What was the reason behind the mass demonstration in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, in 1988?

After the escalation of the processes in Nagorno-Karabakh, the deportation of Azerbaijanis from Armenia, and Moscow’s soft reaction to Armenia’s separatist demands provoked a first concrete reaction in the form of mass demonstrations in Azerbaijan.

The first demonstration, on February 19, 1988, involved students, workers and intellectuals, who started to march from the National Academy of Sciences towards the main government headquarters, and proclaimed that “[Nagorno-Karabakh] belongs to Azerbaijan”.[1] However, that demonstration did not grow any bigger and did not turn into a mass protest by Azerbaijanis, involving a large part of society.

The main mass rally of 1988 was organized on November 17, and millions of Azerbaijanis took part in “Lenin Square” in Baku, which was later renamed as “Freedom Square”. They protested against the weakness of Azerbaijani party leaders, who apparently were failing to control the NKAO. The demonstration continued without the break and with the overnight camping in the square. In particular, the demonstrators protested against Armenia’s intention to build a guesthouse in Topkhana for Yerevan aluminum factory workers.[2] The rally continued for eighteen days, until Soviet police were able to clear the square by force on December 5.[3]

The Azerbaijani mass demonstrations of 1988 not only played an important role in expressing discontent with Armenia’s secessionist policy, it was also an important event because it marked the rise of Azerbaijani nationalism that later developed into the independence movement. Therefore, November 17, 1992 was declared “National Revival Day” for Azerbaijanis, and it began to be celebrated as a national holiday in independent Azerbaijan.

[1] De Waal, Thomas, Black Garden (New York University Press, 2003), p. 20.

[2] De Waal, Black Garden, p. 83.

[3] Seyidaga, Etibar, “Xalq hərəkatinin başlanmasindan 20 il keçdi”, Müsavat, Noyabr 17, 2008; http://musavat.com/news/gündem/XALQ-HƏRKATININ-BASLANMASINDAN-20-IL-KEÇDİ_43013.html. Accessed on October 2, 2020.