Azerbaijanis celebrate Day of National Revival

By: Amina Nazarli

November 17 is a significant date in the history of independent Azerbaijan, when the nation celebrates the Day of National Revival. Exactly 27 years ago, the Azerbaijani people took the road to freedom.

After 70 years as part of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan had the chance to regain its independence. Millions of Azerbaijanis headed for the streets on this day, shouting slogans of freedom and demanding the restoration of their violated rights.

The protests gained momentum following Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan in 1988, when Armenian separatist forces fueled unrest in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.

Profiting by the indifference of the head of the USSR, Michael Gorbachev, Armenians expelled 200,000 Azerbaijanis from their lands.

Azerbaijanis stood up to express their endless anger and distrust of the leadership that remained indifferent to the fate of the nation.

This campaign was called the “Movement of the Square”, and the largest Square in Baku, where Azerbaijanis conducted sit-in protests after the liberation movement, began to be called “Azadlig” (“Freedom”).

The protests lasted for 18 days and nights, becoming the largest protests in the USSR. The Azerbaijani people proved that they could stand up for themselves to defend their rights and land.

The scale of the protests forced Moscow to announce a state of emergency for the first time, mainly in Azerbaijan. The Soviet’s internal security forces used heavy equipment against the protesters, wounding and killing civilians.

Despite the many hardships facing Azerbaijan, the nation took bold steps toward democratization, reorganization, and rebuilding.

During this period, thanks to the hard fought Azerbaijani people, the influential German weekly Spiegel labeled the Azerbaijani people, “The nation of the year” for their resistance against Soviet forces.

Sparks for collapse

However, this is not the only reason behind the fall of the Soviet Union.

Creating a unified, centralized socialist state proved problematic for several reasons.

The Soviets underestimated the degree to which the non-Russian ethnic groups in the country, which comprised more than 50 percent of the population of the Soviet Union, would resist their oppression.

The empire became the “prison of nations” and sooner or later was doomed to crash.

Soviet policy was aimed at the oblivion of the culture of nations living within it. And this explains the banning of many things in Azerbaijan, including the celebration of traditional holidays, such as Novruz Bayram, or performances using traditional national instruments, or performances of the national music, the mugham.

Further, all schools, universities and state documents were in the Russian language. Azerbaijan was on the way to losing its language, traditions and culture.

By 1985, when the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, came to power, the empire had experienced difficult days, as political and deep economic problems needed to be overcome.

Realizing this, Gorbachev and his supporters saw a way out by introducing a two-tiered policy of reform. The first was called glasnost, or openness, designed to promote social and political reforms that would offer more rights and freedoms to the Soviet people. The second, known as perestroika or rebuilding, was a reconstruction program of the political and economic system established by the Communist Party.

However, Gorbachev destroyed the country, instead of improving it, which sooner or later would have collapsed.

Historian Lala Aliyeva told AzerNews that the reasons for the Soviet Union’s collapse can be divided into three categories, including economic, ideological and political.

“One of the reasons for the collapse of the state was in the utopian ideals of the Marxist and socialist ideas. The main ideologies of the country, and the faith in the building of communism, had become something to mock among the whole population. People, especially youngsters, idealized the western way of life,” she said.

The economy in the 1980s had crashed, as the price of oil fell to $20 per barrel and people could only receive certain products by using coupons, as they had during WWII.

Various outbreaks of ethnic clashes and discord at the top of the Soviet leadership became the reasons for the political crisis in the country.

What Gorbachev had not realized, while introducing glasnost reform, was that by giving people complete freedom of expression, he created the opportunity for the nations to release their emotions and feelings that had been pent up for decades.

“The peoples of the USSR had never had a common national identity. Therefore, as soon as they had the chance, they all established national organizations, such as the National Front,” Aliyeva noted.

And very soon, the Soviet people used their newly allotted freedom of speech to criticize Gorbachev for his failure to improve the economy.

One more reason that accelerated the fall of the Soviet Union, according to the historian, was the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1991 by Russia’s first popularly elected president, Boris Yeltsin. This put Gorbachev face-to-face with these facts and the USSR president announced his resignation on TV on December 25, 1991.

Cost of independence for Azerbaijan

Due to Gorbachev’s “glasnost” and “democracy” policy, Armenians began to demand the restoration of the alleged “justice”, claiming “Karabakh was unjustly given to Azerbaijan, now we need to return it to Armenia.”

In rapid pace, the “People’s Front of Azerbaijan”, the political organization established in 1988, was gaining popularity among the population, which required a speedy solution to “the Karabakh issue,” with the resignation of top officials in the government, and stood for independence and national sovereignty.

Starting January 16, 1990, mass protests began in Baku. Thousands of people marched on Azadlyg Square to struggle for the ideals of freedom, independence and sovereignty, to preserve the nation’s territorial integrity.

However, the Soviet leadership warned, that it would not tolerate Azerbaijan’s breaking away from the Soviet Union.

During a military operation that began on the night of January 19th and continued until January 20th, 26,000 hostile and aggressive Soviet special forces, called “Alfa”, entered Baku and committed atrocities against the Azerbaijani people. They stormed into crowds and murdered hundreds of civilians, without declaring a state of emergency.

They also began to open fire on protesters, crushing many of them with tanks, and arrested hundreds more for imprisonment and torture. The invasion was launched at midnight. It was committed with brutality. Even children, women and the elderly were targeted.

Though the final death toll is still disputed to this day, at least 130 people died from wounds received during the subsequent violent confrontations. A vast majority of the casualties were civilians, with over 700 of them having been wounded.

On October 18, 1991, after the adoption of the Constitutional Act, Azerbaijan gained its long-awaited independence, having surmounted many challenges.

This was a glorious day in the history of the country. Finally, Azerbaijan had regained its sovereignty and put an end to its dependence on the Soviet empire.


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