The South Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education plans to take up a proposed resolution supporting Armenia and the fraught independence of the Artsakh republic, which broke away from Azerbaijan in the 1990s and has recently fallen largely back within the control of that nation.
The details of the resolution are being hammered out, but it could contain provisions dictating that the district divest from any holdings based in Turkey or Azerbaijan or in entities that have provided military or political assistance to those nations. The decision follows a presentation last week by Elen Asatryan, a member of the county Democratic Party Central Committee and activist with local Armenian organizations.
After re-engaging Armenian forces in September, Azerbaijan signed a Russia-brokered peace deal this month that granted it control of the territory it regained in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, called Artsakh by the Armenians who declared it an independent nation in 1991. The agreement incensed Armenians both in the nation and among the diaspora, who largely see it as unfavorable to their side.
“During the past 30 years of its independence, Artsakh — while unrecognized by the international community — has been a successful democracy,” Asatryan said. “Azerbaijan, on the other hand, is a dictatorship which Transparency International regularly rates as one of the most corrupt nations.”
Armenians consider the territory to be part of their ancestral land. Historically, control of the region has been blurred; the area spent centuries under the rule of the Russian Empire, only to be retaken by the Soviet Union after Armenia and Azerbaijan gained brief independence during World War 1. The Soviets assigned control of the area to Azerbaijan at that point, in keeping with their practice of arbitrarily redrawing the boundaries of their republics to divide ethnic minorities.
Artsakh has functioned autonomously since a 1994 ceasefire to the original war, although it has been recognized internationally as being part of Azerbaijan. The peace deal will bring in Russian peacekeepers, who will monitor a to-be-constructed corridor linking Stepanakert, the Artsakh capital, to mainland Armenia.
Meanwhile, news reports and viral videos have shown Armenians fleeing territory that will fall back under direct control of Azerbaijan. Given Azerbaijan’s historical links to and current military assistance from Turkey, many Armenians have decried the latest escalation of hostilities as a spiritual continuation of the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire in 1915.
“There’s been humanitarian aid mostly organized by the Armenian diaspora,” Asatryan said. “I have to emphasize the lack of action taken by the United States, by our president who had an opportunity to do that. Most importantly, the United States actually serves on the Minsk Group, which was supposed to help with negotiations for this area and basically did nothing. There came empty statements and empty promises. The sanctions never came.”
SPUSD board member Suzie Abajian, who is Syrian-Armenian, invited Asatryan to speak and explained that all four of her grandparents fled genocide at the hands of Turkish aggressors.
“I am a third-generation refugee. We were refugees in Syria and we’re still refugees because we don’t have access to our ancestral lands,” she said last week. “Now, we have essentially lost a portion of our ancestral lands yet again. A hundred years later, we’re still losing our lands and people are still being killed and our history is being erased.”
The rest of the school board was generally supportive of the proposed resolution.
“Even though we are a small school district,” board member Zahir Robb said, “it’s just another way we can bring a spotlight and hopefully allow our community members and students to investigate this issue and bring attention to what is a global predicament.”
Board member Jon Primuth, who is soon departing to join the City Council, expressed some caution about the district taking too political a stance but stressed his support of the Armenian cause. He asked for more work to go into the resolution to gauge the appropriateness of its action.
“I am sure there is tremendous disinformation going on on the Azerbaijan side,” Primuth added. “There’s no question about that. I’m just really uncertain about putting our toe out in the water on an international issue. I think it invites other causes, and I would like to take a look at revised language on that.”
Abajian countered that it fit within SPUSD’s educational goals to take this stand.
“I think that’s very well within the framework of what we can do as an elected body and also show our students that we’re not just about talk, we’re about action and we can take concrete steps to hold these governments accountable,” she said.