Azerbaijani struggle for independence: then and now parallels

By | Rachel Brooks

February 2, 2021 

“Baku – Azerbeidzjan.” by Rita Willaert is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Fair use, see Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act. 

The flame captures the culture of Azerbaijan, which continues to parallel its history in its present. 

Sumgayit was a stepping stone leading to the Black January. 

Abol Bahadori, our guest, was in Manchester, England at the time of these events. Soon after he returned to England from Baku, articles with a decided bias against the Azerbaijani people started to be published. Bahadori collected them, having compiled an entire list of western press clippings regarding the Sumgayit events. Read more about the factual background of Sumgayit, believed by post-conflict investigations to have been directly instigated by the KGB and Armenian gangs, in this reprint of a four-part interview. 

The articles that Bahadori had gathered at this time showed a decided press bias against Azerbaijan, for their affiliation with Islam. The majority of Azerbaijani within the Azerbaijani republic are Shia Muslims, from the time of the Safavid empire’s influence, and perhaps even earlier. The focal point of the Safavid-era Shia conversion was fixed upon Southern Azerbaijan. 

Media bias reminiscent of today 

The chief city of this Safavid thought the train was in Tabriz. Read more of the background on the Safavid era influence of Shia Islam, and the equal peaceable development of Sunni and Sufi doctrine alongside it, here. Despite this influence of Shia doctrine Islam, the Azerbaijani republic has always been a highly secularized place, with a large and peacefully coinhabiting population of Christians and Jews. Read more about this in the recap of our Republic Underground religious event coverage. 

The reports referred to Azerbaijanis as “Muslim hooligans” on a “rampage of violence” in response to the mass street demonstrations demand from Soviet Armenia that the Karabakh, legally and historically a part of the Northern Azerbaijani territory, be transferred to Armenia. 

“The Karabakh issue had already started. But what is funny, and sad, is that the Soviet Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov was a big face on this on all tv and all media, anything to do with Russia, because he was Gorbachev’s spokesperson. He announced, and the Guardian is quoting him (in example article) in saying, that the infantry detachments (this is the Russian military) are enforcing the second day of curfew in the city of Sumgayit, protecting the Armenian minority there. 

So, Russia had already brought its ‘peacekeeping’ to Sumgayit. This was way before the events of the Bloody January, which happened in 1990, this was in March of 1988, which is more than a year before that. Then, Saturday, March 19, 1988, the Armenian Communist Party of Nagorno-Karabakh voted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia.” 

At this moment, Bahadori noted the long period of the stalemate between the secession of the Karabakh vote and the Azerbaijani Communist Party’s response to it. The Guardian published a report on Saturday, June 18, 1988, which was almost exactly three months after Azerbaijan voted “no” to the seceding vote from Karabakh’s ethnic Armenians.  

Nationalism raises its head 

“Then, the whole thing, because of the stalemate, the whole thing was passed to the Supreme Soviet court, and the Supreme Soviet also eventually voted that Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan and that it had to remain in Azerbaijan, perhaps with more autonomous power.”

He also noted that there was no motive other than politics for the ethnic Armenians of Karabakh to vote for their secession from Azerbaijan because Armenians’ standards of living were higher than their ethnic counterparts in this region at that time. 

“They had better asphalt, way better healthcare. They (the Soviets) had given them better facilities, schools, hospitals than they had provided for the Azerbaijanis, I believe, just to keep them quiet. This is something that I researched in and out when I was in Baku because I was really curious why these guys (Armenians) were complaining because you immediately assume they (Azerbaijanis) are prejudiced against them, that they (Armenians) are treated as second class perhaps in Azerbaijan, therefore they are not happy. 

But it was completely the opposite! Azerbaijanis were complaining that ‘why are their facilities, and lifestyles, and governmental health care, etc., etc. worse than Armenians in Azerbaijan?’ The Karabakh Armenians’ desire to join Armenia was purely nationalist, seeking to gain a Greater Armenia—to make Armenia bigger. The next step would have been eastern Turkey. They are still asking for that. Throughout history, Armenians just want to expand. It was a territorial expansion, a wish for territorial expansion, not to improve their lifestyles. 

And Azerbaijan barely had any control over Karabakh so far as, say, their Communist Party elections were concerned. The system that Azerbaijan had as the Soviet Republic was very poor, to control Nagorno-Karabakh. Nagorno-Karabakh already had an upper hand, which is why they could easily vote to get out of Azerbaijan.” 

Mutalibov takes a stand 

Bahadori noted that 1989 was “the beginning of the end” and called it “the beginning of all the reasons and excuses” for why the Russians eventually invaded Baku. He presented a report from The Guardian published on September 16, 1989, which details the actions of the 1989-era Soviet Azerbaijani Prime Minister Ayaz Mutalibov. Mutalibov would go on to become the first president of independent Azerbaijan. 

 Mutalibov had chosen to criticize the Kremlin Commission that was administering the disputed province in Karabakh since January 1989. Along with him, other speakers demanded the immediate dissolution of this commission. They wanted the complete restoration of Azerbaijani authority in the territory. 

“What happened was that, in January 1989, the Soviet Union did exactly what Russia has done today. And that is, to say ‘Hey, you guys are fighting? I’m gonna come in as peacekeepers and take over Nagorno-Karabakh.’ So, they had created a commission, with tanks and weapons, and a huge amount of military, to come and take control of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

So, Mutalibov, who was selected by the Central Communist Party to be Azerbaijan’s prime minister…He has raised his voice against the Kremlin, and said ‘you guys need to leave, we can control, we can continue having order in Karabakh.’ Even the Azerbaijani Communist Party’s other members had raised their voices. The speakers had demanded immediate dissolution of the commission, and the restoration of the full Azerbaijani authority there.” 

Bahadori noted many alarming parallels between the period of Kremlin-enforced Soviet peacekeepers and today. He stated that the situation today is almost just as severe as the situation in Azerbaijan during the days of the Soviets. With some disturbance, he noted a lapse in border surveillance, stating that the Azerbaijani Lachin border with Armenia, a gate to a 5-kilometer wide corridor to Karabakh has no border checks. The Azerbaijani government does not have a clear idea of who is coming and going in the Karabakh. 

“I want to look at everything in retrospect, and everything as a comparison,” he said, emphatic that drawing a direct comparison to their history was of critical importance, or else the Azerbaijani history “means nothing.” 

A turning point for Azerbaijan 

Bahadori noted that this era was a “turning point for Azerbaijan.” It was likewise a turning point in his journey with Azerbaijan’s struggle for independence. 

“It was a turning point for me too. I decided what was being written by Western media was so off, was so wrong, that somebody had to do something. 

I started writing back to these papers, and I started showing facts that I was getting from Baku. Sometimes they responded by letter and thanked me for correcting their bad reporting, but at the same time, they continued writing in that fashion. 

But this was a turning point in my life because I decided that I had to do some journalism on the side. That’s how Voice of America saw some of my articles, they contacted me, and they hired me. So, I came to Washington, D.C. That’s how I ended up in Washington, D.C. I worked for Voice of America and sometimes Radio Free Europe on the side, as a journalist, as a reporter. I left Voice of America in 1999 and started working in my real expertise, which was graphic design. That’s a different story.” 

Bahadori then turned his attention to 1989, when Berlin’s wall was taken down. At the fall of Berlin’s great wall, another wall was falling in Azerbaijan. The hostile attitude toward this independence struggle, coupled with the media’s disdain for the Azerbaijani, would spin a different narrative. The Soviets were soon to slaughter in the city of Baku, on the eave of a brutally contested for independence.