State lawmakers Monday briefly turned their attention from California to the Caucasus region as an Assembly panel approved a measure touching on a long-standing geopolitical feud between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
At issue is Nagorno-Karabakh, a semiautonomous territory within Azerbaijan's borders but populated mainly by ethnic Armenians. A resolution by Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) expresses support for Nagorno-Karabakh's independence — a departure from U.S. foreign policy, which considers the region to be part of Azerbaijan. For decades, the two countries have disputed the region, and international negotiations have stalled.
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 President Obama and Congress. But the resolution — versions of which have been passed in a few other states such as Louisiana and Rhode Island — diverges from the State Department at a particularly sensitive time, given the upheaval in eastern Ukraine.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
Assemblyman 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; Assemblyman Curt Hagman (R-Chino Hills) abstained.
"I have serious trepidation about California's state Assembly engaging in international issues," said Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park), the committee chairman. But he said he voted yes because "there ought to be an opportunity for a discussion about whether or not we should be engaging in these kinds of issues to occur on the [Assembly] floor."