SAN FRANCISCO — On Thursday, December 29, a virtual town hall, hosted by the San Francisco Bay Area Artsakh Task Force, attempted to bring together the community on the blockade crisis in Artsakh. The topic of the panel was the recent blockade by Azerbaijani “protestors” of the Lachin Corridor which is the only connection from Armenia to Artsakh (the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic). The protestors were sent by the Azerbaijani government under the false premise of complaining about environmental concerns at copper, molybdenum, and gold mines that are operated in Artsakh. The blockade of the road as well as intermittent shut-downs of the gas and electric lines leading into Artsakh have created a humanitarian crisis for the people of the region.

Four speakers were at the forum: Dr. Davit Akopyan, Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, Mariam Khaloyan and Aram Hamparian.

Akopyan is a senior advisor to the director of the Arab States Regional Hub (Amman, Jordan) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and also an advisor to the President of Armenia, as well as serving on the board of the think tank Applied Policy Research Institute of Armenia (APRI Armenia). Poghosyan is a political scientist and is the chairman of the Center for Political & Economic Strategic Studies of Armenia. He is also a regular commentary contributor to the Armenian Mirror-Spectator. Khaloyan is the director of Congressional Relations for the Armenian Assembly of America while Hamparian is the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America. International human rights lawyer Sheila Paylan of Montreal, Canada, was scheduled to be a part of the panel but was unable to make it.

The panel was moderated by community leader Yervant Zorian, who is a member of the Artsakh Task Force board as well as a leading computer engineer and chief architect at Synopsys, Inc., which produces microchips.

Each panel member offered a different perspective.

Poghosyan’s perspective, being on the ground in Armenia, was arguably the most pragmatic. He argued for the continued importance of Russian presence in Armenia and Artsakh. According to him, the Azerbaijani blockade is going to continue much longer, and it is clear that the goal of Azerbaijan is to starve the people of Artsakh into submission. The ability of the Azerbaijanis to cut the gas and electric lines whenever they want will be used as leverage to force the people of Artsakh and Armenia to accede to their demands, he said. One of the Azerbaijani demands is that a checkpoint be established on the Lachin corridor to check every car and truck that passes from Armenia to Azerbaijan; this would essentially give Azerbaijan control of the corridor and de facto of Artsakh as a whole.

Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan

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Azerbaijan is also demanding that Ruben Vardanyan, the State Minister of Artsakh, leave the region as soon as possible. Vardanyan, a Yerevan-born billionaire businessman and philanthropist known as the “Father of the Russian Stock Market” recently renounced his Russian citizenship and moved to Artsakh where he was appointed State Minister. Vardanyan has stated that the people of Artsakh have three choices, join Azerbaijan, leave, or fight; he has chosen to fight, he said.

Poghosyan also discussed the possibility of bringing minimum supplies by airlift until the corridor is open. Since Azerbaijan is claiming Artsakh as their territory, they argue that all air travel into the Stepanakert airport (in Artsakh’s capital) should use the international air traffic code for Azerbaijan. That will again give Azerbaijan control as to who comes in and out of Artsakh. It was stated that if Armenia tried to send supplies by military helicopter, these would immediately be shot down by the Azeri forces. On the other hand, despite all of this, the Russian military continues to use the Stepanakert airport without interference from Azerbaijan. Poghosyan and others suggested that the best way to get supplies to Karabakh would be on Russian military helicopters. Therefore, the pro-Russian stance should continue.

Poghosyan suggested that Armenia speak to the Russians asking for the minimal amount of help, namely aid and supplies to keep the people of Artsakh alive as a humanitarian measure, without asking even for the Russian military to disperse the protestors blockading the road. The reasoning for this is that Russia is not currently dispersing the protestors so it is clear that Russia feels such action would be considered aggression by Azerbaijan and lead to more conflict.

Akopyan spoke to the international community’s involvement in ending the blockade. He stated that the most immediate opportunity for the UN to help was during the Security Council discussion of December 20, however despite an attempt from France for the fourth time to suggest a statement from the Security Council, no statement was made. All parties agreed that there is a “blockade” but rotating current Security Council members Albania and the United Arab Emirates did not want to use the nomenclature “Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Meanwhile Russia wished to have its role stressed and the US wanted the Russian role downplayed. Akopyan mentioned that when there was a blockade of parts of Syria during the civil war in that country, it took almost two years for the UN to decide what to say, thus, he said, the Security Council is not really the best option for solving the current crisis. However, he noted, in the new year, there will be new temporary Security Council members such as Japan, Malta, Ecuador and Switzerland; Akopyan said he hopes that some of these can be allies to Armenia. The outgoing UN Security Council member, Norway, had meanwhile suggested increased international presence in Artsakh. The problem is that right now the UN can only enter Artsakh with the permission of Azerbaijan, but that does not preclude various countries like Norway from sending their own representatives or international NGOs; the Red Cross, Halo Trust, and Doctors Without Borders are already present there. Talks between the Norwegian ambassador in the US have already emerged discussing this possibility.

Akopyan stressed the importance of the presence of international personnel in Artsakh especially by organizations bringing in humanitarian assistance. He opined that this would help to break the blockade, stating that Armenians should proceed “step by step, with their eyes on the facts on the ground.” In fact, the African nation of Gabon suggested that a UN fact-finding mission be sent to Artsakh, but the implementation of this is still unclear.

Aram Hamparian

Akopyan further discussed the positive influence of more attention being paid to Artsakh in the international media, mentioning journalist Lara Setrakian’s article in the outlet Foreign Policy. He mentioned that international observers following Armenia and Artsakh are “between a rock and a hard place,” needing to rely on Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO), which is not really doing much to help, while Russia has become the primary villain in international media due to its invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, some writers have been trying to project the idea that next to Ukraine, Armenia is on the front lines of the struggle between democracy and autocracy.

In contrast to Poghosyan, Akopyan was much more skeptical of the Russian role in the conflict. “I am not sure of the value of the Russian promises,” regarding their promises to stay in Artsakh, he said, adding that the situation changed with the war in Ukraine. He concluded that the solution is to make Armenia and Artsakh strong using more alliances and increased military capacity.

During the question-and-answer section, he also voiced that making the argument to the UN and the international community would involve making comparisons to the Berlin Airlift of 1948, the US military support for the unrecognized nation of Somaliland, and other similar situations in recent or past history where an unrecognized or blockaded area was given humanitarian aid despite political issues. Hamparian took another pragmatic approach, one that was more cynical of the true role of the international community and the sway held by concepts of democracy and human rights.

“In any crisis, you have to mitigate any harm, survive the crisis, and look for opportunities,” he stated. Some of the opportunities that exist are the “internationalization” of the Artsakh crisis, the spotlight on Azerbaijani intentions, and the humanitarian issue. While these can be used, Hamparian was much more critical of the motives of state actors and took an approach that takes realpolitik into account.

Hamparian referred to different streams of thought in Armenian politics over the years. One school of thought is that a “land for peace” deal can create a stable equilibrium and bring much-desired peace to the Armenian people. In other words, by making territorial concessions to Azerbaijan or Turkey, some Armenians have tried to use that as a way to gain peace for Armenia as a whole. Hamparian argued that there is no such “transactional path to peace” that such an argument envisions, but that Artsakh and Armenia are in an “existential” environment, not a “transactional” one. The Turks and Azerbaijanis desire to either eliminate the Armenians — or at least to marginalize them — until they are insignificant. Hamparian noted that in the US, while there are those who are concerned with the humanitarian crisis, “nobody in DC is losing any sleep over this,” he stated.

The basic approach that most US government officials are taking is that the conflict is the fault of “both sides.” US officials know who the aggressor is but refuse to say it, he added. They would rather the issue resolve itself without US involvement, and if at the end of the day, the Armenian people have to leave Karabakh, so be it, he added.

Hamparian proved his point by noting that there has been no end to the military aid to Azerbaijan and no effort to deliver humanitarian aid to Artsakh; there has been no investigation into Azerbaijan’s war crimes, use of mercenaries, or illegal munitions and landmines. The tools of US power such as sanctions, travel bans, freezing of bank accounts, and so on, are only picked up by the administration when doing so is useful to the US government. The administration has not done so in this case, so clearly, saving Artsakh is not useful to the US government.

Hamparian continued that the Armenian-American community is “swimming upstream,” but there are some options. Armenian-Americans who are US citizens should be rising up and complaining to the elected officials that are beholden to them that something needs to be done. The US government should be asked to send a signal to Azerbaijan that this is not acceptable; we have such a law on the books, which is Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act banning military aid to Azerbaijan. The executive branch continues to waive this law and send aid anyway.

Hamparian stated that we don’t need to convince Congress to create new sanctions, we just need them to enforce the already existing Section 907. Hamparian also mentioned foreign aid, stating that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has presided over giving out $11 billion in aid to all kinds of countries around the world, even US adversary Venezuela, yet nothing has gone to Artsakh. It seems that either Turkey or Azerbaijan is vetoing such aid or the diplomats are holding it back of their own accord, he said.

Hamparian stated that although we should be making the geopolitical argument in behalf of Armenia, the civilizational argument that Armenia is part of Western Civilization, promotes democracy, western values, freedom, tolerance, and has a Christian basis, along with a Diaspora that is highly tied into the Western world, he concluded that geopolitical arguments or moral suasion will ultimately not determine the outcome, but rather the status of Armenian-Americans as voters and stakeholders in the American democracy. Khaloyan echoed Hamparian’s remarks, issuing an impassioned call to the Armenian-American community to act in accordance with Hamparian’s suggestions and reach out to elected officials as well as local news media.

Citing heartbreaking stories such as of a man who almost dropped an egg on the street in Artsakh and stated that he would rather have cracked the screen of his phone than lose the egg, she highlighted the danger of starvation faced by the natives of Artsakh. Stating that the Armenian Assembly as well as the ANCA serve as a sounding board from the Armenian community to the US Congress, she called on all community members to raise their voices and raise awareness. She suggested writing letters to the editor or articles to local newspapers; calling one’s Senators or Member of Congress, and especially stressing to elected officials to enforce Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which bans direct aid to the Azerbaijani government.

Mariam Khaloyan

Khaloyan added that participation of the community is needed right away. Community members should be making calls and sending letters, and becoming more and more active in the fight, as well as reaching out to family and friends in other states to do the same. In response to the discussion on community involvement, Hamparian added that the Armenian advocacy community has allies in faith-based groups, including Christian groups as well as Jewish ones, though some pro-Israel groups are not as fond of speaking out against Azerbaijan. He also mentioned that the ethnic advocacy groups of the Greek, Kurdish and increasingly the Hindu (ethnic/religious) communities have been allies to the cause. On the flipside, Hamparian expressed extreme disappointment with the behavior of traditional human rights advocacy groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which have not stood up for the Armenians.

In the end, Hamparian echoed his earlier remark that the US government’s policy is apparently not to provide aid, and that nobody at the higher levels of power in Washington DC takes “human rights” seriously. For this reason, the Armenian people must learn to speak out and realize that they have more power than they think they do as citizens of the US and just as much right to ask the US government to help Artsakh as almost any other group of citizens in the US have to advocate for their issues. His suggestion was to be bold and to leave behind the “keep your head down” attitude that Armenians have become used to throughout their history of living under authoritarian empires.

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