Spring 1996 (4.1)
Pages 72-73, 76
Loopholes and Democracy
An Azerbaijani Diplomat Looks at U.S. Policy
by Galib Mammad
These past three years, I've been on staff at Azerbaijan's Embassy in the United States. It's an exciting time to be in foreign service as my country is making decisions that will influence our direction in history. This is my first assignment abroad and I feel extremely fortunate to be here in the city of Washington which, in itself, is like a Diplomatic Academy.
Left: Refugee Girl preparing mud bricks. Bilasuvar Refugee Camp near the Iranian Border. October 95. Photo: Oleg Litvin.
Let me write frankly and personally about my experiences here. I don't want to be restricted by the official diplomatic style which is always polished, cordial and highly calculative. We diplomats are always obliged to be polite even when we're angry.
I'll never forget the first time when our mission made an official protest at the State Department. They mostly listened and when we parted, everyone kindly thanked each other for what had been an extremely tense session. No one dared violate established patterns of diplomatic behavior. But now, let me speak openly about what's on my mind.
My tour in Washington will end next month. No matter where my future assignments take me, the heritage of this city will follow me for the rest of my life. I've always held a fondness for the United States and its people. This country has so much to offer the world because of its emphasis on human values. Having grown up in a communist society, I realize that the success of the US is deeply rooted in its respect for human dignity and for personal differences. When a nation turns its attention to individuals, the true driving forces of development, it progresses rapidly.
"No one can be responsible for the actions of his parents, or his grandparents or great grandparents." Azerbaijn makeshift camp near Yevlakh June 1994.
Photo: UNHCR / R. Redmond.
But living in the United States is not the paradise I expected. I've experienced many frustrations and disappointments here. Three years ago, I came with great hopes and dreams. I imagined that America was the home of perfect democracy. Since my country had finally freed itself from totalitarianism, I thought we could learn so much from Americans, and, likewise, they could learn from us. I think these feelings are still shared by most Azerbaijanis.
Our people have offered a lot to Americans. The question is, "What have we received in return?" Culturally, we are a people who give of ourselves without calculating what we might get in exchange. It's not considered honorable to expect something in return. Five or six years ago, I chanced upon a group of foreign tourists in Baku and took them to lunch at one of our best restaurants in the city. They were quite surprised when I paid the bill. After all, I had only met them and I never expected to see them again. I simply paid out of respect and generosity, never expecting anything in return. This is nothing unusual for us. Azerbaijanis do it all the time.
But human relationships, of necessity, are different from political relationships which require reciprocity if they are to be sustained. In 1992, the US Congress adopted legislature which prohibits direct assistance to the Azerbaijani government, and denies even humanitarian and medical aid to our one million refugees who have been displaced because of the war. Of all the 15 former Soviet Republics, Azerbaijan was singled out and denied US assistance. Congress passed this restricting clause, the so-called "Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act" (we sometimes refer to it as the "Freedom Denial Act").
Let me immediately point out that it is not monetary aid that interests Azerbaijan at this point. We have lived without any direct US aid to our government since the beginning of our independence and we have proven to ourselves that despite incredible economical difficulties and struggles, we can survive. What is more important to us is that our nation be treated fairly with equanimity and respect.1
Azerbaijan has been at war with neighboring Armenia for the past eight years. Admittedly, there are no angels when it comes to war. But 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory is now under occupation by Armenians, and more than one million Azerbaijanis have been displaced from their homes and communities in their own country. Tens of thousands of refugees are still living in tents. Some have started to move into one-room, mud block structures that they build with their own hands. Portable toilets dot the countryside obliging scores of neighbors to share facilities-now for the third year. Water is carried in buckets from considerable distances. It must be boiled for safety. Most trees in the region have been cut for fuel. Stubs remain where trees once grew.
The US carries enormous influence in the international arena. When such a country favors one side, the suffering of innocent civilians is exacerbated; the resolution of the conflict, delayed. When you wipe away the dust of politics, this is exactly what has happened in regard to Azerbaijan. Having seen American democracy in action, I'm realizing that it is not the American people who have created this unfair and imbalanced policy. Rather, the loopholes and shortcomings of representative democracy perpetrate such injustice.
In my opinion, Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act will go down in history as an embarrassment to American democracy. During the United States' entire nationhood of more than 200 years, this country has never legislated against humanitarian aid to those who were in desperate need. It has always provided refuge to those who have been persecuted. It has always tried to alleviate suffering. Humanitarianism has been the essence of what the United States is all about. At least, that's what we have always been led to believe.
Section 907 has resulted in a tilt of the US policy in favor of Armenians. Why did it happen? Simply, democracy in the US can fall victim to special interest groups, which create their own agenda which they try to impose onto the larger arena of politics. Sometimes, as in our case, the goals of the special interest groups run counter to the overall long-term interests and can even jeopardize America's presence in a specific part of the world.
US policy is not always able to rid itself of this vice. Naturally, individuals holding political office have aspirations. To advance those ambitions requires votes and campaign money. That's when special interest groups step in to offer their services. Ignoring constituent interests would mean cutting off the oxygen that sustains political life.
When I first came to Washington, I thought that Congress had denied aid to Azerbaijan because Americans didn't know much about my country. Such might have been the case. But, such an explanation is simplistic. It's true Americans didn't know much about us. I'll never forget one of Trudeau's "Doonesbury" cartoons back in 1993 which depicted an imaginary top-level White House official, responsible for our part of the world, not even knowing where Azerbaijan was located. No doubt, the Armenian-American lobby passed legislature against Azerbaijan through Congress much easier in 1992 than they might be able to do today.
Last year I spent much of my time meeting Congressional staff members. I love the straightforwardness of Americans. They would listen attentively, tell me that they shared my concerns and understood the truth about the situation, but that they could not ignore their Armenian-American constituency. The shortcomings of elected officials can, and often do, get in the way of justice and truth.
It is no longer a secret in Washington that Section 907 is an absurdity. But rarely do legislators make any real effort to change the law. Curiously, only those leaving office speak out. Shortly after Senator Dennis DeConcini (Democrat, Arizona) announced his resignation in 1994, he admitted that he had been wrong in initiating the bill in the first place, acknowledging that "the wisest and fairest course of action" would have been to allow humanitarian aid to Azerbaijan [See "Reconsidering the Freedom Support Act" by US Senator DeConcini, in AI 2.1, Winter 1994, 46].
Then when Representative Tim Penny (Democrat, Minnesota) decided not to run, he introduced a repeal of the law. Representative Charlie Wilson (Democrat, Texas), now completing his term in Congress, has just this January managed to get a bill passed through both Chambers which would allow the US government to send direct humanitarian aid to the Azerbaijani government if President Clinton determines that assistance provided via USAID to non-governmental organizations is insufficient for the needs of our one million Azerbaijani refugees.
Senator Mitch McConnell (Republican, Kentucky) as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee recently notified Secretary of State Warren Christopher that he would block every attempt to send humanitarian aid to Azerbaijan. Curiously, McConnell went on record in 1992 as one of only four members in all of Congress who voted to allow aid to Azerbaijan. Now he has changed his mind as 1996 is an election year and public records show that Armenian-Americans have already contributed $22,850 to him between August and December, 1995. Never mind earlier decisions regarding the needs of one million refugees in some remote part of the world who were pushed off their land by Armenians who are sponsoring his re-election. Interestingly, the Wilson Amendment also requires Clinton to make a determination in an election year, placing him in an awkward situation as a Presidential candidate.
Ultimately, political decisions such as these damage the reputation of the United States, and Section 907 becomes an abuse of American democracy by the Armenian-American lobby as a special interest group.
Nothing has amazed me more in the United States than the political workings of the Armenian-American lobby. There are enormous differences between the Armenians that live in the Caucasus and the Armenians who are living in the United States. I am not an ethnographer. I cannot prove ethnic roots; but as far as mentality is concerned, I can say that these two groups of Armenians are very different people and I am willing to stand by my statement.
Once while serving in the Soviet Army, I was incredibly mistreated and it was my Armenian military buddies, serving in the same unit, who came to my rescue defending me so that I was never bothered again for the remaining two years.
During my tour in Washington, I've always tried to reach out to Armenian-Americans. Too often, I've been disappointed. I've found them unnecessarily antagonistic and hostile, overwhelmed by a burning hatred for anything associated with "Turk". Too many Armenian-Americans are unable to move beyond the boundaries of the past, to live in the present, much less look to the future.
History is made up of rivers of blood in our part of the world but no one can be responsible for the action of his parents, or his grandparents or great grandparents. If we follow such logic, we will only "add more fuel to the fire," generating more hatred and ultimately, succeed only in exterminating each other. But if we find enough courage to overcome these emotions of the past, we can envision a future that holds great promises for both of our peoples.
The Armenian-American lobby seems to have a different agenda than their brothers in the Caucasus. Their community here in the United States has become significantly divided over the Armenia-Azerbaijan issue. The Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian National Committee have turned the conflict into their own struggle for dominance among the Diaspora. To be sure, life in Yerevan or Baku is not the same as in California.
But Armenian-Americans must keep in mind that there can be no independent Armenia without an independent Azerbaijan. These two neighbors can offer a lot to one another. Only regional cooperation can heal the wounds of the past and lead to prosperity together.
All of Europe fought against each other during World War II. But once the war ended, European nations eventually chose to lay aside their differences and began to cooperate with each other. Now countries which were once historical enemies belong to the same alliance, and Europe has become prosperous once again.
A few days ago I was listening to music by the great Armenian composer, Aram Khachaturian, who used to live among Azerbaijanis in Tbilisi, Georgia. Later, when he became very famous, he used to combine Armenian and Azerbaijani folk music together, creating tremendously rich music. It may sound romantic and idealistic, but his music symbolizes the proximity of the souls of our two nations and how much we can benefit by building on those similarities.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have come to realize these bonds. Now it's time for the Armenian Diaspora in America to understand it. Instead of mobilizing the efforts of US Senators, such as Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Mitch McConnell and others against Azerbaijan, it would be more far-sighted to find ways to enlist support of these powerful politicians to contribute to genuine stability and cooperation in the region.
I am absolutely sure that the members of the US Congress can do much to bring the conflicting parties together in the name of peace and prosperity. But lawmakers will only aggravate the situation if they favor either conflicting sides and shun the other one. Such prejudice will ultimately undermine the interests of the United States throughout the region and cause significant damage to America's reputation.
When I leave the United States to go back to Azerbaijan, I'll leave with a heart full of love and respect for this nation. And I'll carry back many of the values that I have observed and come to respect. But as a young Azerbaijani, I will always remember that the United States did not live up to the expectations that I brought to this country when I landed at Dulles Airport three years ago. America's version of democracy has too many loopholes to guarantee that truth and justice always triumph.
Galib Mammad, Second Secretary of the Azerbaijani Embassy, has worked in Washington, D.C., for the past three years.
1 Since 1992, US Congress has directed more than $600 million of aid (nearly $180 per capita) to Armenia. During that same period, 90 million ($12 per capita) has been directed to projects in Azerbaijan (none directly to the Azerbaijani government as the Freedom Support Act prohibits such practice, but to non-governmental organizations which are mostly American).
However, trying to carry out projects without involving the Azerbaijani government greatly hampers US effectiveness. Take something seemingly as simple and innocuous as finding a place to store humanitarian goods. Most buildings still belong to the government in Azerbaijan. (Statistics above were compiled by Eugene M. Iwanciw for all NIS countries. Data is current as of September 30,1995).
From Azerbaijan International (4.1) Spring 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.