Spring 1995 (3.1)
The Russian Bear's
Azerbaijan 1990 and Chechnya 1995
by Azar Panahli
Left: Communist membership cards - a much sought - after identification being discarded and burned after the Soviet Army's attack on Baku in January 1990. It was a turning point in the history of Azerbaijan.
Black is the color of mourning in Azerbaijan. We wear it to mourn the deaths of our loved ones just as they do in many places in the world. But we also use the word to refer to months when an entire nation grieves. There's "Black April" in Georgia, and "Black January" in Azerbaijan, Lithuania and now Chechnya.
Time gradually takes away much of the sting of personal tragedy. But collective suffering is not so easily assuaged. Every year, citizens formalize their grief by attending ceremonies and laying wreaths on the graves of their loved ones who were so violently snatched from their midst. A nation's grief often passes on for decades and even centuries.
This January marked the fifth year commemoration of such a disaster in Azerbaijan. Just before midnight on January 19th, 1990, tanks tore into Baku and more than 100 people, many of them civilians, were killed (a very conservative estimate). Another 700 were wounded. A state of emergency was declared and curfew imposed.
More than 100 people were killed, many of whom were civilians, and 700 wounded in one day when Soviet troops descended on Baku to put down independence movement. Human Rights / Watch accused Soviets of using excessive force. Enroute to the graves in Martyr's Cemetery (Shahidlar Hiyabani).
Cruel Memories of 1990
But what lingers on in our memories is not so much the number of people killed and wounded but the brutal, barbaric and excessive use of force by Soviet soldiers. Human Rights Watch / Helsinki has documented how the Soviet army intentionally ran down and crushed unarmed civilians under their tanks. How they strafed a civilian bus that posed no conceivable physical threat, killing the driver and a passenger. How they attacked hospitals and clearly marked ambulances and medical personnel assisting the wounded. How they randomly sprayed residential yards and apartment buildings with automatic weapons (one woman was shot while hanging out laundry on her balcony). And how they stabbed defenseless civilians to death with bayonets.
Real Motivation vs. Pretext
Left: Red carnations being carried to the graves of friends and relatives killed by Soviet troops in Baku on January 20, 1994.
The Soviet Army's bloody activity in Baku five years ago must be judged in the context of its motivation. Mikhail Gorbachev excused the brutality, claiming that the Kremlin was protesting attacks that Azerbaijanis had made upon Armenians. But those pogroms had ended nearly a week before the invasion at a time when 12,000 interior troops were already stationed in Baku and had not budged even when Azerbaijanis pleaded with them. Amidst all the confusion, there were Azerbaijanis who protected Armenians by hiding them in closets, under their own beds, and in their own apartments. I know. My family and relatives took such risks themselves.
Evidence now suggests that events leading up to this crisis between Armenians and Azerbaijanis was either passively encouraged or even actively fomented by the military, the KGB, the government and the Communist Party.
Crushing the Opposition
But the real motivation for the Soviet attack was different. The Soviet Army invaded Baku clearly to stop the dissolution of the Communist regime and crush any opposition in Azerbaijan's bid for independence. In the fall of 1989, the national independence movement had reached an incredible momentum with hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating for the ideals of independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. New democratic groups were clearly in control of the political agenda and stood poised to win the upcoming elections in Parliament in March. Clearly, the Army descended on Baku simply because the Kremlin was determined to "restore order" and return status-quo. The Armenian crisis was only pretense.
Calculated Decision to Attack Baku
Evidence now shows that the invasion of Baku was a very calculated and deliberate move. Soviet reservists had been mobilized and sent to the region explicitly to fight. Foreigners were not allowed to enter so there would be no information leakage. The Soviet Army's intentional decision not to announce a "state of emergency" or curfew before attacking civilians on the streets cannot be justified under either circumstance. If the purpose of the Soviet troops was genuinely to protect Armenians and other non-Azerbaijanis, Human Rights Watch / Helsinki concluded that there would have been no reason to launch a surprise attack on the city. Advance warning itself would likely have cleared the streets. Instead, the Soviet Army pounced on Baku as if it were an enemy position that had to be taken by surprise. An explosion at the National Television and Radio Stations just hours before the assault guaranteed the success of this surprise and a total news blackout.
Historical Turning Point
Black January was a turning point in the history of Azerbaijan. On January 20, 1990, Azerbaijanis acquired their national identity. Every bullet that was fired splattered blood across the face of the Soviet Empire, undermining the ideals of communism. Those tanks, armored vehicles, automatic rifles and bullets were supposed to have scared the nation into giving up its dream for independence. But instead, the sun rose the next day on a very different Azerbaijan, more determined than ever to pursue its independence.
Communist ID Cards Burned
The next day hundreds of little fires were started in the streets of Baku and all over Azerbaijan. People set fire to their Communist Party membership cards. Anyone born in the Soviet Union knows the value of a Red Communist Party Membership Card. They were not easy to acquire. People devoted years of their lives to gain access to their only path to prominent careers and respect in the community. To set fire to these cards was not merely a dramatic gesture; it signified a radical turning point-a rejection of the entire system.
Personal Turning Point
Black January dramatically changed my life, too. It was like a psychological identity crisis. I was in my mid-20s at the time and had believed in the ideals of the communist system and worshipped that great country that we called the Soviet Union. As a young boy, I used to pore over the books of Marx, Engels, Lenin and other communist leaders while my friends were playing in the streets outside. I was grooming myself for a position of leadership to carry out the Party's ideals.
But overnight, the core of my belief was shattered and the impact was as real as if I had been run over by a tank. It became extremely clear to me that the pages of history being played out right in front of my eyes were covered with guilt, bloodshed, and unspeakable human atrocities by the same authors I had spent years of my life idolizing.
Name-Calling - Then and Now
The political system that I so much respected had branded seven million of my compatriots as "extremists", "hooligans", "drug-traffickers", and "bandits" simply to justify their brutality. And I knew those names didn't describe us.
Neither did they describe Georgians and Lithuanians. Nor do they describe Chechens today. Now as I sit in front of the television or listen to the radio, I hear Russians use these exact same words to justify and rationalize their murder of Chechens.
The Question of Human Rights
Western powers pride themselves in defending human rights. But in each of these cases related to the Soviet and post-Soviet era, the West has not taken a firm stand. Instead, they have thrown their support first behind Gorbachev and now behind an ailing Yeltsin, closing their eyes to the abuse of human rights of Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Lithuanians, Chechens, and others.
But a policy which calls a massacre of thousands simply an "internal affair" is immoral. Those who believe that hundreds of years of tyranny in Russia can yield to democracy overnight are gravely mistaken. Anyone holding power in the Kremlin, including "democrat" Boris Yeltsin, is heir to traditions and attitudes that have accumulated through the centuries. For the West to put their faith in personalities rather than in a country's policy disparages the deplorable tragedy of thousands of innocent civilians.
The West claims to support human rights, but the words are beginning to ring very hollow in our ears if the bloodshed in Chechnya is not stopped. How many more Black January's must we witness like those in Azerbaijan and Chechnya?
Precedence for Chechnya
Unfortunately, there was precedence for the brutality we see in Chechnya. Five years ago when Soviet troops attacked Baku, we thought it was the worst military action ever taken against civilians in the former Soviet Union. Little could we imagine that the inheritors of the Soviet Empire, the Russian leaders, would continue to perpetrate such indiscriminate murders even upon those of their own ethnicity. These brutalities reflect the twin obsessions that have dominated Russian history since czarist times: an unrelenting belief in imperial destiny by use of force, always in the name of self-defense. No wonder the bear has come to epitomize Russia. As for us, living in the "Near Abroad", our awareness of the bear's voracious appetite is only too excruciating. Would that our experience was different. Would that the Russian bear preferred honey to blood!
Azar Panahli lives in Baku. For an extremely valuable, independent investigation, see Helsinki Watch Report, "Conflict in the Soviet Union: Black January in Azerbaidzhan". For a copy, send $8.40 to Human Rights Watch (formerly Helsinki Watch), 485 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10017-6104. Tel: (212)-972-8400 or Fax: (212) 972-0905; or e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Orders must be prepaid. English (51 pages).
From Azerbaijan International (3.1) Spring 1995.
© Azerbaijan International 1995. All rights reserved.