Editor’s Note: The following remarks were delivered at an AYF-led protest outside the White House on January 21, 2023.
I am a proud member of the AYF DC “Ani” Chapter and a descendant of survivors of the Armenian Genocide. I stand here today as an American citizen, appalled by the conditions in Artsakh and deeply saddened by my government’s inaction in the face of such a crisis.
I am aware that it would be easy to deal in vague rhetoric or simply restate the ideals that we hold so near and dear to our hearts. So I ask that you allow me to dispense with the pleasantries and instead use this valuable opportunity and this hallowed ground to immediately confront the challenges we face and that we know are critical to the future of the Armenian and American people.
On December 12, agents of the Azerbaijani government began an illegal blockade of the Lachin Corridor – the only road supplying the 120,000 people of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) with food, medical supplies and access to the outside world.
Their tactic of employing plainclothes special forces to parade as environmental protestors at the checkpoint—while wearing fur coats and waving dead pigeons painted as doves for peace—would objectively verge on the comically insane if its consequences were not so dire. Supplies into the region have been almost entirely stopped. Families have been separated. And energy has been repeatedly cut in freezing temperatures—stranding men, women, children and elderly alike in the dark, in the cold and in hunger.
As of today, patients are lying in critical condition in hospitals that don’t have the lifesaving medicine they so desperately need. Thousands of children are sitting at home as their schools are shuttered. Grocery stores and pantries are bare as trucks carrying 14,000 tons of food and supplies have been held at the checkpoint on the border of Armenia.
Since this blockade began, Russian peacekeepers in the region have been either unable or unwilling to enforce the conditions of the November 9, 2020 ceasefire agreement. In addition, the Russian government has yet to send a more robust contingent of peacekeepers to stabilize the situation and satisfy their purpose.
Simultaneously, in the United States, members of the Armenian Congressional Caucus, officials within the diplomatic corps and public figures throughout various agencies and levels of government have put out statements calling for the immediate reopening of the Lachin Corridor. Likewise, France and the EU have adopted declarations also calling on the government of Azerbaijan to reopen the corridor and for Russian peacekeepers to enforce their mandate.
However, none of these measures have made any meaningful impact on the Aliyev regime’s determination to continue this siege of Artsakh’s indigenous Armenian population. As such, it is evident that the time for statements of concern has passed. My friends, I will repeat: it has been 41 days of darkness, hunger and misery for the people of Artsakh and there is no end in sight unless we change course and do so rapidly. It is irrefutably clear that this is a blatant attempt to starve out, to terrorize and ultimately to ethnically cleanse the people of Nagorno Karabakh from their ancestral homeland.
While some may argue that this is simply another ethnic conflict in a far-flung part of the world, we know that not to be the case. When we see videos of Azeri school children gleefully taking part in anti-Armenian plays, we know that hatred is being instilled at dangerously young ages and at toxic efficiency.
When Azerbaijani soldiers film videos of executing Armenian prisoners of war and of desecrating the bodies of servicewomen to post publicly online and to send to their children—to children —we know that their military rank-and-file and commanders alike feel no shame, no remorse and no threat that they will be held accountable for their crimes.
When we see that, according to Cornell’s Caucasus Heritage Watch, 99 percent of Nakhichevan’s cultural Armenian heritage has been destroyed, its population ethnically cleansed, and that its centuries old Jugha cemetery has been flattened into a military firing range, we know that Azerbaijan has had no compunction about committing cultural genocide in Armenian areas its government controls.
When President Erdogan of Turkey feels safe to exclaim “God bless the soul of Enver Pasha” in Baku alongside Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev—and faces absolutely no consequences—we know that the memory of the Armenian Genocide is neither a source of national shame nor of meaningful soul-searching, but of twisted nostalgia and sadistic future ambition for their governments.
In sum, this blockade is not some random happening. It is part of a long-term, premeditated, strategic and continuous effort by the governments of Azerbaijan and Turkey to squeeze the Armenian state and even the Armenian people out of meaningful existence. In the words of the great poet Maya Angelou, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”
Aliyev and his partner in Ankara have shown us exactly who they are time and time again. They believe that Yerevan is historic Azeri territory. They believe that the Armenian Genocide never happened, but that its architects are national heroes to be revered and emulated. They believe that the people of Nagorno Karabakh have no right to self-government, to self-determination or to basic human rights and should be confined to the conditions of Azeri dominion first imposed on them by none other than one Josef Stalin.
These are not men who can be trusted to negotiate in good faith, willingly, and with respect for international laws, norms or institutions. Their governments are not partners in peace for the United States. Should our government continue to support them in their aims either actively or passively, the consequences will be dire—not just for Artsakh and its people but for the United States and its goals.
Again and again, we have seen that when the US government throws its support behind regimes that are anathema to our values, are unstable and unreliable allies, that oppress their own people, or that engage in ideological extremism and ethnic chauvinism, we suffer the consequences.
Conversely, America is at its best when it lives up to its values, and we are better than turning a blind eye to the onset of a humanitarian catastrophe. Our exhortations for fundamental human dignity around the world ring hollow when they do not extend to all. Our credibility among those who need us most is shot when we overlook ethnic cleansing for cheap oil. Our diplomatic effectiveness is hamstrung when we act in reaction to disaster instead of working hand in glove with actors of good faith proactively to avert it. And our image as a beacon of hope, of democracy and of freedom is shattered when we bury our heads in the sand and ignore authoritarianism.
Make no mistake: we can end this crisis. We can open the Lachin Corridor and restore the road of life to the people of Artsakh. We can stop the beginning of a second Armenian genocide. But whether we are policymakers, Armenians or allies, we need to act decisively.
To policymakers—we need immediate, public and forceful application of maximum diplomatic pressure on the Aliyev regime and its enablers to withdraw their agents from the checkpoint at the Lachin Corridor.
We also need an immediate international airlift of humanitarian supplies into Stepanakert airport. So long as the Lachin Corridor remains closed, the only viable avenue into Artsakh is from the skies above.
We need the US to cut off all military assistance to Azerbaijan and sanction the Aliyev regime for its crimes. A culture of impunity is evolving into a culture of madness. Immediately ending aid, enacting Section 907 and building in consequences for the Aliyev regime’s repeated aggression must be enacted.
We need Global Magnitsky sanctions against those who have openly, proudly and unrepentantly taken part in murder, torture and war crimes. President Biden, members of Congress and members of the diplomatic corps: do not allow human rights abusers to use our banks. Do not allow oligarchs and warmongers access to funds. Do not allow murderers to walk our streets.
To you—friends, allies, family—to those hearing this message near and far—we must be unwavering and undivided in our commitment to these measures. In our desire for a free and independent Artsakh, we must not work alone. In our struggle for sustained nationhood for the Armenian people, we must not work alone. In our journey to make the United States fulfill the potential of its promise, we must not work alone.
This blockade is a relatively new development in the story of our people. The actors, the governments and the road of life also may be new. But the legacy of service and sacrifice and the values we bring to meet this challenge are as ancient as Armenia itself.
After all, the history of the Armenian people is not one of ease or comfort. But lest we forget—through empires that rose and fell, through our trauma and heartbreak, through our battles fought and lost—ours is not the story of a people who perished. Ours is the history of a people who survived.
From Avarayr to Musa Ler and from Sardarabad to Stepanakert, the soul of the Armenian people has passed from generation to generation unbroken. It is the spirit of a people as unbreakable as their mountains. In the words of Franklin Roosevelt, to some generations much is given. Of others, much is expected. But this generation, my friends, has a rendezvous with destiny.
So, when the dust has settled, let it be known that when the call came, we answered. That we refused to let the Armenian nation be torn apart. That we did not falter in our determination to build a truly free, united and independent Armenia. Let it be said that we voted, we called, we wrote, we lobbied, we protested, we organized—that we fought like hell—and that with courage in our hearts and steel in our spines, we handed off the blessings of freedom, justice and peace to generations yet to come.
Let it be said that when it was easy to default to defeatism and fatalism, we persevered. Let it be said that when the United States was faced with the choice between humanitarian catastrophe and saving a democracy founded by the descendants of genocide survivors, it fully embraced the better angels of its nature. Let it be said that when Azerbaijan and Turkey took the people of Artsakh to the brink, the United States and the Armenian people stood strong together and stopped a second Armenian genocide.
Let us be great Americans. Let us be great Armenians. Let us remember how futures are built. Thank you, God bless you, and may God protect the people of Artsakh.