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California Adopts Resolution on Karabakh Independence: De Waal Says It is ‘Unhelpful’

An Assembly panel of California state lawmakers on Monday approved a resolution on Nagorno-Karabakh. The resolution by Assembly member Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) expressed support for Nagorno-Karabakh's independence —  a departure from US foreign policy, which considers the region to be part of Azerbaijan, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Gatto, speaking before the Assembly Rules Committee, said the measure was a "a simple item … an expression of support for a people who have embraced our own American values of democracy and self-determination."

But the thorniness of the conflict was apparent in the vastly conflicting accounts from Armenians and Azerbaijanis who attended the hearing. The room was packed with members of the respective communities — who generally sat on opposite sides of the room — as witnesses alternately cast Nagorno-Karabakh's independence movement as a legitimate aspiration for freedom or an undemocratic land grab.

"As Americans, we have a moral imperative grounded in our own courageous history to protect human rights even if they are half a world away," said Nora Hovspepian, chair of the Armenian National Committee of America-Western Region, speaking in favor of the measure.

But Dr. Ismail Rustamov, president of the Azerbaijani-American Council, said the resolution was "extremely biased and factually incorrect."

"Does the author realize that the adoption of this resolution will damage a peaceful settlement of the conflict? Does he wish to create a war?" Rustamov asked.

The measure is a symbolic one, conveying the Legislature's backing of Nagorno-Karabakh's independence to US President Barack Obama and Congress. 

Thomas de Waal, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Legislature taking on this issue was "certainly strange — a state Assembly making its own ruling on US government foreign policy because of the pressure of local politics in the shape of a diaspora Armenian community."

California — and particularly Gatto's district — is home to a large Armenian American population.

De Waal, an expert on the South Caucasus region, said it was unlikely the resolution could affect US diplomacy on the issue, but added: "If it is unhelpful, it is because it feeds into Azerbaijani paranoia about the Armenian lobby, which is exaggerated."

In an interview, Gatto acknowledged that wading into geopolitical conflicts could be fraught.

"I really, really wrestled with whether this was an appropriate action by the California Legislature," Gatto said. But he noted that state lawmakers occasionally wade into international affairs, such as voting in favor of divestment from South Africa during the apartheid era and condemning Russia's treatment of gay people in advance of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

"Every once in a while, when there's an issue of moral importance, it's appropriate for California to weigh in on foreign policy," he said.

Assembly member Rocky J. Chavez (R-Oceanside) was wary of the measure's wording, which supports the self-determination of Nagorno-Karabakh.

"It's nice that we talk about self-determination, but if we actually practice self-determination, you find us involved in all kinds of regional conflicts," he said. "There are great implications that we're talking about. We, in this body, should stay within our circle of influence."

Chavez was the only no vote on the panel; Assembly member Curt Hagman (R-Chino Hills) abstained.