What was the reason behind the mass demonstrations in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, in 1988?

After the escalation of the processes in Nagorno-Karabakh, the deportation of Azerbaijanis from Armenia, and Moscow’s mild reaction to Armenia’s separatist demands provoked a first concrete reaction in the form of mass demonstrations in Azerbaijan. The first demonstration, on February 19, 1988, involved students, workers, and intellectuals, who started to march from the National Academy of Sciences towards the main government headquarters and proclaimed that “[Nagorno-Karabakh] belongs to Azerbaijan.”[1] However, that demonstration did not grow any bigger and did not turn into a mass protest by Azerbaijanis involving a large part of society.

The main mass rally of 1988 was organized on November 17 in “Lenin Square” in Baku, later renamed “Freedom Square,” and millions of Azerbaijanis took part in this rally. They protested against the weakness of Azerbaijani party leaders, who failed to control the issues related to the NKAO. The demonstration continued without a break and with the overnight camping in the square. In particular, the demonstrators protested against Armenia’s intention to build a guesthouse in Topkhana for Yerevan aluminum factory workers.[2] The rally continued for eighteen days until Soviet police could clear the square by force on December 5.[3]

The Azerbaijani mass demonstrations of 1988 played an essential role in expressing discontent with Armenia’s secessionist policy. It was also an important event because it marked the rise of Azerbaijani nationalism, which later developed into the independence movement. Therefore, November 17, 1992, was declared “National Revival Day” for Azerbaijanis, and it began to be celebrated as a national holiday in Azerbaijan since its independence.

[1] De Waal, Thomas, Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War (New York University Press, 2003), p. 20.

[2] De Waal, Black Garden, p. 83.

[3] Seyidaga, Etibar, “Xalq hərəkatinin başlanmasindan 20 il keçdi,” Müsavat, Noyabr 17, 2008; http://musavat.com/news/gündem/XALQ-HƏRKATININ-BASLANMASINDAN-20-IL-KEÇDİ_43013.html. Accessed on December 2, 2022.