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The Price of Freedom: Remembering January 20, 1990

Posted: 01/22/10 04:29 PM ET

This month, the Republic of Azerbaijan commemorates the 20th anniversary of a turning point in its history and the histories of all the now former Soviet Republics. On January 20, 1990 - nearly two years before the official collapse of USSR - Soviet leadership ordered a full-scale military attack on civilians in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku. In trying to preserve the once-mighty empire by massacring civilians, the Kremlin actually doomed any remaining hopes at salvaging the USSR's rapidly sinking ship and cemented the West's victory in the Cold War.

The details of this crime against humanity, perpetrated by the Soviet Army, are well-documented and included a surprise attack on a major metropolitan city and the mass murder of about 150 unarmed civilians, including women, children, and elderly. Soviet leaders unleashed heavily armed troops and tanks, shooting indiscriminately, killing hundreds, injuring thousands, and destroying a peaceful city known for its tolerance and secularism. The massacre in Baku became the bloodiest case of the USSR's acquired pattern of attacking its own citizens. In 1986, indiscriminate force was used against civilians in Almaty, Kazakstan; in 1989 in Tbilisi, Georgia; in 1991 in Vilnius, Lithuania; and later, in 1991 in Moscow during a self-defeating and ill-fated coup d'etat attempt. An important footnote to remember is how Human Rights Watch described the Soviet army's actions as "an exercise in collective punishment" and "a warning to nationalists, not only in Azerbaijan, but in the other Republics of the Soviet Union.'' Yet, contrary to the crumbling regime's hopes, these attacks convinced even those who had doubts that the time was ripe for independence from the agonizing and increasingly violent USSR.

The tragedy of January 20, 1990 in Baku was an important event on many levels, from the geopolitical to the regional to the deeply personal for the many affected by it. For instance, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a one-time favorite of the West, was widely unpopular throughout the USSR and routinely ordered massacres of civilians such as the one in Baku. This dichotomy between the outward upbeat appearance and the actual weakness of a failed politician whose inability to govern exasperated the challenges of USSR's collapse has never been grasped by the West. As a result, taken by the fanfare of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a dramatic and historic event in its own right, the then Bush 41 Administration was quick to overlook the blood of civilians spilled by Gorbachev's soldiers throughout the former Soviet Republics. Many outside the former USSR failed to comprehend the significance of millions of Soviet citizens turning into ardent supporters of Azerbaijan's independence overnight following the January 20, 1990 atrocities.

January 20th bears rich symbolism for many in Azerbaijan and throughout Eurasia. On that day, the majority of the people of Azerbaijan lived through the personal transformation of abandoning Soviet identity and becoming citizens of the independent Republic of Azerbaijan at the time when such independence still seemed unreachable. If on January 19th many among the peaceful protesters against authorities believed that the Soviet Union could be reformed, by the next morning those hopes were killed by none other than the Soviet troops themselves.

I was a student in Russia in January 1990 and witnessed how Soviet special police attacked students and professionals who had gathered at Azerbaijan's mission in Moscow. I also saw how former Politburo member and the highest-ranking Azerbaijani in the Soviet Union, Heydar Aliyev, joined the protesters gathered in Moscow. By courageously speaking out against the brutality of the Soviet regime and denouncing the Communist Party, Heydar Aliyev, once a veteran Soviet politician, had established himself as the authority and leader of the emerging independent Azerbaijan.

January 20th stands out in its symbolism for many reasons. The faces of tragedy, from a newlywed couple and children shot by soldiers, to bullet-ridden ambulances and doctors dying as they protected their patients represent my people and their dedication to freedom and one another. And victims of that night also speak of Azerbaijan's diversity, as they include a young Azerbaijani boy, a teenage Jewish girl, an elderly Russian man and many others from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The tragedy united the people of Azerbaijan into a community of citizens of an independent nation and strengthened their resolve to achieve that independence. Perhaps, naturally, one of the most characteristic photos from Azerbaijan was taken on the funeral service for the victims of the massacre and features Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders leading a joint prayer at the cemetery.

For Azerbaijani identity, the date of January 20, 1990 is a fundamental building block, which, as mentioned earlier, precedes the nation's formal independence. The hilltop cemetery overlooking the Caspian Sea, the Martyr's Alley, established ad-hoc 20 years ago in spite of a curfew and military attempts to disperse the people, is a symbol of Baku today. Unfortunately, it has grown significantly since then because many victims of the war with neighboring Armenia are buried there as well. And the red carnations, once a flower of choice in Azerbaijan, are now almost exclusively a symbol of bloodshed for the nation's independence.

Similar to monuments in America, Baku's Martyr's Alley is not aimed at anyone or any nation. It symbolizes the sacrifices made by our people for their independence. After all, so much that we take for granted, be it our nationhood and even the ability to own one's national flag, have been earned by paying a very steep price. Over the last 20 years much has changed and Azerbaijan today stands firmly on its feet a regional leader. Speaking of symbolism, in 2001 Vladimir Putin became first Russian president to visit independent Azerbaijan and to lay a wreath at the January 20th memorial.

Two decades later, a vibrant and independent Republic of Azerbaijan is still the best tribute to the memory of those whose lives were cut short by the collapsing empire's crime. And so, as we mourn the victims, we also celebrate our Azerbaijan and the independence, freedom and sacrifice that come with the steep price of freedom.

Elin Suleymanov is Azerbaijan's first Consul General to Los Angeles and 13 Western States, including the State of Alaska. For more information on the Consulate General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles, please visit www.azconsulatela.org.