WASHINGTON, DC – On February 2, hundreds of Armenians traveled from across the United States to the U.S. Capitol to protest against Azerbaijan’s 57-day-long blockade of Artsakh. The protest came on the heels of the Armenian National Committee of America Eastern Region’s (ANCA-ER) advocacy days, demanding the end to all US aid to Azerbaijan and immediate US humanitarian assistance to Artsakh’s 120,000 indigenous Armenian population.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation Eastern Region (ARF-ER) organized the protest in response to aggressive action by Azerbaijan in the disguise of so-called “eco-activists,’’ who blocked the only road leading from Artsakh to Armenia via the Lachin (Berdzor) Corridor since December 12th. Their purported reason for blocking the Lachin Corridor is to protest against mining in Artsakh which they claim is hurting the environment. In reality, multiple independent sources have determined that the so-called ‘eco-activists’ are sponsored by the Azerbaijani government, who are blocking the road in order to cut off Artsakh from Armenia in an effort to suffocate the Armenian population of Artsakh. Without necessary supplies of food, medicine and energy from Armenia during cold winter months, Azerbaijan’s blockade has instigated a grave humanitarian crisis for the people of Artsakh.
Several leaders of the Congressional Armenian Caucus expressed their solidarity with Artsakh at the protest. Caucus co-chair Frank Pallone (D-NJ) explained how members of the Armenian Caucus are trying to break the blockade and pressuring the State Department to take action. Rep. Pallone, the Congressional Armenian Caucus leadership and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) are set to introduce anti-blockade legislation in the US House this week. In an exclusive interview with the Weekly’s Leeza Arakelian on the sidelines of the protest, Rep. Pallone, who has traveled to Artsakh multiple times, stressed, “The people of Artsakh are very tough. They are the essence of the Armenian people. Oftentimes, people say the people of the Artsakh are the ultimate Armenians. They’re independent. They want to make sure their country stays Armenian forever. They’re not going to give into this blockade. But it’s getting very tough for them. Because not only are food supplies diminished, but also medical supplies. This blockade is having a very negative impact, and it could get worse as time goes by. Remember, it’s winter. It’s not very cold here, and I don’t know what the temperature is in Artsakh, but it’s usually pretty cold in the winter, so it’s tough. They will survive. But we can’t just let this continue. We have to do everything we can from the part of our government to end this blockade.”
Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) was adamant about ending US aid to the Aliyev regime. “For too long, the United States has indulged in a policy and rhetoric of false equivalence, calling on both sides to end the violence along the line of contact when only one side, Azerbaijan, has been the aggressor,” expounded Schiff. After the blockade started in December, Rep. Schiff led a Congressional letter to end aid provided by the State Department and the Department of Defense to Azerbaijan. As the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Schiff repeatedly drew attention to the human rights violations committed by Azerbaijan, including the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage and war crimes against Armenian POWs leading up to the blockade. “No one can claim if we fail to act that we couldn’t see this coming. We have a responsibility to fellow democracies. We have a responsibility to people who want the right of self-determination, to chart their own future. We must stand with Artsakh.” As Rep. Schiff clearly explained, the resolution for the end of the Artsakh blockade is consistent with how US foreign policy must change to be a bulwark for democracies like Armenia and hold dictators like Aliyev accountable: “Not a penny more for the butcher in Baku!”
Leaders from ARF-ER, Armenian Youth Federation – Youth Organization of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Eastern Region (AYF-ER) and ANCA also gave heartfelt speeches.
ARF Eastern US Central Committee member George Aghjayan thanked his fellow Armenian activists for volunteering their time to travel to DC and meet with their representatives. “When you understand history and the history of our people, you understand the seriousness of this moment in time. You understand the parallels to other moments in time in our history, and it’s unmistakable. We stand today, united, demanding an end to US tax dollars funding terrorism.”
Aghjayan outlined two main messages for the protest: “One is to Capitol Hill, where we demand the end of US aid to Azerbaijan, but the other is to our brothers and sisters in Artsakh…we say ‘stay strong Artsakh.’ You are not alone in this. You are not alone in your struggle for survival. We stand today with you, and we will always stand with you.”
ANCA-ER chair Dr. Ara Chalian reminded us why the protesters need to voice their concerns: “We’re a part of the army. Our weapon is our will. Our skill is a tool. It’s incredibly powerful. It’s persuasive. We need to leverage that and keep that moving forward. We need to engage other people.” Dr. Chalian encouraged the protesters to continue to endeavor not only for their historical homeland but also to keep the US true to its core principles. “Our work is not done. This is not an Armenian-American issue. This is not an Artsakh issue. This is an issue for America’s role as a leader and where we stand in the world; standing for our American values, basic humanitarian values.”
Dr. Chalian inspired Armenian Americans to stand with Artsakh: “One thing that is very clear as we watch the people of Artsakh and as we listen to them. They will stand on their land. And it’s our job to do our part from our land to take advantage of the power of the United States and our power as citizens and residents of this great country to cause this change.”
ANCA executive director Aram Hamparian offered several concrete ways the US can help break Azerbaijan’s blockade of Artsakh: “How about we stop sending military aid to Azerbaijan? How about we start sending humanitarian assistance to Artsakh? Across the Capitol, Senator Menendez, just yesterday, raised holy hell about a new proposal to sell US rifles to Azerbaijan. For those of you who follow Artsakh, who follow social media, it was about a month ago that we saw Azerbaijani soldiers on video proudly using automatic rifles to kill captured Armenians. Handcuffed, unarmed POWs, on camera, shared with the Azerbaijani world as a point of pride.”
AYF-YOARF ER Central Executive member Areni Margossian summarized the difficult situation facing the people of Artsakh, who have been subject to Azerbaijan’s psychological warfare: “For 53 days, Azerbaijan has played a perverted game of whack-a-mole, as it spontaneously cuts off electricity, then restores it, only to next cut off gas, restore it days later, shut down the internet, then bring it back and so on and so forth – a mundane torture.”
Margossian underscored the purpose of the protest. “On this 53rd day, we, Armenian-Americans from all over the country, gather here on Capitol Hill to call on the US government to condemn the blockade, stop all aid to Azerbaijan, send immediate humanitarian aid to Artsakh, and for the president to suspend all military aid to Azerbaijan and enforce section 907 of the Freedom Support Act. Our Congress has the chance to place the US on the right side of history and send a message to Azerbaijan that they cannot act with impunity.”