam, kədərlənirəm. Amma nəticədə axı siz müstəqilliyi əldə etdiniz. Bu tarix sizin üçün ABŞ-da qeyd olunan Müstəqillik Günü kimi, 4 İyul kimi olmalıdır. Buna fəxrlə yanaşmaq lazımdır, ağlamaq yox».

Of course I am sorry for people perished those days. However, as a result you acquired independence. This date should be to you as the Independence Day in US. You should be proud, not to mourn.

Now that its broadcasts have been banned in the country, Azadliq continues to use its website to disseminate news and images, including a photo slide show of images from that fateful day.

This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices.


  • Sedrak, you brought one example and I brought many which I consider to be more globally and generically relevant.

    If the Azeri, US and even Armenian government refer to Azeris as just that or as Azerbaijanis as well as the CIA, BBC, CNN, Reuters, AP, and god knows who else, I think we’ve pretty much exhausted this conversation.

    Still, I will at least commend you for not doing what most Armenians here do. That is, refer to Azeris simply as “Turks.” I’m also glad that this discussion has been civil and we’ll just agree to disagree.

    I made it clear my concern about the term, you’re responded and so on. Nothing more to add.

  • Onnik jan,
    I didn’t met many examples concerning calling citizens of Azerbaijan “ethnic Azerbaijanis” that you gave, while my position is unchanged – we should not propagate calling citizens of one country ethnic that country men, because a Turks living in Azerbaijan is not ethnically Azerbaijanian, as well as Turk living in Russia not ethnically Russian, and living in for instance France – ethnically French, and there can not be doubt about it no matter how many international agencies call them so and no matter how much they themselves are touched when hear they are not Turks :)

    By the way here is article in Wiki about original Azeri language: which is dead since 17th century, Iranian – Indo-Arian language replaced by Altai Language family, Turkish branch of languages, Azerbaijani modern. A good manual for presenting what those “ethnic Azerbaijanis” are.

    peace! :)

  • Sedrak, I use the term “ethnic Azeri” when referring to Azerbaijanis living in Armenia. I also use the term “ethnic Armenian” to refer to Armenians living in Azerbaijan. However, I use the term “Azeri” or “Azerbaijani” when referring to those living in Azerbaijan, and “Armenian” for those Armenians living in Armenia.

    The term “ethnic” is being used to differentiate between those Armenians living in Armenia and those living in Azerbaijan who would otherwise be Azerbaijani or Armenian citizens, and those Azeris living in Armenia and those living in Azerbaijan who would otherwise be Armenian or Azerbaijani citizens. It’s standard journalistic practice when dealing with ethnic conflicts.

    Of course, in a perfect world and in a region where citizenship still means nothing and the ethnic fault lines remain volatile, I would love to be able to refer to people first by their citizenship or at least as “Azerbaijani-Armenian” (if not Azerbaijani of Armenian descent) or “Armenian-Azerbaijani” (if not Armenian of Azerbaijani descent).

    However, the nature of ethnic politics, conflict and nationalism in this region makes that impossible and not representative of the situation on the ground. This also extends to Georgia where ethnic Armenians and ethnic Azerbaijanis should first and foremost be Georgian citizens with the same rights as ethnic Georgians as well as the right to have their own national identity.

    Unfortunately, the South Caucasus isn’t quite defined that way.

  • I would add, not only the nature of ethnic politics in the region makes that impossible, but also elementary human logic :)

  • Oh, and btw Sedrak, yes, PEACE! :-)

    This region needs it, but even without it we’ll grab a beer when next we run into each other. :-)

  • Sedrak, sorry, I disagree. This is why most of Europe and the United States, for example, is different from regions such as the South Caucasus.

    For example, is Barack Obama an American? For sure he is. Next, is an ethnic Armenian born and raised in the U.S. or the U.K. first an American or British citizen or not?

    Yes, I understand, the countries and geographical regions are different. However, the source of the problems in this region, in my opinion, are first and foremost rooted in ethnic nationalism.

    Yes, they also existed on the same scale in the West hundreds of years ago, and they still exist today. However, the comparison is very relevant.

    Ultimately, any ethnicity born in any country should be protected under the law of the country they were born in and have the same rights as everyone else.

    Unfortunately, this is not the situation in the South Caucasus. Hell, socio-economic classes are discriminated against and abused regardless of their ethnicity. However, this needs to change.

    Yes, I know, now you’ll call me a “pseudo-liberal” again… ;-)

  • Have the idea of drinking bear at weekend made you come back to the issue again?! :)

    Obama is citizen of the US being ethnic Kenian. Armenian brought up in the US is a citizen of the USA being ethnic Armenian. Just like people living in Azerbaijan are citizens of Azerbaijan being ethnic Turks. And no doubt about it.

  • Gunel

    Nice to see two armenians fighting each other:-)
    I support Onnik at this battle…

  • […] on a Global Voices Online post, 27 Months in Azerbaijan offers its own opinion on the 19th anniversary of the Soviet repression of […]

  • Gunel, you see some fight here? battle? I don’t.

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