Twenty years ago on the 19th January 1990, Soviet tanks rolled into Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan [then a Soviet republic] to “restore order” after Azeri nationalists organised demonstrations across the country, demanding independence from th Soviet Union. In the south of the country, people started pulling down the border fence with Iran, demanding union with the millions of ethnic Azeris living there.
In Baku, the authorities were unable to restore order in the streets and Interior Ministry military forces based in Baku at the local garrison were ordered not to intervene.
On January 18, the Azerbaijan Popular Front ordered supporters to barricade the main access routes into Baku using hundreds of cars, trucks and buses. The next day, Soviet authorities evacuated its representatives and local officials moving them to military command posts in the outskirts of the city where Soviet Minister of Defense, Dmitry Yazov and Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin were positioned.
Late at night on January 19, 1990, after blowing up of the central television station and terminating of phone and radio lines by Soviet special forces, 26,000 Soviet troops entered Baku smashing through the barricades in order to crush the Popular Front. The Azerbaijani Interior Ministry officials had helped Popular Front activists by providing technical facilities and informing them about the movement of army units. In the course of the storming, the troops attacked the protesters, firing in the crowds. The shooting continued for three days and according to one report, 132 Azerbaijanis and 29 Soviet soldiers were killed in street skirmishes.
Human Rights Watch report, entitled “Black January in Azerbaijan”, states: “Indeed, the violence used by the Soviet Army on the night of January 19-20 was so out of proportion to the resistance offered by Azerbaijanis as to constitute an exercise in collective punishment. Since Soviet officials have stated publicly that the purpose of the intervention of Soviet troops was to prevent the ouster of the Communist-dominated government of the Republic of Azerbaijan by the nationalist-minded, non-communist opposition, the punishment inflicted on Baku by Soviet soldiers may have been intended as a warning to nationalists, not only in Azerbaijan, but in the other Republics of the Soviet Union.”
Much good it did the leaders of the Soviet Union. Rather than cowering local populations, the people of the Baltic states and others were inspired by the example of Azerbaijan and held similar independence protests soon after, many of which were suppressed with equal force.
In February 1990, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union agreed to give up its monopoly of power and over the next several weeks, the 15 constituent republics of the USSR held their first competitive elections. Reformers and ethnic nationalists won many of the seats.
Later in 1990, the Supreme Council of the Azerbaijan SSR dropped the words “Soviet Socialist” from the title, adopted the Declaration of Sovereignty of the Azerbaijan Republic and restored flag of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic as a state flag. On 8 September 1991, Ayaz Mütallibov was elected president in nationwide elections in which he was the only candidate.
On 18 October 1991, the Supreme Council of Azerbaijan adopted a Declaration of Independence which was affirmed by a nationwide referendum in December 1991, when the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.
Thursday 20th January 2011 was a National holiday. The streets were quiet and most Azeris stayed home with their families. At Martyrs Lane, where many protesters killed by Soviet troops are buried the dead were remembered in a high-profile ceremony.