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SACRAMENTO—Los Angeles is home to the largest community of Armenians in the world outside of Armenia. So when there’s noise in the Caucasus, the echoes resonate in Southern California.
Today those echoes grew louder in both LA and at the Capital.
In Los Angeles, a wild melee broke out during a large demonstration staged by an Armenian advocacy group. The Armenian National Committee of America (Western Region) protested near the Azerbaijan Consulate General on Wilshire Boulevard in Brentwood. According to NBC-LA, when the crowd spilled past the barricades the police had set up to keep the demonstrators off the street, “Fistfights broke out … and one officer was injured.”
Meanwhile, at almost the exact same moment, about 100 people holding Turkish and Armenian flags gathered on the steps of the capital to listen to speakers condemn Armenia and its recent actions regarding Azerbaijan.
The dispute along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border comprises one of the world’s longest-running territorial disputes. Last week it flared up when 20 people died in fighting near the contested enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. According to the Financial Times, the renewed hostilities “prompted tens of thousands of protesters to storm [Azerbaijan capital] Baku’s parliament in anger and demand a return to full-on war.”
Alex Galitsky, who is Communications Director of the Armenian National Committee of America – Western Region, told the California Globe, “The act of aggression against Armenia has resonated widely with our community in Los Angeles, from those who have migrated from Armenia to the US recently, as well as those who found refuge in the US following the Armenian Genocide. … The protests today were a display of solidarity with our compatriots who face a very real existential threat, and call for the international community to hold Azerbaijan accountable for its aggression.
Last week’s violence 7200 miles away barely cracked the news in the United States amid a global pandemic, a presidential campaign and continued racial justice protests. But the anger felt on both sides is clearly active here in California.
There were dueling takes on last week’s Caucusus violence in the LA Times – first was Azerbaijan Consul General Nasimi Aghayev stating that Armenia started the renewed outbreak: “Starting on July 12, the Armenian army attacked, with heavy artillery, the positions of Azerbaijan’s armed forces along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, killing four Azerbaijani soldiers.”
Armenian activist Galitsky fired back, writing “Azerbaijani armed forces began military operations on the border of the Republic of Armenia, deploying tanks, heavy artillery, and drones against civilian and military targets alike,” and describing the actions as “the most significant flare-up between the two countries since Azerbaijan’s invasion attempt in 2016.”Interestingly, both opinion pieces ran in the Los Angeles Times en Español.
At today’s protest in the capital, the crowd cheered various speakers who delivered passionate anti-Armenian invective. The thrust of the message seemed to be that Vladimir Putin is trying to secure for Russia a monopoly on providing Europe with natural gas. Many of the chants had to do with accusing Armenia, a close ally of Russia, of being “Putin’s Puppet.”
Meanwhile, Turkey, which has been on the opposite side of Russia in proxy wars in Syria and Libya, has backed the Muslim-majority Azerbaijan and has blamed Armenia for the renewed violence.
Tensions between Turkey and Armenia have of course never been far below the boiling point. To this day, Turkey’s leaders downplay and even outright deny the fact of the genocide carried out by the Ottoman government, which from 1915-1923 murdered or expelled approximately 1.5 million Christian Armenians and approximately the same number of Greeks and Assyrians.
A far-off fight that’s not so far away
A hundred years later and thousands of miles away, those wounds are not quite scabbed over. And there are political ramifications at the statehouse.
Sen Anthony Portantino (D-25) whose district in the San Fernando valley is home to many Armenian Americans, came in for special anger from the Turkish and Azerbaijani partisans at the capital today. Portantino, who sits on the California-Armenian Committee, has left no doubt about which side he takes in the conflict. He has visited the Karabakh Region three times and has advocated for California to recognize Armenian-majority Artsakh as an independent country.
That advocacy has earned him the wrath of those on the other side of the conflict. Portantino’s name was featured prominently on the posters of the Sacramento protestors. One read, “Senator Portantino, Azerbaijani lives matter more than Armenian campaign donations.” But the senator’s support has also drawn appreciation from the state’s Armenian community.
Galitsky told the Globe, “Senator Portantino has been a forthright supporter of the Armenian community, with his State Senate district representing the highest concentration of Armenians in Los Angeles. Senator Portantino has also visited the Republic of Artsakh … which has resulted in Senator Portantino being placed on a blacklist, barring his entry to Azerbaijan.”
All politics is indeed local, even when it seems thousands of miles away.