With just days to go until the November 3 election, there are tens of thousands of votes in play across the suburbs of Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Tampa. One question will determine which candidate secures them: will President Trump take steps to enforce the ceasefire his administration brokered between Azerbaijan and Armenia?
Several hundred thousand Armenian-Americans live in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Florida. The war facing Armenia means that many of their votes are still “up for grabs,” according to Dr. Anna Ohanyan, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Stonehill College.
Armenian-Americans usually aren’t single-issue voters. They’re a diverse bunch with interests ranging from the football field (think legendary Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian) to Broadway (think Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright William Saroyan). In normal times, “they’re sophisticated voters with high rates of participation, spanning the entire political spectrum and prioritizing a variety of issues,” says Harry Kezelian, a journalist and leader in Michigan’s Armenian-American community. But on September 27, that all changed.
That’s the day Armenia’s neighbor Azerbaijan launched an all-out invasion of the Republic of Artsakh, a de-facto state that has historically been part of Armenia and remains populated by Armenians. Azerbaijan’s stated goal is to completely conquer Artsakh, which it insists should be part of its territory in accordance with USSR-era borders. Should this conquest be completed, Armenians fear they would be fully cleansed from land they have occupied since antiquity.
Their fears appear to have credence—especially since Azerbaijan, which enjoys strong Turkish backing, wields massive oil wealth and has deployed thousands of Syrian mercenaries, tries to capture Armenian-populated centers. International observers have declared a genocide emergency, warning that Azerbaijan is already at the “extermination” stage of its campaign. Thousands of Armenians have been killed in barely one month.
Paying close attention to an unresolved issue
“Many of us have close friends and family in direct danger from these attacks,” says Fr. Hovnan Demerjian of St. Hagop Armenian Church outside of Tampa, Florida. “Regardless of whether we’re fifth-generation Americans or immigrants ourselves, Armenia’s fight for survival has upended our lives and our priorities,” he continued. Armenian-Americans are doing what they can to help. “Our parishes have rallied to raise more humanitarian assistance, and in a shorter time, than we thought possible—and we are just getting started,” says Fr. Demerjian. But self-help alone isn’t enough. “We recognize that Turkey and Azerbaijan will continue their invasion until they face meaningful pressure from international powers such as the United States.”
To date, this pressure has been largely absent, though President Trump has mentioned Armenia a few times on the campaign trail. His administration also helped broker a short-lived ceasefire. But the United States has yet to support its diplomatic efforts with concrete steps such as halting military aid to Azerbaijan.
“I am angry with our current administration for its continued military support of Azerbaijan and saddened with Trump’s lack of leadership to enforce the ceasefire,” says Caroline Melkonian-Ylitalo, PhD, a Minnesota scientist, who says she now plans not to vote for either candidate.
Trump’s lukewarm response to the attacks on Armenia may cost him votes across the Midwest, including among those who had committed to voting for him in November. Rev. Fr. Hratch Sargsyan of Cleveland’s St. Gregory of Narek says the president’s response to Azerbaijan’s aggression has “completely changed this decision.”
Armenian-Americans were particularly incredulous when, on October 15, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed “hope” that Armenia could defend itself. The statement struck Fr. Sargsyan and his parishioners as “spineless.” “This comes from the most powerful nation in the world?,” posed Fr. Sargsyan. “We don’t hope here, we always do something about it.”
The response has been similar among the large Armenian community outside Detroit. “People who are normally strong Republicans are not happy,” says Kezelian. “They know that US support for Turkey and military aid to Azerbaijan is contributing to the destruction of Armenia. There are quite a few votes that Trump stands to lose.”
This includes groups who normally pay little attention to Armenian political issues. “What’s happening now is so different,” Kezelian says. “It’s a life or death situation for Armenia. So people who would not have been politicized on Armenian issues are now coming to rallies and waving flags and shouting slogans. I’ve seen people come out that I would have never seen before, including many Republicans.”
If nothing changes between now and election day, Kezelian concludes, “They’re going to find it hard to vote for Donald Trump.”
Not over yet
But Armenian-Americans aren’t giving up hope. In the words of Zohrab Khaligian, an Armenian-American activist from Kenosha, Wisconsin, “We are excited that [President Trump] has actually said the word ‘Armenian.’ We continue to hope that the more he sees our flag and presence, the more he might take an additional step.”
Far from losing Republicans, Khaligian believes President Trump would win over undecided voters if he intervened directly with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “If Trump were to get on the phone,and call Erdogan, and convince Erdogan to stand down, that would get him votes.”
To actually move the needle, however, Armenian-Americans would need to see “something real—not a ceasefire that can be broken, but an actual resolution, a stop to the fighting.”
Dr. Ara Chalian, a Philadelphia surgeon and political organizer, concurs. He says that Trump still has a chance to win over “tens of thousands” of Armenian-Americans in Pennsylvania alone, including among large populations of relatively assimilated second- or third-generation voters. Halting military aid to Azerbaijan, supporting a no-fly zone or recognizing the independence of the Republic of Artsakh would “bring home” voters who are traditionally sympathetic to conservative candidates and values, but currently find Trump’s inaction “unexplainable and inexcusable.”
With more Armenian-American voters than Trump’s 2016 margin of victory in states such as Michigan, the administration’s willingness to take concrete action to stop the fighting might determine the President’s fate on Tuesday.