From the Pain of “Black January” to an International Energy Key Player

Azerbaijan, From the Pain of “Black January” to an International Energy Key Player

By | Dr. Frank Musmar

January 23, 2021

On January 20, 2021, Azerbaijanis commemorated Black January’s 31st anniversary, a bloody crackdown by Soviet troops that failed to stop Azerbaijan’s independence movement. Despite the past 31 years, the massacre, still fresh in the hearts of all Azerbaijanis. For the last 31 years, Azerbaijanis have been flocking to the martyrdom cemetery showing their gratitude to those who burned the fire of independence with carnations, which have become the symbols of January 20 victims.    

Azerbaijan before the First Independence

Azerbaijan took its name (In the Persian Language means Fire Protector) from the rich deposits of natural gas and oil resting on the soil surface, causing the soil to be flammable around the Baku area. Besides oil, the country’s climate diversity is another natural gift to grow an array of crops that range from tobacco and cotton to vegetables and citrus fruits to grains and grapes.  

The Azerbaijani people are indigenous Caucasian; however, they were subsumed into other cultures that clashed in the area such as the Albanians, Romans, Persians, Arabs, and Turks over several centuries. Accordingly, the country has a combination of three major religions and several Persian and Turkic language dialects. The population of the Republic of Azerbaijan is approximately 7.5 million people. However, three times as many Azerbaijanis (an estimated 20 to 25 million) live to the south in Iran.

Russia wanted to maintain influence in the region against the Ottomans and Persians. Thus, from the early 1800s up to1828, conflicts broke out between Russia and Persia. By 1828, the Russians came to dominate nearly all of the Northern and Southern Caucuses. Accordingly, in 1828, Russia and Persia signed the Turkmenchay treaty to divide Azerbaijan. The territory of present-day Azerbaijan becomes part of the Russian empire, while southern Azerbaijan became part of Persia.

  1. By Article 4 of the treaty, Iran loses sovereignty over Yerevan (current capital of Armenia), Nakhichevan, Talysh, Ordubad, and Mughan regions of Arran Province (now part of modern Azerbaijan Republic), in addition to all lands annexed by Russia in the Gulistan Treaty.
  2. The Aras River is assigned the new borderline between Iran and Russia, from Ararat ghal’eh to the river’s outlet at Astara.

In 1848, Azerbaijan’s massive oil reserves were developed, and the World’s first oil well was drilled south of Baku. In 1879, Western tycoons, such as the Rothschilds and Nobels, made Azerbaijan the ground for their latest oil technologies. Baku became the terminus of the World’s first oil pipeline. The Zoroaster was constructed as the World’s first oil tanker to carry black gold from Azerbaijan’s rich wells. The first Trans Caucasus Railroad was built in 1865 in Poti on the Black Sea and reached Baku in 1883. Later, the railroad became an essential route for transporting Baku’s oil west. 

Azerbaijan from the First Independence to the Second Independence

After 1917, Caucasians were interested in two issues: work and land. But Russia was interested in Baku’s oil. Accordingly, the Russian civil war started, and revolutions began in 1905 and lasted until 1918, ended with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent. However, Armenia and Azerbaijan immediately went to war with each other over the disputed territory, including Karabakh and Nakhchivan. The war started because both lived under larger empires for centuries with no clear borders, mixed or united ethnic enclaves, or historical bases. The Soviets invaded both countries in 1920 and brought them under Soviet control.

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic’s main achievement in Tbilisi on May 28, 1918, was creating the first parliamentary republic with 11 parties and factions in the first parliament. There were two Armenian factions within the parliament. Second, Azerbaijan gave parity to women to receive the right to vote in Baku before most European and American countries. Third, founding the first university in 1919 with four faculties, history, physics-math, law, and medicine, and the university’s first dean was the surgeon Vasili Razumovsky.

The republic lasted for 23 months until April 28, 1920; the Red Army invaded Azerbaijan and occupied Baku’s capital city. Azerbaijan was declared the Soviet Socialist Republic. Under the Soviets, and in 1922, Azerbaijan became a founder member of the Soviet Union. In 1936, the Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Republic dissolved; Azerbaijan becomes a full republic of the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan then lived under the domination of the Soviet Union until 1991. 

That year, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Azerbaijan regained its independence as the Republic of Azerbaijan. Under the control of the former Soviet Union (1920–1991), religious worship was discouraged, and most mosques and churches were destroyed. Today Azerbaijan enjoys the freedom of religion. Muslims, Jews, and Christians can all worship openly and freely.  

In 1988, the Nagorno-Karabakh region sought to become part of Armenia. Ethnic Azeris begin to leave Karabakh and Armenia, and ethnic Armenians leave Azerbaijan. This led to an escalation of the ethnic strife between Armenians and Azeris in 1990. Dozens die in interethnic violence in Baku, and Soviet troops use force to end the unrest. In 1991, the Azerbaijani parliament voted to restore independence. In elections boycotted by the opposition, Mr. Mutallibov became president, and Heydar Aliyev became the leader of Nakhichevan’s Azerbaijani exclamation.

Black January

In an attempt by Moscow to prevent the disintegration of the Soviet Union, on January 20, 1990, more than 200 people were killed after emergency rule was declared and Soviet soldiers fired into crowds of protesters in Baku. However, the crackdown only strengthened the local independence movement, and the following year Azerbaijan became a sovereign state after 70 years of Soviet captivity. The massacre was named Black January in history.

The massive demonstrations that led to “Black Friday” started in 1988 after the Armenians increased their activities to breaking off the Upper Karabakh area from Azerbaijan. The Supreme Council of the Armenian Soviet Republic decided to annex Upper Karabakh to Armenia in 1989. Azerbaijan reacted to the decision with demonstrations held in Baku with hundreds of thousands of people. The Soviets deployed an army in Baku. The people blocked the city’s entrance roads and shut the front of military units in Baku.

On January 19, 1990, the Soviet army of 26,000 troops with armored vehicles entered Baku from five directions shooting and killing 130 unarmed civilians. Tanks and heavily armored vehicles were driven over people while the fire was opened at ambulances and passenger buses. On January 19, the Soviet army continued its massacre in other cities such as Neftchala and Lankaran in the southern parts of the country, killing 147 Azerbaijani civilians, injuring 744 civilians, and detained 400 civilians in both incidents. The Black January massacre shook the confidence of the Azerbaijani people in the Soviet administration, and the process leading to the country’s independence began.

Azerbaijan after the Second Independent (Energy Key Player)  

Since its independence, Azerbaijan has undergone a significant economic transformation, with its large oil and gas reserves pushing it to strong growth in the last 31 years. In 1994, Azerbaijan signed the contract of the century with a consortium of international oil companies to explore and exploit three offshore oil fields. In 1997, the first oil was produced by the Azerbaijani International Operating Company under the “contract of the century.”

The year 2001 was a changing point in the history of modern Azerbaijan. The country became a full member of the Council of Europe; the USA lifted the aid ban imposed during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict after Azerbaijan provides airspace and intelligence to the USA; Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey reach an agreement on oil and gas pipelines linking Caspian fields with Turkey; and shifted to the Latin alphabet for the Azeri language. 

In 2002, the construction work started on the multi-billion-dollar pipeline to carry Caspian oil from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia. The pipeline (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan) formally opened in 2006.

Accordingly, Azerbaijani state oil company used the excuse of the dispute over energy prices to stop pumping oil to Russia in 2007. In 2010, British Petroleum announced plans for a gas pipeline from Azerbaijan to Europe, bypassing Russia. In 2014, BP started constructing the Southern Gas Corridor Pipelines, which became operational in 2018.

Oil and gas account for more than 90% of Azerbaijan’s exports. The Azerbaijani government and international companies invested substantially in the energy sector, and the construction of several new power plants and rehabilitation and modernization of the gas and electricity networks improved the reliability and security of supply. Such modernization helped the country become the 24th-largest crude oil producer in the World and the second among EU4Energy focus countries after Kazakhstan in 2018. 

According to the 2019 Azerbaijan energy profile, the country became a major crude oil producer (37.5 Million Ton including natural gas liquids) and a significant natural gas producer (24.5 billion cubic meters). Because of this large hydrocarbon production, Azerbaijan has one of the highest energy self-sufficiency ratios in the World: its energy production is more than four times its energy demand.

 Moreover, Azerbaijan generates 26 terawatt hour of electricity annually, mostly from natural gas (more than 90 % in 2019); the sole country refinery produces 5.8 Million ton of oil products from domestic crude oil and Natural Gas Liquids and also a significant exporter of crude oil (30.8 Million ton in 2019) and natural gas (11 billion cubic meters in 2019).