What You Need To Know About Recent Protests By Armenian Americans Around LA

People hold signs as they stand with members of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) as they hold a protest outside the Azerbaijani Consulate General in Los Angeles on September 30, 2020 to protest what they call Azerbaijan's "aggression against Armenia and Artsakh." (Valerie Macon / AFP via Getty Images)

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Armenian Americans and their allies rallied last Sunday around the Turkish Consulate in Beverly Hills, waving flags and chanting in a show of support for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed ethnic enclave at the center of an escalating conflict between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan.

The crowd that day reached 100,000, according to police. The protest marked the most recent — and largest — in a series of demonstrations across Los Angeles County over the past few weeks, from outside the offices of CNN to the streets surrounding the Azerbaijani Consulate.

The Caucasus may be far from Los Angeles, but the fighting hits very close to home in Southern California. The Armenian community in L.A. County is one of the largest in the world, outside of the country of Armenia itself. At demonstrations outside the local CNN office, the Los Angeles Times and other media organizations, protesters have called out a lack of coverage and attention around what they see as an existential threat to their homeland and families.

Many local Armenian Americans are descendants of survivors of the Armenian Genocide, which resulted in the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Armenians starting in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. To them, news of Turkey's backing of Azerbaijan and the rhetoric of conquest brings back traumatic memories.

"We continue to live until this last generation is dying with those memories — very real memories of Turkish atrocities against its Armenian citizens," said Salpi Ghazarian, director of the University of Southern California's Institute of Armenian Studies, in an interview on KPCC's Take Two. "And now, we see Turkey and Turkish authorities repeating the same lines. And so, that trauma is being recalled and it's very raw."

Local families also have relatives close to the front lines; some Angelenos have even traveled to Armenia to join the effort or provide medical and other support.

One article alone cannot cover the decades of history and conflict that have led up to this point. But for Angelenos who are just catching up, here's a breakdown of the latest news and some of the history behind the conflict.

WHY NOW?

A man holds up a sign as he stands with members of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) during the Sept. 30 protest outside the Azerbaijani Consulate General in L.A. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are former Soviet republics. In 1923, the Soviet Union made the ethnically Armenian region that is now at the center of the fighting a part of the then Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Tensions escalated during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan marks the most violent fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the 1990s.

The war centers around a mountainous region located between the two countries: Nagorno-Karabakh, as it is known internationally, or the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, bearing the historic name that Armenians use to refer to the region. Today, the territory is recognized under international law as belonging to the territory of Azerbaijan. However, the ethnic Armenians who make up the vast majority of the population control the region and surrounding territory.

Following an uneasy ceasefire after the end of fighting in the 1990s, the local Armenian population has governed the region under the Republic of Artsakh. The Republic is not recognized officially by other countries, but is supported financially by the Armenian government and the global Armenian diaspora.

Misinformation on social media, dangerous conditions on the ground and a lack of independent coverage have made details on the war extremely difficult to verify.

What multiple news outlets have reported is that the recent fighting began Sept. 27 and hundreds have been killed on both sides since. The question of who attacked first has enraged each side, with many decrying Western media outlets' attempts to frame the issue by sharing both the Armenian and Azerbaijani government's accusations with equal weight. The majority of reporting has come from journalists at outlets like the BBC traveling to the Armenian-controlled Republic of Artsakh. Armenia has allowed many journalists from international outlets into Nagorno-Karabakh to document the war.

While there have been some reports from Azerbaijan, the country maintains tight restrictions on the press, with a low ranking of 168 out of 180 on Reporters Without Borders' 2020 press freedom index. Since the war began, the Azerbaijani government has issued widespread blackouts of the internet and social media, making reporting and verifying on their side even more difficult.

The escalation follows an earlier outbreak of violence in July and Turkish military operations with Azerbaijan over the summer. The two countries maintain close ties, and Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has said his country supports Azerbaijan "with all its resources and heart." Turkish export data also showed that its arms sales to Azerbaijan surged before the fighting began: Azerbaijan bought $36 million worth of military equipment in August and $77.1 million worth in September. Given Turkey's outspoken support for Azerbaijan and the two countries' vast military resources compared to the small ethnic enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, the lopsided stakes make the war a matter of survival for the Republic of Artsakh, and by extension, the Armenian population in the area.

Further complicating the situation are reports that hundreds of Turkish-backed mercenaries from Syria have joined the Azerbaijani side. According to the Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, Turkey enlisted fighters from Syria to begin traveling to Azerbaijan after the flare-up in July — well before the most recent conflict officially began in late September.

For many Armenians, including those in Los Angeles, Turkey's outspoken support for Azerbaijan's military campaign bring back traumatic recollections of the Armenian Genocide.

(Map courtesy of Salpi Ghazarian, University of Southern California Center for Armenian Studies)

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

The Caucasus region has long "been at the corner of three huge powers: Russia, Turkey and Iran," and before that, the Russian, Ottoman and Persian empires, according to USC's Ghazarian.

An Armenian kingdom existed in the area beginning in 300 B.C., a starting point for many Armenians when discussing Nagorno-Karabakh's ownership. Following World War I and the Russian Revolution, Joseph Stalin became commissar of nationalities, in charge of map-making and borders for the emerging Soviet Union. His "divide and power" strategy led to the Armenian-majority region of Nagorno-Karabakh becoming part of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. As the Soviet Union loosened restrictions and eventually disintegrated, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh pushed to join Armenia. The local governing council in Nagorno-Karabakh declared its intention to unify with Armenia on Feb. 20, 1988. The resulting clashes continued until both Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Full-scale war erupted in 1992 and only stopped with a fragile ceasefire in 1994.

THE LOCAL COMMUNITY

Armenians have had a presence in California going back over a hundred years. After the Ottomon Empire perpetrated the Armenian Genocide between 1915 and 1923, killing as much as three-fourths of the Armenian population at that time in massacres and forced marches to the Syrian desert, the surviving Armenians were scattered. They began building diasporic communities in countries all over the world, with large enclaves in Russia, the United States, France, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, among others.

Many survivors settled in California, particularly in Fresno and Los Angeles. In the late 1970s, Glendale became the center of the California Armenian diaspora. The Lebanese civil war, Islamic revolution in Iran and decline of the Soviet Union pushed thousands of Armenians to move to the city. It is estimated that Armenians now make up around 40% of Glendale's population of over 200,000 people. The global diaspora far outnumbers the population of the country of Armenia: the Armenian government estimates that about 7 million Armenians live outside the country, compared to about 3 million within.

As the conflict with Azerbaijan has escalated, the Armenian diaspora has mobilized. Many local restaurants have hosted fundraisers to donate 100% of a day's proceeds to supporting Armenia and the Republic of Artsakh. Zankou Chicken, a popular Armenian family-owned chain famous for their spit-roasted chicken and garlic sauce, hosted one such fundraiser and raised $80,000 in a single day, according to the restaurant's Instagram account.

Mini Kabob, an Armenian restaurant located in Glendale, hosted a similar one-day fundraiser and announced that it will send a portion of net profit proceeds to Armenia until further notice. "We are children of Armenia. Our blood runs red, blue and orange. We support our motherland wholeheartedly and will contribute today's proceeds in hope to help Armenia..." reads a post from Sept. 30 on Mini Kabob's instagram account.

Zhengyalov Hatz — a Glendale restaurant named after its signature dish, a flatbread filled with fresh herbs that is a regional specialty from the Republic of Artsakh — has said it will donate 100% of proceeds for the entire month of October to support Armenian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Beyond restaurants, many Armenian organizations and individuals have stepped up to donate money, medicine and supplies to the region. Much of the donation efforts in the United States have focused on the Armenia Fund, one of the largest humanitarian organizations serving the Republic of Armenia and the Artsakh Republic. The organization has raised over $100 million, according to an Oct. 12 post on its Instagram account. Kim Kardashian West, probably the most famous Armenian American celebrity, has donated $1 million to the fund and encouraged her followers to donate whatever they can.

Beyond financial donations, some Armenian Americans have left behind their lives in Los Angeles to travel to the Republic of Artsakh, from doctors to volunteer soldiers.

"When you kind of see all that going on in the world, it really does encapsulate the true meaning of the word diaspora," said Liana Aghajanian, an Armenian American journalist who writes about issues of diaspora identity, during a recent interview on KPCC's Take Two.

Local politicians have also spoken out in support of the local Armenian community and called for peace in the region. On Oct. 5, Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) joined Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and other Los Angeles leaders in solidarity with Armenia and Armenians. "It is time for the administration to get off the fence and to confront Turkey, [President Recep Tayyip Erdogan] and [Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev] and hold them responsible," Schiff said.

Mayor Garcetti called for peace and asked the U.S. government to help stop the fighting. "We stand with our brothers and sisters in Armenia & Artsakh, & the diaspora in L.A.," Garcetti tweeted, along with a link to a letter signed by mayors around Southern California addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) introduced the bipartisan House Resolution 1165 on Oct. 1 to condemn aggression from Azerbaijan, denounce Turkey's role in the attacks and call for an immediate ceasefire. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors signaled their support with their own resolution on Oct. 13.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

A boy holding a National Armenian flag marches with others from Pan Pacific Park to the Consulate General of Turkey, during a protest in support of Armenia and Karabakh amid the territorial dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, in L.A. on Oct. 11. (Kyle Grillot/AFP via Getty Images)

The United States, Russia and France have all called for peace in the region, but taken little concrete action as the fighting continues. Azerbaijan's defense minister describes the liberation of what he calls occupied lands a "sacred duty," and Turkish President Erdogan has signaled his enthusiastic support. Armenia's President, Nikol Pashinyan, has framed the war as an act of defense and survival. He accuses Turkey of trying to reinstate the Turkish empire and continue the Armenian Genocide. Russia has worked to establish a ceasefire — so far, unsuccessfully — but has not acted on its mutual defense pact with Armenia.

According to USC's Salpi Ghazarian, the stakes could not be higher. She said that the international community has a chance to pursue a negotiated peace. If that doesn't happen, she fears atrocity: "There will no longer be Armenians, certainly in Karabakh, and possibly Armenia too will be depopulated. That region will be [like] the Bosnia-Sarajevo of the 1990s."