By Ted AYALA
A bill that would see the Golden State become the next in a handful of states that recognize the sovereignty of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic came one step closer to reality Monday afternoon.
The California State Assembly Rules Committee (CSARC) voted 9-1 in favor of the resolution. The bill, which is known as AJR-32 and was authored by Assemblymember Mike Gatto, now goes to the full Assembly, where a vote may come as soon as today.
Lying between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the landlocked Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has been a sore point in relations between the two countries. A bloody war between both countries took place there from 1988 to 1994, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths, and in the mass expulsion of Azerbaijanis from the contested territory.
The roots of the conflict, however, can be traced further back.
Tensions over the region simmered for decades after Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders were redrawn in 1923 by Joseph Stalin, then the Soviet Union’s Commissar of Nationalities. The reconfiguration of the borderlines fueled a strong irredentist movement among Armenians even during the Soviet period.
After the fall of the USSR, the dispute erupted into widespread violence, eventually resulting in nearly 800,000 Azerbaijanis, previously a significant minority community within Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, being expelled from their homes. Another estimated 500,000 Armenians were also forced to flee regions along the border of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Stoking the ire of Armenians is the ethnic and cultural background Azerbaijan shares with Turkey, a country that evokes widespread loathing in the community for its refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide. In response to the war, Turkey has enforced a blockade of its borders with Armenia since 1993.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of committing war crimes and atrocities.
Since the 1990s, the United Nations has passed four resolutions recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as an integral part of Azerbaijani territory. To this date, no member states of the United Nations have disputed Azerbaijan’s de jure control of the area. The United States government also recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh belonging to Azerbaijan.
Nevertheless, Armenian communities across the country have lobbied vigorously for their cause. Armenians consider the region, which they have traditionally called Artsakh, to be part of their homeland, citing roots in the region extending back at least 2,000 years.
“Of course, we are absolutely thrilled to know that AJR-32 passed [the CSARC],” said Elen Asayan, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America ‘s (ANCA) western region office. “It stands on the American principles of self-determination and independence. We’re hopeful and confident that the full assembly will make the right choice on this bill.”
Congressmember Adam Schiff also praised the bill’s progress, saying that he has “long supported a right of self-determination for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.”
Words of congratulations also came from Glendale Mayor Zareh Sinanyan, who is no stranger to Nagorno-Karabakh. He recalled several visits he made to the region during the 1990s, even serving as a volunteer at a school there for a period of time.
“I’m excited that the CSARC supports Nagorno-Karabakh’s right to self-determination,” he said.
Echoing their approval was Councilmember Ara J. Najarian. Nagorno-Karabakh,he explained, is an issue “near and dear” to the Armenian people, including himself. He said that he has family members who served in the medical corps during the first armed conflict over the territory in the chaos that followed the end of World War I.
“I’m very happy to see [this bill] going to the full assembly,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do. For centuries, Nagorno-Karabakh has been Armenian territory.”
Najarian indicated that Glendale may explore options supporting AJR-32 in the “near future.” This may include establishing a sister-city relationship with a city in Nagorno-Karabakh. Mayor Sinanyan said that such moves are “possible,” but that the city needs to consider them carefully.
“First and foremost, any actions [Glendale] takes would be along the lines of what federal law permits,” he said.
Najarian also added that the city needs to first determine whether it can gather grassroots support and private funding for such an action. If Glendale were to pursue that route, it would not be the first city in the country to do so.
On April 22, the city of Pico Rivera adopted a resolution recognizing Karvachar, also known as Kalbajar in Azerbaijan, as a “friendship city.”
According to a Human Rights Watch report submitted in 1994, Karvachar was also the site of “egregious violations of the rules of war” perpetuated by Armenian forces.
Nasimi Aghayev, the Azerbaijani Consul-General in Los Angeles, objected sharply to the bill’s passing, saying that it will have a “dangerous effect” on peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The United States is among the nations serving as an arbiter between both sides.
“It’s a hypocritical and loaded resolution in wake of the events in Crimea and Ukraine,” he said. “[It is] very divisive in [that] it pits one community against the other, stirring ethnic tension and animosity in such a diverse and multicultural state as California.”
He also said that his country refuses to recognize that there is even a dispute as Azerbaijan’s claims to the region are indisputable.
“U.S. foreign policy is very clear: it supports the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan,” Aghayev said. “The international community, too, recognizes this fact. Why would California contradict its own government and the will of the international community?”
Other states, however, have taken the opposite course of California, instead affirming the foreign policy views of the federal government.
On Jan. 30, Arizona passed two resolutions supporting the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and its continued partnership with the U.S. It also called on both sides to make a “swift and just political settlement” on the issue, adding that further conflict could “threaten regional peace and stability.”