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Azerbaijan: 20th anniversary of Baku pogrom and Black January

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

Today marks the 20th anniversary of Black January, the day when the fledgling independence movement in Azerbaijan was brutally suppressed by Soviet troops ostensibly to curtail inter-ethnic tensions between ethnic Armenian and Azeris living in the capital, Baku. A week earlier, following an anti-Armenian pogrom in Sumgait which left at least 32 people dead in February 1988, dozens of ethnic Armenians were killed.

Last year, Global Voices Online summarized the chronology of events as well as reaction to the 19th anniversary.

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.

With at least 130 people killed as a result of the Soviet incursion, the week of 13-20th January 1990 remains etched in the hearts and minds of both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Given the war over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh that it would soon usher in, and the independence that ethnic conflict would soon define, both sides naturally recount events selectively.

Armenians, for example, allege that more of their ethnic kin died while believing that the crackdown by Soviet troops was for their protection. Azerbaijanis, on the other hand, see the intervention only as a means to prevent their country from seceding from the former Soviet Union and rarely, if ever, mention the anti-Armenian pogroms which preceded it.

Blogs by foreign travelers with experience of the region, however, set events arguably in their proper context. Changes and Colours, for example, notes the violence that spared no one and left many caught inbetween.

[…] Twenty years ago when the movement for independence from the Soviet Union was gaining momentum, a wave of nationalistic pogroms erupted in the country. In a city once known for its multinational culture people turned on each other “man against man, neighbor against neighbor.” Some chose to become hunters, some, not given a choice, became hunted. People were killed and those who weren’t fled the city. On the night from the 19th to 20th of January 1990 Soviet troops entered Baku and again innocent people were killed. […]

Twenty years have passed but the memories of those days are still throbbing. One woman told me how she and her small kids huddled in the bathroom close to the floor because so many people were killed by stray bullets. “I still remember the crack running in the center of my tiles,” she said. The other told of the painful realization that people whom you knew could so easily turn against you. “We were neighbors, you know,” she kept repeating, even after 20 years shaking her head in disbelief.

Whenever I listen to people talk about those days – I inevitably notice the faraway look of souls lost in the past and when after a pause they return to conversation, they say, “Let’s not talk about it, it was so long ago” and then there is silence.

These selective interpretations and accounts of January 1990 from Armenians and Azerbaijanis, however, are not only perpetuated through the local media, but also carried through on blogs. Of course, the loss to both sides was painful and this is perhaps to be expected. Marika, for example, marked the 20th anniversary of the Baku pogrom simply.

[…]. It was on January 13th 1990 when «cleansing» of Baku from Armenian population statred and resulted in 400 Armenians killed and 200 thousand exiled.

Meanwhile, the blog of the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy doesn't mention the pogrom at all and instead concentrates only on the Soviet intervention, using the anniversary to also talk only of reported ethnic violence against Azerbaijanis by Armenians.

It was 20 January 1990 and it was time to respond Azerbaijanis. The response became the expected horror – violence! 26.000 Soviet troops were sent to Baku. Not for settling the conflict. Because the conflict was occurring in Garabagh.

Meanwhile, Yerevan Journal quotes media reports on violence and attrocities against ethnic Armenians in Baku while Window on Eurasia analyzes events and says that, as in Armenia, January 1990 represented the “Karabakhization” of internal politics in the country.

[…] it is a reminder of the continuing sensitivity of the events of a generation ago in the Caucasus now, an impact that any who are seeking to address the problems there must not only acknowledge but also face up to, all the more now because these feelings have been allowed to fester so long.

Even among young bloggers in Azerbaijan, barely old enough to remember the events of those days, Black January remains an event stuck in their consciousness. Fatalin's Blog, for example, admits that it was too young to remember much, but those days appear alive enough to warrant an extended post.

It’s been 20 years since the tragedy, and I’m not a four-year-old who knows what bullets were used on January 20th anymore. But I know for sure, that I wouldn’t want my kids to know what is tracer bullet at the age of 4, to watch their mom edit scary footages of tragedy, or hear their dad calling from the KGB, war zone, or a demonstration.

[…]

It’s been 20 years since the tragedy of 20th January, which killed 130 and injured around 700 people.

Allah rehmet elesin.

Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines also feels the same.

It was the middle of the night, January 19th 1990, tanks started passing by our house… I remember… My mother screamed so loud that I still hear the sound of her voice in my ears every time I think of that night… I was standing by the window, trying to make out the huge machines that were coming… Back then I didn't know what was going on, I was only 7 but I knew it was not good. My mother's concerned face wasn't good. She was afraid and so were many others that night.

That night Soviet troops crashed barricades storming the capital. There was shooting everywhere.

Yet, if Azerbaijanis fail to mention the anti-Armenian pogroms which gave Moscow what Human Rights Watch alleges was an excuse to intervene, and while Armenians inflate the death toll and fail to mention the pogroms as part of a mutual downward spiral into inter-ethnic violence, one regional expert and analyst considers both the Baku pogrom and Black January to be part of the same tragic event.

[…] Thomas de Waal has called this pogrom the first part of “Black January” a tragedy with about 90 Armenian victims. According to him, at first a large crowd collected in the Lenin Square of Baku, and at nightfall different groups separated from the Azerbaijani Popular Front demonstrants, and started to attack Armenians. […] Several eyewitnesses told Helsinki Watch/Memorial that they “approached militiamen on the street to report nearby attacks on Armenians, but the militiamen did nothing”.[10]

With the onset of independence for the two South Caucasus countries stained with blood, The Armenian Observer instead criticizes both Armenians and Azerbaijanis, implying that that a selective or subjective account of history does nothing to ease the pain or resolve an ethnic conflict which still continues to this day.

Twenty years ago today seven-day pogroms broke out against Armenians in Baku, with various sources citing a death toll of 48 to 400. Tens of thousands of Armenians, or, according to some Armenian sources, as many as 200 thousand were exiled from their homes. Baku was effectively cleaned of Armenians. Evidence suggests, that the action was organized by Azerbaijani authorities, as the attackers had lists of Armenians and their addresses.

This is one of the many bleeding wounds caused by the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. And as with most other ongoing conflicts, Armenians and Azerbaijanis try to distort history and tilt it in their own favor. Quite expectedly, Armenian media is full of articles today about the pogroms. Some have gone so far as to liken the pogroms in Baku to the Genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman empire.

This approach, however, is not acceptable to me. Pogroms of Armenians in Baku were most tragic events. Fuss, lies, exaggerations and attempts to score political points here are completely inappropriate. Stating bare facts is so horrible, that there is no need to exaggerate anything. And I don’t see the point in pressing the wound so hard – it doesn’t heal that way. Let’s just prey in silence. RIP

Unfortunately, however, few other bloggers on both sides appear to agree with one Azerbaijani blogger writing over Skype that accounts are determined only by what is taught in schools or published in the local media. For now, at least, it is perhaps therefore understandable that most blogs continue to toe the same line.

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

9 comments

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by RuFreeman and Onnik Krikorian, Sergiy. Sergiy said: Azerbaijan: 20th anniversary of Baku pogrom and Black January: Today marks the 20th anniversary of Bla… http://bit.ly/5AGRcy #world #news […]

  • Levon Ter Petrosyan

    ”and while Armenians inflate the death toll and fail to mention the pogroms as part of a mutual downward spiral into inter-ethnic violence,”

    Pogroms or a genocide can never be explained by ”a mutual downword spiral”, but as you are anti-Armenian, you justify the killings of the Armenians and are stating that Armenians are just ”inflating” everything.

    Perhaps you do not even believe that hundreds of thousands of Armenians got killed during the Genocide.

  • agil

    The martyrs of January 20 led non-violent struggle for independence, though their lives ended very violently. If Soviet Union wanted to prevent ethnic violence they would have intervened at least in 1987-88 when 100s of 1000s Azeris were cleansed out of Armenia. By the end of 1988 there were practically no Azeris left in Armenia. Their forced exile resulted in pogroms of Sumgait. The world and Soviets stood silent as Yerevan, Kafan and other regions of Armenia were cleansed of Azeris. Majority of Armenians lived in Azerbaijan till 90s – years after Armenia completed its ethnic cleansing. But when it came to question of independence of Azerbaijan all of the sudden Soviets had to stop the ethnic violence. January 20 invasion was planned month in advance. All the weapons of Azeri police and military was collected 3 months ahead to avoid any significant resistance, and Armenian card and Mulslim extremism was played for an excuse to invade. what sort of muslim extremism can you talk about in 1990 in Soviet Azerbaijan? 130 dead and 700 wounded civilians later most of Baku Armenians were taken out of Azerbaijan by Soviet troops and not forced out by locals as was the case in Armenia couple years earlier.

  • Paul Anderson

    This article never mentioned that armenians were the ones who started mass destruction in Azerbaijan and therefore Azeris had to fight back and supress the those who started killing Azeris in Sumgayit roughly at the same time when occupation of Azerbaijan began by Armenians. If the article is posted (such as this), please provide full story and not one-sided bias blog. Thanks!

  • […] Azerbaijan: 20th anniversary of Baku pogrom and Black January […]

  • Vugar Seidov

    By the end of 1989, the political power almost in entire Azerbaijan was taken over by the Popular Front. Communist authorities controlled only their administrative building, nothing else. Popular Front was indeed very popular those days. It was clear to Moscow that in the next republican elections, the campaign of which was supposed to start in mid-February, 1990, the Popular Front would take almost all the seats in the parliament. The latter did not make any secret that its first decree in the new parliament would be complete independence of Azerbaijan. And that would have been the first republic to declare its independence, even before the Balts.

    While Moscow could bear the loss of some other republics, it was unthinkable for the Kremlin to lose energy rich Azerbaijan, whose natural wealth could help to slow down further disintegration of the empire and ease the economic collapse even despite the low oil prices in the world market those years. Besides (but not the least), Moscow wanted to teach the others (especially the Baltic nations and Georgians) a “good lesson”. So, Azerbaijan was the natural target for the crackdown to pick.

    Moscow charged the Kryuchkov-led KGB to begin planning the crackdown of the Popular Front to prevent its coming to power during the approaching elections. It needed a good pretext to intervene. KGB received this task well before the January events, some time in the end of 1989. The last Armenian residents who had not yet fled the Azerbaijani capital represented a wonderful chance for Moscow to boil the situation in the city. The pogroms were organized by KGB, they took place between 13 and 15 January, and by January 16 all the Armenian survivors had been evacuated. Soviet troops that were stationed in the city simply watched the disturbances and did not act. I saw this with my own eyes. Why? They had the order not to intervene, and that’s what the soldiers told me when asked about their inaction. Moscow needed the pogrom, it organized it and used it. As of 16 January, Armenians were not an issue any more, there were no more pogroms, no Armenians left in their apartments. Then how come Soviet troops that silently watched the violence all those three days long suddenly came to save Armenians five days after the end of the pogrom – on 20 January?

    This is a lie! It is a myth. The Soviet troops were sent to Baku not to save Armenians, but to save the USSR. Interesting fact – after the troops had entered Baku, they did not even bother to head for the areas where Armenians used to live. Their main concern was taking over the governmental buildings and the headquarters of the Popular Front, blow up the TV station, close down newspapers. What did all these have to do with Armenian residence? Nothing! The army did NOT care about the Armenians. It used them.

    Of course, Armenians today argue (for the purely propaganda purpose) that the army came to save “Christian Armenians” from the “barbarians”. That’s plain bullshit! Well, Armenians may think whatever they want to think. If they are sure that this argument will support their Nagorno Karabakh cause, no one minds – they can argue whatever they want to argue. But this is just not true! Moscow sent the army not to save Armenians (whom it used in the most cynical way), but to crush the independence movement! Baku was profoundly different from Sumgait. In Sumgait, the pogroms were spontaneous, Moscow was caught in surprise and it sent the army to stop pogroms. In Baku, Moscow itself organized the pogroms because it needed it.

    Vugar Seidov
    Berlin

  • Vugar Seidov

    By the end of 1989, the political power almost in entire Azerbaijan was taken over by the Popular Front. Communist authorities controlled only their administrative building, nothing else. Popular Front was indeed very popular those days. It was clear to Moscow that in the next republican elections, the campaign of which was supposed to start in mid-February, 1990, the Popular Front would take almost all the seats in the parliament. The latter did not make any secret that its first decree in the new parliament would be complete independence of Azerbaijan. And that would have been the first republic to declare its independence, even before the Balts.

    While Moscow could bear the loss of some other republics, it was unthinkable for the Kremlin to lose energy rich Azerbaijan, whose natural wealth could help to slow down further disintegration of the empire and ease the economic collapse even despite the low oil prices in the world market those years. Besides (but not the least), Moscow wanted to teach the others (especially the Baltic nations and Georgians) a “good lesson”. So, Azerbaijan was the natural target for the crackdown to pick.

    Moscow charged the Kryuchkov-led KGB to begin planning the crackdown of the Popular Front to prevent its coming to power during the approaching elections. It needed a good pretext to intervene. KGB received this task well before the January events, some time in the end of 1989. The last Armenian residents who had not yet fled the Azerbaijani capital represented a wonderful chance for Moscow to boil the situation in the city. The pogroms were organized by KGB, they took place between 13 and 15 January, and by January 16 all the Armenian survivors had been evacuated. Soviet troops that were stationed in the city simply watched the disturbances and did not act. I saw this with my own eyes. Why? They had the order not to intervene, and that’s what the soldiers told me when asked about their inaction. Moscow needed the pogrom, it organized it and used it. As of 16 January, Armenians were not an issue any more, there were no more pogroms, no Armenians left in their apartments. Then how come Soviet troops that silently watched the violence all those three days long suddenly came to save Armenians five days after the end of the pogrom – on 20 January?

    This is a lie! It is a myth. The Soviet troops were sent to Baku not to save Armenians, but to save the USSR. Interesting fact – after the troops had entered Baku, they did not even bother to head for the areas where Armenians used to live. Their main concern was taking over the governmental buildings and the headquarters of the Popular Front, blow up the TV station, close down newspapers. What did all these have to do with Armenian residence? Nothing! The army did NOT care about the Armenians. It used them. How about this: on and after 20 January, did the army save at least one Armenian? Not a single soul! It came to kill people, not to save them.

    Of course, Armenians today argue (for the purely propaganda purpose) that the army came to save “Christian Armenians” from the “barbarians”. That’s plain bullshit! Well, Armenians may think whatever they want to think. If they are sure that this argument will support their Nagorno Karabakh cause, no one minds – they can argue whatever they want to argue. But this is just not true! Moscow sent the army not to save Armenians (whom it used in the most cynical way), but to crush the independence movement! Baku was profoundly different from Sumgait. In Sumgait, the pogroms were spontaneous, Moscow was caught in surprise and it sent the army to stop the violence. In Baku, Moscow itself organized the pogroms because it needed it.

    Vugar Seidov
    Berlin

  • olga

    i remember that like it was yesterday. i was living in peacefull Belarus at the time, and my relatives called from Baku whispering in horror – there are tanks on the streets…

  • Paul, if you look at the post linked to from last year, it does mention the tensions and violence that occurred before January 1990 on both the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides:

    http://globalvoicesonline.org/2009/01/21/azerbaijan-black-january-2/

    Ironically, while you say that, “Levon Ter-Petrossyan” (an assumed name, btw) criticizes the post for the opposite reasons and mention of the mutual violence and ethnic tensions.

    There also links to relevant Wikipedia pages for anyone who wants to dig deeper into the circumstances surrounding the events 20 years ago. And, of course, there is this comments section.

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