On 18 January, the Black January dead were remembered during a landmark reception in the Macmillan Room of Portcullis House in the UK Parliament, located a few metres from Big Ben. The event was attended by Peers Lord David Evans and Lord Leslie Turnberg, and around 40 diplomats, Azerbaijanis and friends of the country and hosted by Bob Blackman MP, Chair, Azerbaijan All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). It was jointly organised by the Embassy of Azerbaijan to the UK and The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS).
This commemoration marked one of the saddest events in recent Azerbaijani history. On 19–20 January 1990, around 26,000 Soviet armed forces violently suppressed a peaceful independence demonstration in Central Baku. They were acting on the direct orders of Mikhail Gorbachev, final General-Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and Dmitry Yazov, Soviet Defence Minister.
Official estimates state that between 131 and 170 civilians were killed, and between 700 and 800 were injured. Unofficial figures, based on the accounts of witnesses, put the figure much higher. Following this, a State of Emergency was declared. Despite this tragedy, the demonstration marked the start of the path to Azerbaijani independence on 18 October 1991, and heralded the swift collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 1995, Gorbachev admitted his mistake by stating: “The declaration of a State of Emergency in Baku was the biggest mistake of my political career.” When questioned in 2015, he remained guilt-stricken, saying: “I am reluctant to give any comments about the events of January 1990, because it is difficult to speak about that night without a lot of remembering, analysis and deep thoughts.”
Bob Blackman MP, Chair, Azerbaijan All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), stated: “I have had the pleasure of visiting Azerbaijan on four occasions. Azerbaijan was very different when it was under Soviet rule and oppression. Obviously, at that time, there was a desire for freedom in the country and the Soviet Union was clearly at breaking point. Mikhail Gorbachev asserted that it was necessary to use the military to put down the peaceful protests in Baku. This was an attempt to suppress the natural desire of the Azerbaijani people for independence.
“There are unofficial estimates that 300 were killed. These were individuals that just wanted to live in a free society. We commemorate and honour their memory today and that they gave their lives so that Azerbaijan could be free, and thank them for their sacrifices.
“We should also remember that this terrible and horrible event led to the emergence of the Azerbaijani state that we see today, which has a thriving economy, and accepts individuals for what they are and permits freedom of religious expression. The UK reaches out the hand of friendship to Azerbaijan, and we acknowledge the great partnership between our countries.”
Tahir Taghizadeh, Azerbaijani Ambassador to the UK, reflected: “We should focus on the positive outcome of the sacrifices of those young men and women who gave their lives for the creation of Azerbaijani statehood 28 years ago. The massacre was the result of the Soviet regime, which was like a dying whale, trying to maintain a grip on its republics. In fact, it speeded a mass exodus from the Communist party and resulted in greater anti-Soviet sentiments in Azerbaijan. The uprising was the point at which we stopped being Soviet.
“The regime was oppressive, but there were hopes in the west that Gorbachev would be able to reform the country and give communism ‘a human face’. In my view, this was not possible in the Soviet Union. The forcible repression in Baku disillusioned the west from thinking that this was possible and they realised, at that point, that the Soviet regime was beyond reform. The events in Baku were a great catalyst for the collapse of the Soviet Union as a whole.
“It should be remembered that the Black January victims buried in Martyrs’ Alley included Georgians, Russians and Jews, representing the inclusive nature of Azerbaijani society. We were and remain a multi-ethnic, progressive state that aims to play its role in the international arena, and we pay a great debt to those who lost their lives in 1990.”
The event concluded with a brief, yet heartfelt, solo performance by septuagenarian tar maestro Rafiq Rustamov, who commented: “Today I play in memory of those who gave their lives during the Black January tragedy in Baku.” His illustrious career of performance and education continued unhindered throughout both the Soviet and independence periods of Azerbaijani history.