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Azerbaijan Marks 33rd Anniversary of January 20 Tragedy

By Nigar Bayramli January 20, 2023

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Victims of the January 20, 1990 atrocities have been buried in Şəhidlər Xiyabanı (Alley of Martyrs) in the Highland Park on the highest point of capital Baku / Courtesy

Today, Azerbaijanis are marking the 33rd anniversary of "Black January", paying homage to the victims of Soviet repression that claimed more than 140 lives on January 20 in 1990. Since then, the date has been commemorated at the highest level every year in Azerbaijan.

"On the night of January 19-20, 1990, as a result of military aggression of the units of the Soviet Army and special forces, as well as contingents of internal troops against Azerbaijan, civilians, including children, women and elderly were massacred in the cities of Baku, Sumgayit, Lankaran and Neftchala by order of the USSR leadership. As a result of the occupying forces’ military aggression 150 civilians were killed, 744 were seriously injured, and 4 people went missing," reads a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan on Friday.

In the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was in its twilight, Armenia decided to take advantage of the geopolitical situation. In 1988, Armenia, which was the Soviet republic established in the historical lands of Azerbaijan, expelled 250,000 Azerbaijanis from their homelands, the last portion of the Azerbaijani population who had remained there after the series of mass deportations of Azerbaijanis during the 20th century. At the same time, Armenia conspired to occupy the highland part of the Karabakh region, an internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan which had been partially populated with ethnic Armenians living alongside indigenous Azerbaijanis.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis took to the streets in Baku in 1988 – 1989 demanding the Soviet authorities in Moscow put a stop to Armenia’s illegal actions. Instead, the Soviet leadership turned a blind eye to these events and did nothing of that kind. The mass protests of Azerbaijanis in Baku against the policies of the Soviet Union turned into an independence movement for Azerbaijan.

In early 1990, Armenia’s parliament voted to include the highland part of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan in its budget plans, disregarding Azerbaijani jurisdiction and revealing Armenia’s intent to annex the region. In the wake of the action, Azerbaijanis flocked to the streets in Baku again to express their mass protests against the Soviet Union’s policy towards the fate of Azerbaijan's Karabakh region.

By the bloody date, a 50-thousand army of Soviet military troops and special forces had already surrounded Baku. On the night of January 19–20, 1990 – shortly before a state of emergency was declared – Soviet tanks rolled into Baku, destroying everything in their path. A total of 147 Azerbaijanis were killed in the incursion of the Soviet forces, and another 744 were injured. More than 840 Azerbaijani citizens were illegally arrested, while 200 houses and apartments were destroyed. In addition, 80 cars, including ambulances, were damaged. Pogroms continued in other cities of Azerbaijan, including Neftchala and Lankaran in the south, where eight people fell victim to the Soviet invasion on January 25 and 26.

For Azerbaijanis, January 20 symbolizes the heroism of the nation in addition to the tragic events that occurred that day in history. Azerbaijanis believe that the resistance movement led to regaining the country’s independence from the Soviet Union a year later in 1991. Every year on January 20, millions of people visit the Alley of Martyrs, a cemetery where the victims of the tragic, yet heroic day are buried, to honor the memories of the founders of independence.

Being a gross violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other international legal documents and one of the most serious crimes of the 20th century by its essence and scope, these events have not yet received an international political and legal assessment, according to the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan. Baku is convinced that the tragic events of 1990 should be acknowledged as a crime against humanity and those who ordered and perpetrated it must be held accountable.

"Despite the fact that 33 years have passed, the events of 20 January, one of the most terrible crimes committed in the 20th century, in which all international legal documents were grossly violated, were not given an international legal assessment. The leadership of the former Soviet Union is directly responsible for this crime. According to international law, the 20 January tragedy should be qualified as a crime against humanity, and its instigators and perpetrators must be punished," reads the Foreign Ministry's statement.

"On that tragic day, the sons of the motherland, who gave their lives in defense of justice wrote a brilliant page in the heroic chronicle of our people. On January 20, 1990, which was marked in our history as a day of tragedy, as well as national pride, the Azerbaijani people conveyed to the world that they deserve to live free, sovereign, and independent."

The Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991, at which time it broke up into 15 independent states, the Republic of Azerbaijan being one of them.