On the night between January 19 and 20, under direct instructions from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet army entered Baku and nearby regions, killing the civilian population using heavy military equipment and other weaponry.
The tragedy of January 20, 1990, also called Black January, has been an "important turning point" for Azerbaijan which proved that the nation's striving for liberty and independence was irreversible, according to Azerbaijan's envoy to Turkey.
"It led us to be more united and more determined to make our country the best and to get what we deserve, independence," Khazar Ibrahim told Anadolu Agency, referring to the violent crackdown and massacre of more than 130 people and wounding of hundreds of civilians by the Soviet army in the capital Baku and surrounding areas on the eve of the country’s independence.
Marking the 31st anniversary of the tragedy and remembering the violence Azerbaijan witnessed prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ibrahim said the events of January 20 are regarded as the rebirth of the country, which in 1918 first gained independence that was later stamped out in 1920, when the country became part of the Soviet Union.
On the night of January 19-20, under direct instructions from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the State Security Committee and Ministry of Internal Affairs entered Baku and nearby regions, massacring the civilian population using heavy military equipment and other weaponry.
Mass arrests accompanied the illegal deployment of troops and subsequent military intervention.
"It [the tragedy] has also changed us individually. Those people who went through those days have changed dramatically, including myself personally," he recalled.
What happened on January 19-20, 1990?
The Upper Karabakh issue lays the ground of the Black January events that fuelled the feeling of independence in Azerbaijanis and accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Since 1988, the Armenians increased their activities to break off the Upper Karabakh area from Azerbaijan, and in December 1989, the Supreme Council of the Armenian Soviet Republic decided to annex Upper Karabakh to Armenia.
Azerbaijan reacted to the decision with demonstrations held in Baku with hundreds of thousands of people. The people of Azerbaijan flocked to Azadliq (Independence) Square in Baku to protest the Soviet government and the Armenians' increasing demands for land.
Continuing demonstrations disturbed the Soviet management and a decision was made to deploy an army in Baku. The people blocked the city's entrance roads and shut the front of military units in Baku.
First, on January 19, 1990, the energy provider of Azerbaijani television was blasted by the Soviet intelligence. In the evening hours, the Soviet army of 26,000 troops with armoured vehicles entered Baku from five directions.
The Soviet army entered the city by shooting the unarmed civilians who tried to stop them.
Tanks and heavy armoured vehicles were driven over people, while fire was opened at ambulances and passenger buses. That night, 130 civilians lost their lives in Baku.
The Soviet army continued its massacre in other cities such as Neftcala and Lenkeran in the southern parts of the country, and a total of 147 Azerbaijani civilians became victims of the January 20 massacre. Some 744 people were injured in the incidents, and about 400 people were detained by the Soviet army.
Although the state of emergency was declared by the Soviet administration in Baku, and the city was completely controlled by the Soviet army, people went out to the streets again to bury the dead.
The deceased were buried in Dagustu (Highland) Park, which was turned into a park in the Soviet times, next to the graves of Azerbaijanis who lost their lives as a result of the attacks of the Armenians on March 31, 1918. The funerals were gathered in the Azadliq Square, from where they were taken on the people's shoulders to the cemetery, now called the Alley of Martyrs. About 1 million people accompanied the funerals.
Reasons behind tragedy
"Actually, it's not a secret anymore that the real rationale behind the Black January tragedy was the desire by the Soviet leadership to calm down, to suffocate the striving of the Azerbaijani people for liberties, rights and independence," he said, adding Gorbachev did not hide his "negative inclination" towards Azerbaijan.
The Soviet Army’s massacre on January 20 – now National Mourning Day – completely shook Azerbaijanis' confidence in the USSR, accelerating the process leading to the country's independence.
"And the fact that there was an indiscriminate overwhelming reaction to people's rights, which was actually in the constitution of the Soviet Union, cannot be explained by anything else but by hatred, by the desire to keep the Soviet Union afloat," the envoy said.
He emphasised that the "hatred" was also influenced by the Armenian advisors who had lobbied Gorbachev for a long time, not only on the January 20 issue but also on many other issues regarding Azerbaijan, in a negative way.
Azerbaijanis refer to Black January as a day of sorrow, but at the same time, as a day of pride, because the country's heroes who perished laid the groundwork for the state’s independence.
Nagorno-Karabakh issue as grounds for January 20
The Azerbaijani ambassador underlined that the Nagorno-Karabakh issue laid the grounds for the January 20 tragedy.
The events that led to the tragedy of Black January actually date to the end of the 1980s, when attempts to annex Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and another wave of the expulsion of native Azerbaijani people from their historical lands were gaining momentum.
He said that nearly three decades ago, the Azerbaijani territories had been militarily illegally occupied by Armenian forces through the "ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijanis" which led to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis becoming both internally displaced persons as well as refugees because the cleansing also took place against Azerbaijanis living in Armenia.
Relations between the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan have been tense since 1991, when the Armenian military occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Upper Karabakh, internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory, and seven adjacent regions.
When new clashes erupted on September 27, 2020, Armenia launched attacks on civilians and Azerbaijani forces as well as violated several humanitarian ceasefire agreements.
During the nearly six-week-long conflict, Azerbaijan liberated its lands, while at least 2,855 of its soldiers were known at the time to be killed. There are differing claims about the number of casualties on the Armenian side, which sources and officials say could be as high as 5,000.
A ceasefire, victory for Azerbaijan and defeat for Armenia
The two countries signed a Russian-brokered agreement on November 10 to end the fighting and work toward a comprehensive resolution. The ceasefire is seen as a victory for Azerbaijan and a defeat for Armenia, whose armed forces have withdrawn in line with the agreement.
The envoy stressed that the major factor behind the long-awaited victory was the determined leadership of Azerbaijan’s President and Commander in Chief, Ilham Aliyev.
Referring to the 44-day Patriotic War, Ibrahim said: "The kids who fled the occupied territories of Azerbaijan in the hands of their mothers came back [to those territories] on top of the tanks."
He highlighted that those fleeing "kids" emerged into a new generation after the territories were cleansed and destroyed, and today, they have become the soldiers of Azerbaijan, who couldn't have forgotten the "injustice" that happened in the past.
Ibrahim also hailed the solidarity of the Azerbaijani people, noting that "regardless of the place of living, regardless of ethnicity, religious affiliation, everybody was a swarm."
"Therefore, I see these three reasons as the major factors which allowed Azerbaijan in this short period of time to achieve what could have seemed for many as unimaginable a couple of years ago," he said, referring to the soldiers, solidarity and determined president.
Upper Karabakh conflict
Upper Karabakh is the internationally recognised territory of Azerbaijan illegally occupied by Armenia through military aggression since 1991.
Four UN Security Council and two General Assembly resolutions, as well as decisions by many other international organisations, refer to this fact and demand withdrawal of the occupational Armenian forces from Upper Karabakh and seven other occupied regions of Azerbaijan.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe refers to the region as being occupied by Armenian forces.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Minsk group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the US, was formed to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, but has not reached any results yet.
Region's strongest country
“A lot has changed in Azerbaijan in the last 30 years,” the ambassador said.
"Economically, Azerbaijan became the strongest country in the region. Militarily, Azerbaijan became one of the strongest in the world, given its size and population," he said, adding the nation developed every sector of the society including culture, education and science during that timeframe.
Despite the illegal military occupation of its territories, the people of Azerbaijan never lost their "sense of pride and unity" and became even stronger and more confident within these years, he added.
"The Azerbaijani side has never hidden that since we have the right, and since we have the power, we are ready to liberate our territories. But I think it was a big mistake by the side of the Armenians not to listen not only to us but also to the international community."
Ibrahim urged the international community not to turn a blind eye to the tragedies of other countries, noting that "if these things happen, it would embolden other massacres".
"So ‘never again embolden the criminals’ is the message which the world should hear and never forget."