They cracked down so hard with guns and tanks that over 130 people were left dead. Seven hundred unarmed civilians were injured, and the credibility of Soviet rule in Azerbaijan was fatally wounded.
Gorbachev, for all his acknowledgement of a mistake, continues to be his own apologist. In a press statement issued on February 3, Gorbachev argued that "before the troops arrived in Baku, the Azeri Supreme Soviet and other political bodies were paralyzed, dozens of people had fallen victim to extremists, power had been toppled by force in some regions, a 200-kilometer section of the Soviet border with Iran had been destroyed, and a state of emergency had been declared to prevent arbitrariness and robbery." A tragedy it may have been, but, says Gorbachev, "the measures taken in the prevalent condition of the time prevented greater dangers."
The West preferred to see Gorbachev not as a man who was, at the very least, responsible for letting things run out of control in the dying days of the Soviet Union, but as the person who ended the Cold War (or lost it, depending on your perspective) and dismantled the "empire of evil." In 1990, just months after the Baku killings, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
For Azeris, though, "Black January" has had a profound effect on national identity. It was a gravestone for the Soviet Union and a touchstone issue in relations with Russia, for Azeris largely indistinguishable from the Soviet Union. Ever since, it has been a stain and strain on relations with Russia. It drastically changed public opinion about Russia and attitude to Russian culture and language. It abruptly boosted popular support for the switch from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, for example. It also helps to explain why Azerbaijan became the first and is still the only CIS country with no Russian troops on its territory. Although it unwillingly joined the Commonwealth of Independent States, it has steered clear of Russia's many suggestions that political and military ties within the organization should be expanded.
Thirteen years on, there is no sign of Black January declining in significance. This year, about the same number of people as in previous years some 2 million visited Martyrs' Avenue in the Azeri capital, Baku, on 20 January, waiting hours to walk slowly along the avenue and lay flowers on the graves.
However, in one important way, it has in fact become more prominent. Allahshukur Pashazada, the senior cleric on the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus and the man who called Gorbachev a "merciless killer" in a letter to the president on 21 January 1990, demanded that Gorbachev, who is now 72, be put before an international court to answer charges of crimes against humanity. His call snowballed, gaining first the support of the media, then the government, and finally, on 28 January, the approval of Azeri President Heidar Aliev himself.
But why should the call be made now, 13 years after the event?
It could, of course, be seen as the culmination of an ongoing campaign to bring to justice those responsible for the massacre. The history of the time certainly remains an open wound and cause of anger. There were undoubtedly pogroms against Armenians. By 20 January 1990, several dozen of the 200,000 Armenians living in Baku had been killed and the rest had fled, many of them given temporary refuge by Azeris. However, Soviet internal troops stationed in Baku well ahead of 20 January 1990 numbered over 11,000 and could have easily prevented the pogroms. The Soviet troops had also not intervened in Armenia, where pogroms and ethnic cleansing of Azeris had been carried out, and they never intervened in Nagorno-Karabakh itself, thereby allowing local clashes to grow into a regional conflict.
Whatever the reason for the pogroms, they were over by 20 January (though strikes and demonstrations were continuing). Soviet troops did not warn civilians and did not face any armed resistance in Baku. At midnight, people were standing in the streets to protest the escalating crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh and the ineffectiveness of the local and central governments. Hours later, hundreds were in hospitals whose electricity supply had been cut, being operated on by candlelight.
However, there is no ongoing campaign. Efforts to find the culprits have been allowed to fizzle out. Many of the pogrom groups were led by KGB officials, Azeris believe, and Soviet bureaucrats readily gave them lists with addresses of Armenians living in Baku, leading to many conspiracy theories (largely centering on the notion that Russian officers were supporting Armenia in its claims to Nagorno-Karabakh). The failure of investigations is principally due to the Russians. In 1994 (four years after investigations began), Azerbaijan sent volumes of material for a case to Russia, demanding the extradition of the culprits. Russia has neither returned the case material nor extradited anyone. Even so, the notion of charging Gorbachev has emerged in something of a vacuum, raising the suspicion that the timing has other causes.
Nor have the Azeris tried to persuade Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the Baltic states, all of which suffered similar scenes of late-Soviet repression (starting in Almaty in December 1986, continuing in Tbilisi in April 1989 and ending in Vilnius in January 1991), to join in the campaign to indict Gorbachev.
An alternative explanation widely aired in the Russian media, and countered in the Azeri press is that this was a public-relations stunt for Aliev. Half a year away from presidential elections, Aliev has had to face some of the largest opposition rallies seen in recent years. Moreover, the long-standing public rallies calling on the government to take a tougher line on Nagorno-Karabakh and to bring it once again under Azeri control have become increasingly critical of Aliev himself.
If Pashazada really was acting on Aliev's behalf (and he is generally seen as Aliev's man), the president, a former KGB general who was in the hospital at the time of Black January, was perhaps trying to score a public relations coup, trying to deflect attention away from the unsettled conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and acute social problems in many parts of the country and make himself the figurehead of national sorrow and identity.
However, so far it has failed to have much effect. It has not generated much discussion on the streets of Baku and so far little action has been taken. The Azeri opposition parties have chosen to ignore the issue.
That, though, does not dispel an unpleasant sense of politicking: While it is hard to vindicate Gorbachev, it is also inhumane and ignoble to tap the sorrow of a nation to score political points.