What was the relationship between the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the “Black January” of January 20, 1990?

“Black January” (also known as ‘Black Saturday’ or the ‘January Massacre’), a bloody tragedy that occurred on January 20, 1990, marked the end of the aggressive and dual policy of the Soviet Union against Azerbaijan, which lasted for 70 years. Late that January night, 26,000 Soviet Special Forces called “Alfa” entered Baku without declaring a state of emergency and committed ferocious actions against innocent Azerbaijani citizens. The invasion was launched at midnight and carried out brutally, and no mercy was shown to children, women, and the elderly. The Helsinki-based Human Rights Watch has addressed how the brutal Soviet army intentionally crushed unarmed peaceful civilians under their tanks. According to its reports, “among the most heinous violations of human rights during the Baku incursions were the numerous attacks on medical personnel, ambulances, and even hospitals.”[1]

As a result of the illegal act by Soviet troops in Baku and other regions of the country, 133 men were killed, 611 men were wounded, 841 men were illegally arrested, and 5 went missing. Among the victims of the illegal attack were a seven-year-old boy, a sixteen-year-old girl, an eighty-year-old man, a young doctor who was shot dead in an ambulance while helping another victim, and many other innocent Azerbaijani civilians. As a result of the punitive measures carried out with unprecedented brutality by Soviet soldiers during that night, approximately 200 houses and apartments were burned or damaged, as well as 80 vehicles, including ambulances, and state and personal property worth 5,637,286 rubles destroyed. The Soviet Union committed the bloodiest acts of state-sponsored terrorism and crime on January 20, 1990, against innocent Azerbaijani people. From that time on, this massacre has been referred to as “Black January.”[2]

“Black January” was a military operation conducted deliberately against the Azerbaijani people and carried out step by step. The Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan and other political institutions were paralyzed, and all militia members were disarmed on the pretext of disarming the population. The Soviet authorities exploited the power block of televisions and stopped broadcasting in Azerbaijan on January 19 to stop the population from getting information. Foreigners were not allowed to enter the city. Soviet authorities also banned Western reporters from traveling to Baku to cover the bloody events. However, while quoting two Russian photographers in Baku that night, the Washington Post wrote on January 22, 1990, that “Soviet soldiers fired at almost anything that moved in the early hours of their occupation.”[3] The Soviet Defense and Interior Ministers, and other military officials, had come to Baku a few days earlier to perpetrate this calculated terrorist attack. Soviet reservists, who had been prepared for the special mission, were mobilized and sent to the region specifically for this purpose. Most Soviet militants were orphans who had prepared for the special mission.[4]

Armenia tried to use this event for its benefit, and it argued that the intervention by the Soviet Army in Azerbaijan was to stop the so-called pogrom against the Armenian population in Baku led by the Azerbaijani people.[5]

However, the main reason for the intervention by the Soviet military forces in Baku that night was different. At that time, the Armenian SSR was subjecting Azerbaijan to aggression. Armenia violated the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and tried to annex Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. However, the central government in Moscow was not taking any measures against the Armenians, who were also violating the Soviet constitution, which stated that the autonomous regions of the Union republics were not entitled to secede without the consent of the Union republics and the central government of the Soviet Union.[6] In addition, an ethnic cleansing campaign had also been carried out since 1988 against the Azerbaijani population in Armenia and the western part of Azerbaijan by Armenian military groups. Azerbaijanis living in Armenia were brutally expelled from their homes, and many of them, including older people, women, and children, were killed.

At the beginning of 1989, with the special decision by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union, the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh was removed, and the Soviet Union began to rule it directly. According to a statute of the Supreme Soviet Presidium of the Soviet Union, a special form of administration for Nagorno-Karabakh was introduced. This step effectively meant that the Azerbaijani SSR lost control of Nagorno-Karabakh. On November 27, Moscow’s direct rule ended with the central government’s decision. As a result, Nagorno-Karabakh was returned to Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction. However, on December 1, 1989, Armenia adopted a resolution on the “Reunification of the Armenian SSR and the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast.”[7]

As a result of all these events at that time, an Azerbaijani national movement emerged against the backdrop of the dual Soviet policy and the withdrawal of the Azerbaijani population from its historical territory. At the end of 1989, the national independence movement, led by the Azerbaijan Popular Front, had achieved incredible momentum, with hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in support of the ideals of independence and territorial integrity as a reaction to the resolution adopted by the Supreme Soviet of Armenia in favor of annexing Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Thus, all developments in Azerbaijan at the end of 1989 increased popular loyalty towards the Azerbaijan Popular Front instead of loyalty towards the communist government in the country.[8]

However, the Soviet Union could not tolerate losing strategically important and energy-rich Azerbaijan. The Soviet authorities thought that the natural wealth of Azerbaijan would help slow down disintegration and prevent the economic collapse of the Union, even though the oil price on the world market was low at that time. On the other hand, they intended to teach other members of the Soviet Union a lesson, especially the Baltic States and Georgia, which also had pro-independence thoughts. In this regard, the crackdown on the Azerbaijan Popular Front was necessary for Moscow.

Therefore, it asked the KGB leader, Kryuchkov, to prepare a plan to prevent the Popular Front from winning the upcoming elections. For this reason, the Soviet authorities needed the pretext to justify Soviet military intervention in Baku. Thus, a so-called pogrom against the Armenian population in Baku, organized by the KGB, served the interests of the Soviet Union. As a result, violence erupted between January 13 and 15, 1990. On January 16, the violence was stopped, and the Armenian population in Baku was saved, mainly through the efforts of the Popular Front.[9]

However, the Soviet leadership used this violence as an argument to justify the Soviet intervention in Azerbaijan. The military contingent that entered Baku was informed that they were going to protect the rights of Russians and Armenians, which were being violated by the local population. However, this was explicit disinformation. The real reason for the Soviet attack was different. The invasion of Baku by the Soviet Army was clearly intended to stop the dissolution of the Communist regime, crush any opposition to Azerbaijan’s bid for independence, and preserve the status quo. During an interview, Dmitri Yazov told a group of Soviet journalists who were in Baku then that the Kremlin wanted to smash the “structure of power” established by the Azerbaijan Popular Front in “all offices and enterprises” in the southern republic. He said that “extremists” had gone “underground,” making it very difficult for the armed forces to fulfill their task of restoring order in Azerbaijan.”[10] Regarding this, a Human Rights Watch report clearly 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, noncommunist 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.[11]

Even if the intervention was to prevent the spread of violence, it might be worth asking why the 13,000 Soviet military forces that were stationed in Baku during the violence watched silently and did not adopt any measures, even when the Popular Front leadership appealed to the Minister of Internal Affairs to deploy those forces to restore stability and order. However, they stated that there was a direct order not to intervene.[12]

It was also reported that the list of innocent Black January victims included people from different communities in Azerbaijan, such as Russians, Jews, and others. The Soviet argument that the Russian troops entered Azerbaijan to stop the so-called violation against the Soviet citizens had no justification because the Azerbaijani people who died as a result of the Armenian pogroms were also Soviet citizens. However, the Soviet army did not intervene in Armenia to stop the pogroms against Azerbaijanis. Soviet mass media did not even mention that tragedy, and the crime was silently overlooked. Also, before that happened in Azerbaijan, the brutal military attacks by Soviet troops in Almaty in 1986, in Tbilisi in 1989, and then in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, in 1991 proved that there were political reasons for the January 20 event. It appears as the last breath of the Giant, as that era was the decline of the Soviet Empire.

[1] Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, Conflict in the Soviet Union: Black January in Azerbaidzhan (Human Rights Watch, 1991), p. 23.

[2] Abilov, Shamkhal and Isayev, Ismayil, “The National Revival in Azerbaijan Prior to the Fall of the Soviet Union and “Black January,” in Mammadli, Aliaga, Braux, Adeline and Mahmudlu, Ceyhun (eds.), “AZERBAIJANI” AND BEYOND: Perspectives on the Construction of National Identity (Berlin: Verlag Dr. Köster, 2017), p. 112.

[3] Oberdorfer, Don, “Azerbaijani Capital Demands Withdrawal of Soviet Troops,” The Washington Post, January 22, 1990; https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1990/01/22/azerbaijani-capital-demands-withdrawal-of-soviet-troops/dd8378e3-f8dd-404d-be39-1ec7837bb469/. Accessed on December 2, 2022.

[4] Abilov and Isayev, “The National Revival in Azerbaijan Prior to the Fall of the Soviet Union and “Black January,” p. 113.

[5] Miller, Donald E., “The Role of Historical Memory in Interpreting Events in the Republic of Armenia,” in Hovannisian, Richard G., (ed.), Remembrance and Denial: The Case of the Armenian Genocide (Wayne State University Press, 1994), p. 194.

[6] Mammadov, Mushfig, “Legal Aspects of the Nagorno-Garabagh Conflict,” Caucasian Review of International Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2006, p. 16.

[7] Avakian, Shahen, Nagorno-Karabakh: Legal Aspects (Tigran Mets Publishing House, 2010), p. 16.

[8] Cornell, Svante E., Azerbaijan Since Independence (M. E. Sharpe, 2011), p. 53.

[9] Seyidov, Vugar, “Soviet Army in “Black January”: To Save or Kill?” AzerTac, January 22, 2010; https://azertag.az/en/xeber/SOVIET_ARMY_IN_BLACK_JANUARY_TO_SAVE_OR_KILL-588101. Accessed on December 2, 2022.

[10] Dobbs, Michael, “Soviets Say Troops Used To Avert Coup in Baku; Nationalists Said to Plan Seizure of Power,” The Washington Post, January 27, 1990, p. 13.

[11] Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, Conflict in the Soviet Union, p. 4.

[12] Seyidov, “Soviet Army in “Black January”. See also: Altstadt, Audrey, The Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under the Russian Rule (Hoover Institution Press, 1992), p. 213.