BY LOIS TOCHTROP & BILL BARTON
In early April, while Nevada State Assembly Speaker John Hambrick was in Azerbaijan hobnobbing with its dictator Ilham Aliyev, his host was committing ISIS-like war crimes.
On April 1, Aliyev’s forces attacked the Armenian-populated Artsakh, also known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, in part because legislators like Speaker Hambrick have encouraged belligerent behavior by passing absurd resolutions in praise of Aliyev’s oil-rich dictatorship.
One heartbreaking account of Azerbaijan’s barbaric actions during the four-day war in April was the mutilated elders that journalists found in Talish after its recapture from Azeri forces. The bodies of husband and wife Valera and Razmela Khalapyan with chopped-off ears were found inside their home. Photographs released by Azeri soldiers on social media showed beheaded Armenian soldiers, including 20-year-old Yezidi Kurd Kyaram Sloyan. Among the Azerbaijani officers Aliyev honored at a ceremony following the four-day war was the man who had posed with Sloyan’s severed head.
One irony of Aliyev’s war crimes is the official praise of “tolerance” he has acquired from some American lawmakers. New Mexico Senate leader Mary Kay Papen, a frequent flier to the dictatorship, sponsored a nonbinding memorial in 2015 that praised Azerbaijan as a utopia for religious harmony. Incidentally, that year marked the 10th anniversary of Aliyev’s ISIS-like wipeout of the legendary cemetery of Djulfa – the world’s largest collection of medieval cross-stones (khachkars).
Sen. Papen is hardly alone. Earlier this year, Utah State Senator Gene Davis similarly praised Azerbaijan as “tolerant,” and the Idaho legislature even introduced – but did not pass – a resolution.
It was no coincidence, these seemingly innocuous statements followed on return of the legislative sponsor’s all-expense paid junkets to Azerbaijan, sponsored by the foreign dictatorship.
Some support for Azerbaijan is outright outrageous. Rep. Joe Towns of Tennessee was accused of taking bribes. Another Aliyev loyalist in Tennessee, Congressman Steven Cohen, has evolved from being a mere mouthpiece for Azerbaijan to copycatting its censorship. In April, Congressman Cohen banned his critics on Twitter after his baseless blame on Armenians as the aggressors of the four-day war caused widespread criticism. Aliyev also has international loyalists, such as UNESCO’s corrupt chief and UN Secretary General candidate Irina Bokova, who has accepted generous donations from Azerbaijan’s bloody dictator then allowed him to use UNESCO platforms to spread propaganda.
Azerbaijan’s lobbying isn’t limited to junkets, gifts, and donations. Azeri officials travel from state to state, asking uninformed politicians for innocuously-sounding statements in support of democracy, cooperation, and respect. Often out of sheer courtesy, state officials grant such privilege to Azerbaijan. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, Oregon State Representative Val Hoyle, Idaho Governor Butch Otter, Alaska Senate President Kevin Meyer, Alaska House Speaker Mike Chenault, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, among others, recently signed onto innocent-sounding statements requested by Azerbaijan.
In politics, statements are not simply symbolic. Resolutions, even personal statements made by state lawmakers, are overblown in Azerbaijan’s state-controlled media for two reasons. One is to show to the Azerbaijani people that their government has great influence over the United States, thus making it easier to crackdown on dissent in Azerbaijan. The second is to manufacture impression of American support for Azerbaijan, making it easier to rally around the anti-Armenian flag.
For decades, the Aliyev clan has made Armenians as the scapegoat for all that is wrong with Azerbaijan— playing on resentment from the Armenian-Azerbaijan war of the 1990s. The latter broke out after autonomous Artsakh’s democratic decision to become independent, prompting a military attack by Azerbaijani forces aided by Chechen and Taliban mercenaries. In 1994, as Azerbaijan realized that Artsakh had won, a ceasefire was signed. Aided by Armenian volunteers from around the world, Artsakh had actually expanded its Stalin-drawn borders, who had expropriated the historic Armenian region to Soviet Azerbaijan.
The 1990s Armenian-Azerbaijani war victimized both sides but the conflict has since transformed to a clear-cut choice of right versus wrong.
In light of Aliyev’s April war crimes, consistent with Azerbaijan’s persistent belligerent behavior since the 1994 ceasefire, American public servants should stop emboldening Azerbaijan’s bloody regime through resolutions or even letters.
Otherwise, those officials would be responsible for encouraging further mutilation of civilians, beheading of fallen soldiers, and an ISIS-like wipeout of medieval Christian monuments.
Senator Lois Tochtrop, whose daughter-in-law and grandchildren are Armenian, was a Democratic member of the Colorado General Assembly for 16 years.
Senator Bill Barton, whose maternal family survived the Armenian Genocide, was a Republican member of the Utah State Senate for 12 years.