32 years ago, on January 20, after pogroms of the Armenian population in Baku, clashes between USSR military forces and Azerbaijani armed groups led to losses on both sides. According to some neutral sources, during the events of “Black January,” 131 to 170 people were killed and almost 700 were injured. Despite the fact that Armenians had no connection with clashes between Azerbaijanis and the Soviet army, the Azerbaijani side always uses this fact in their armenophobic policy. To see the whole picture of the January events of 1990, we have to find out what happened before.
The “Black January” of 1990 in Azerbaijan was preceded by alarming harbingers of mass violence: the defenseless Armenian population, which neither the military forces nor the law enforcement authorities were not trying to protect; the “Popular Front”, in which radicals suppressed others; the local party leadership, losing power and trying to hold it in every possible way; and Moscow authorities, ready to do everything to keep Azerbaijan in the Soviet Union.
On January 12, 1990, a seven-day pogrom of Armenians broke out in Baku. This was not a spontaneous, one-time action, but one of many anti-Armenian actions by Azerbaijan. Although a number of sources stated that the pogrom of Armenians in Baku was a direct response to the resolution about the formal unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, the reality was that Armenians accepted the resolution as a response to Azerbaijan’s anti-Armenian policy, during whole XX century, including Soviet period.
Starting from 1988, large rallies took place in Baku, which were carried out by groups of radicals with full support of Soviet Azerbaijan authorities. On January 12 1990, a mass rally took place in Lenin’s Square in Baku, during which the leaders of the “Popular Front” and other radicals were calling on people to defend Azerbaijani sovereignty and territorial integrity from Armenians. Shortly after, different groups of young radicals started roaming Baku, terrorizing Armenians and warning them to leave the city.
In the evening of the same day, demonstrators started attacking Armenians. Thomas de Waal states that, as in Sumgayit, the activists were distinguished by extreme cruelty. Armenian homes were burned and looted, and Armenians were killed and injured. Different people talked about the cruelty of Azerbaijanis. Aleksei Vasilyev, a Soviet soldier, later testified that he saw how a naked woman was thrown from the window to a fire, where her furniture was burning. An American journalist Bill Keller, who was in Baku shortly after the pogroms, in his report for New York Times wrote: Here and there, boarded windows or soot-blackened walls mark an apartment where Armenians were driven out by mobs and their belongings set afire on the balcony. The Armenian Orthodox Church, whose congregation has been depleted over the past two years by an emigration based on fear, is now a charred ruin. A neighbor said firefighters and the police watched without intervening as vandals destroyed the building at the beginning of the year.
The violence and murders are evidenced by the Chairman of the Council of the Union of the USSR Armed Forces, Yevgeny Primakov, who was sent to Baku by decree of the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Minister of Internal Affairs of the USSR, Vadim Bakatin, as well as the commander of the 106th Airborne Division of the armed forces, who was on site, Major General Alexander Lebed, who also witnessed the massacres of Armenians.
One of the leaders of radicals, Etibar Mamedov, testified about cruel actions and said that there was no official intervention. He said that he saw how two Armenians were killed while policemen were next to the scene of the crime.
The pogroms lasted a week, as a result of which, according to different sources, more than 150 people were killed, more than 300 Armenians were injured, and more than 200.000 Armenians had to leave Baku.
All this time, the USSR authorities were just witnessing how defenceless Armenians were being killed and tortured. On January 20, after the Armenian population had already been expelled from the city, the Soviet Union troops intervened in Baku and a state of martial law was declared.
Mikhail Gorbachov claimed that Azerbaijani armed radicals opened fire on Soviet troops, which was the reason for the beginning of clashes. The troops attacked the radical demonstrators and shooting started between the Soviet Union troops and armed Azerbaijani groups of radicals. The Soviet troops managed to break the resistance of radical demonstrators in just one day.
As we see from the chronology of the events, Armenian pogroms in Baku and “Black January” events have a connection, but the connection is not how Azerbaijani authorities try to show it. Armenian pogroms were one of the reasons for the Soviet troop intervention in Baku, but Armenian civilians have no guilt that Azerbaijani radical groups, with the full support of their authorities, decided to arrange pogroms and kill Armenians in their own houses.
As we see, the Azerbaijani authorities try to use every episode in their history for their armenophobic policy. Saying that Armenians are the ones to blame for “Black January” events is not more than another act of populism. Azerbaijan continues demonizing Armenians in the eyes of their society, manipulating even the fact of the death of their own people.
David Sargsyan, Expert at Orbeli Analytical Research Center