NEWPORT BEACH, CA—More than 150 members and supporters of the Armenian Youth Federation turned out at the Pacific Club Thursday evening to protest Azerbaijan’s Consul General of Los Angeles, Elin Suleymanov.
Suleymanov General had been invited by the World Affairs Council (WAC) to speak about Azerbaijan’s role in the world during a banquet-style event they organize every month. The Azeri diplomat used the opportunity to tout his country as a “strategically vital region to the U.S. and other superpowers.”
“This diplomat spoke for two hours, talking at length about how moderate, peaceful, economically stable, prosperous and wonderful Azerbaijan is,” said Vache Thomassian, an AYF member who attended the event to ask the diplomat about Azerbaijan’s growing war rhetoric against Armenia and Karabakh.
“Suleymanov, would have you believe that Armenia today occupies 20 percent of Azeri territory and as an aggressor nation has displaced a million Azeris that no longer have homes. He will have you believe there were massacres that Armenians committed against innocent Azeri’s and that our people committed murder to live in their own homeland,” said Thomassian.
But those are all lies, he exclaimed, speaking to the protesters after the event concluded. “Our voices were heard very clearly; the walls are not as thick as they seem and the louder we got, the more nervous he seemed,” said Thomassian. “The Consul General frequently mentioned his frustration with the protesters. he even paused during his speech, pointed outside and said ‘these people follow me wherever I go’.”
Protest organizer Caspar Jivalagian said the AYF learned about this event only a week before it happened and “in that short period of time we drafted an official letter to the WAC, held a protest workshop, made all the signs and banners, and got the word out to thousands of people.”
Incidentally, it was revealed that among the organization’s board members was an Armenian-American. Serge Thomassian approached the demonstrators at close of the protest to express his admiration for their efforts, explaining that he had attempted to steer the board away from the decision to invite Suleymanov. “Though I was unable to convince the board to drop the speaker, I did manage to secure an event in April to commemorate the Armenian Genocide and Jewish Holocaust,” he explained.
The WAC board member also said that because of the protest, what was to be a one-sided lecture became an educational experience for the guests, who learned first-hand about Azerbaijan’s human rights violations and its denial of self-determination to Nagorno-Karabakh.
“This demonstration was a testament to the will of the Armenian youth and sent a clear message to the Azeri consul that we will not allow his administration to spread its war rhetoric and propaganda, whether it be here in Los Angeles, or across the globe in Azerbaijan,” said Jivalagian.
AYF Chairman Arek Santikian, who had been inside the event alongside Thomassian, echoed those sentiments.
“Our goal tonight was to have a two-front operation with the impact of our questions being bolstered by loud protests against Azerbaijan’s inhumanity from outside,” explained Santikian. “After the protests started, there wasn’t a single person inside who didn’t stop for a moment to think about the credibility of Suleymanov’s claims.”
Santikian and Thomassian had submitted three questions during the event, all of which were asked to the diplomat. Among the questions was one asking Suleymanov to explain how his government will ensure security for international energy exports in the region when it’s unwilling to work for peace and constantly threatens to ignite a new war in the region.
“The Azeri diplomat circumvented the question, fabricating his own set of facts to support his initial claims about Azerbaijan’s peace-loving nature,” Santikian recalled.
“Azerbaijan keeps to all its negotiations and sees them through, unlike many other countries,” Suleymanov said during the event. “Every country must bear consequences for what they do and if progress is not made to resolve the conflict, terrible things will happen in the region.”
These remarks are representative of the reality we face today as Armenians, Thomassian said. “We stand at a place in history when Azerbaijan says that a ‘great war is inevitable’ in the Caucasus almost 20 years after the ceasefire of Karabakh was signed,” he continued. “We live in a time when Azerbaijan spends more than Armenia spends on its entire budget to buy tanks, to buy jets, to by weapons, bombs and apache helicopters to prepare themselves for a war they will begin.”
Though a fragile state of “no peace, no war” has held over the years, Azerbaijan refuses to cooperate in internationally mediated peace talks with Armenia and instead threatens to take Karabakh by force. On February 25, Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister, Safar Abiyev, stepped up Baku’s war rhetoric, this time threatening to launch an inevitable “great war” against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
The daily recurrence of threats to invade Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh emanating from Baku is what motivated the AYF to mobilize its membership to demonstrate against the event, explained Jivalagian. “This is an issue we all hold very dear to our hearts,” he said, adding that the protest also sought to remind Suleymanov that the Armenian-American community has not forgotten the massacre of Armenians in Sumgait.
The protest came days after the 22nd anniversary of the deadly pogroms of Sumgait on Feb. 27, 1988, which marked the beginning of a systematic campaign by Azerbaijan’s OMON Special Forces to use massacres and violence to forcefully uproot Armenians from Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh.
The events in Sumgait, which came as a direct response to Armenians’ expression of their right to self-determination in 1988, were followed by equally violent pogroms in the Azeri cities of Kirovabad, Baku and later in the Northern Shahoumian district of Nagorno-Karabakh. The violence against Armenians eventually escalated and Azerbaijan launched a military invasion into Nagorno-Karabakh, sparking a devastating war in the region that ended in 1994 with a ceasefire that left the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic free from Azeri rule.
“Diplomats from Azerbaijan tour the world talking about how Armenia is an aggressor nation and that Azerbaijan must defend its territorial integrity from the Armenians.
We know, despite Azerbaijan’s lies, Karabakh is and always will be Armenian land, and that it will remain independent,” said Thomasian. “So long as we have the ability to breath and the ability to fight and defend that land, we will defend it, we will remember the massacres that happened in Sumgait and in Baku and we will not forget that 22 years ago pogroms were committed against Armenians that were reminiscent of the genocide.”
“And we will not forget that people like Suleymanov are touring around the world, that there are defense ministers and presidents in Azerbaijan saying that in ten years there will no longer be a Karabakh or Armenia,” he added. “We will remember that and keep that in the front of our minds, and we will be there every step that this man takes to take what he says and shove it right back in his face.”