Azerbaijan: Black January

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.

Writing for Global Voices Online I round up some of the online reaction to the anniversary.