Autumn 1995 (3.3)
Trapped in Pursuit of Re-Election
U.S. Congress Denies Azerbaijan Humanitarian Aid
by Arif Rustamov
I was eating lunch the other day in a cafeteria when an elderly gentleman came up and asked to join me. It wasn't long before he detected my accent and discovered I was from Azerbaijan. We chatted awhile. Like so many other Americans I've met these past four years-he knew so little about my country or, for that matter, so little about the entire former Soviet Union or that region of the world. But he expressed genuine interest, so I told him some of the things that were on my mind.
I mentioned that a few days earlier the U.S. Congress had voted to deny humanitarian and medical assistance to more than one million refugees in my country. He was appalled. He stopped eating, looked me straight in the eye, and apologized in amazement, "What is happening to you, America?!"
For almost two centuries, the United States has symbolized freedom, justice, humanitarianism and democracy for millions of people who have not had the chance to experience these ideals themselves. America, we thought, always carried the banner of truth and extended hope to the oppressed and victimized all over the world, regardless of color of skin, nationality or religion.
But on June 29th, cable television (C-Span) broadcast live the two-hour debate that took place in the U.S. House of Representatives about Azerbaijan. At issue was whether Congress should let stand Section #907 of the "Freedom Support Act" which blocks all assistance to the Azerbaijani government or whether they should make an exception and allow humanitarian and medical aid to refugees. For the past two years Azerbaijan has been overwhelmingly burdened with the care of one million refugees and displaced people. An astronomical ratio of one out of every seven individuals in Azerbaijan have lost their homes and their psychological, social, and economic sense of place.
The "Freedom Support Act" was created in 1992 during President Bush's administration to bring assistance to all of the Republics of the former Soviet Union in their transition to democratic forms of government and market economies. But the American Congress, intimidated by a small Armenian lobby, voted to restrict all direct aid to the Azerbaijani government. Of the 15 former Soviet Republics, my country, Azerbaijan, was the only one denied American assistance to transition into this new era.
As I watched those Congressmen on television defend their positions, I'll never forget how Representative Steny Hoyer, Democrat from Virginia, went on and on about the glorious symbols of "the red, white and blue." "The flag of the United States" he said, "is a very special flag, like none other in the world because it stands, like no other flag, for principles of freedom, justice and human dignity. All of us who are privileged to serve in this House, as representatives of the people of the United States of America, will forever, throughout our lives, be proud that we were able to serve in this House that represents for the people of the world this beacon of freedom."
As the one-sided debate wore on (only five Representatives stood in defense of Azerbaijan), the television screen filled with member after member, who stood up on the floor of Congress to draw a picture of Armenia as the victim in this conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh when the truth is that Armenians are occupying 20% of the territory of my country. They spoke of the deprivations of Armenians (which may be true) but they failed to mention that Azerbaijan has more than four times as many refugees as does Armenia. They painted Azerbaijan as the aggressor, a strange analysis, when all of the fighting has taken place on our soil, not Armenia's.
Clearly, the performance of Congressional members in front of the television cameras was intended as a show for their constituency; substance and truth were twisted. One member did not even know whether Turkey is situated to the east or west of Armenia! In the end, the vote was nearly unanimous; the judgment delivered denied all aid for Azerbaijani refugees.
It seems Azerbaijani refugees are not part of the constituency that will re-elect these legislators. Those votes will be cast by Armenian-Americans whose brothers have directed offensives against my country which have resulted in the military occupation of our land, and the looting and burning of hundreds of villages, and murders of thousands of civilians.
Never have I so seriously questioned the principles of U.S., or the essence of the symbolism of the U.S. flag as I did after this debate. That elderly gentleman's question posed at lunch began to play like a broken record over and over in my mind, "What is happening to you, America?!"
Can it possibly be true that America denied my government even a morsel of bread to feed our million refugees? Or even an aspirin, an antibiotic, or anesthesia to assuage our pain? How is it that America's policy punishes the victim and rewards the aggressor? What has happened to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and the progressive ideas of Thomas Jefferson? Politics that safeguard self-ambition and totally disregard morality can rot the soul of America as easily as any place else in the world.
Congress Strikes the Match
Despite Congress' decision, Azerbaijanis have survived these past three years without direct U.S. assistance and most of us, though not all of our weak and elderly, will survive the upcoming hardships. More crucial for Azerbaijanis than material assistance is a sense that we've been dealt with dishonestly, unfairly and unequally. That's where Azerbaijanis feel cheated.
Those who, like Congressman Hoyer, have turned the Freedom Support Act into a "Freedom Denial Act" for Azerbaijan, carry the responsibility for striking the match that is burning the American flag in our hearts and minds, and taking away our sense of trust in what we thought was a fortress of justice. Unfortunately, Hoyer and his colleagues may never be conscious of the treason they've committed in undermining our faith and belief. They may never see the flames of skepticism that they have fanned which are singeing the sacred fabric of truth and integrity.
No doubt Congress' decision will slow our journey towards democracy as we try to rise on our economic feet and invent avenues of free expression and choice. Scarce resources will have to be spent to feed people instead of building democratic institutions and educating our people in new ways of thinking. Despite how much America tries to hinder this process, we are determined to rise from totalitarianism. We will do our best to guard our fragile independence and build our nation. We are all too conscious that our freedom is not yet guaranteed and sealed.
Listening to Jammed Radio Waves
It wasn't so long ago during those Soviet days, that we used to stay up late at night straining to the sounds of "Voice of America". We did so under the constant fear of the KGB. How much we used to pin our hopes on those voices that we could barely make out through the Soviet-jammed airwaves. But as time went by, those voices gave us courage and assisted us in dismantling that huge empire. But what's happening in America to those voices that used to bring us so much promise?
Congress Trapped in Pursuit for Re-Election
The characteristic that most distinguishes American democracy is its extraordinary open process. In fact, it seems everyone can get involved if they have the determination and desire. But there is also a dark side to this freedom which allows special interest groups-especially powerful ethnic minorities-to unduly influence the formulation and implementation of foreign policy, especially in matters where there is relatively little public knowledge and debate.
Frankly speaking, a U.S. Congressman is a political prisoner to his constituency. Too often lawmakers act within the narrow framework set by biased, uninformed constituents. As a result, Congressional leaders sometimes cannot even distinguish humanitarian relief and democracy-building activities from domestic ethnic politics.
To me, it's a sad commentary on American democracy and foreign policy when the national interests of the United States have to take a back seat to cheap ethnic political considerations. Such a response is shameful and unworthy of a great country such as America.
Obsessed by historic hatred towards anything "Turk", many Armenian-Americans called the Congressional decision a triumph. To me, it was only a tactical victory for the Armenian-American lobby. In strategic terms, it was disastrous.
Hatred makes people blind and deprives them of logical thinking. The world is only black when hatred overwhelms. Too many Armenians have become fixated and obsessed with a paranoia that originated in the past when they felt they had been wronged; too many suffer from inferiority complexes and dote on playing the victim and underdog; too many have been manipulated and fallen prey to a handful of political nationalist extremists; too many have been caught up in ambitions dreamed up by a Diaspora whose conception of reality does not match the motherland's. Consequently, many Armenians cannot break free to move with today's reality.
We Used To Be Friends
In truth, there can be no independent Armenia without an independent Azerbaijan. By trying to bury and harm Azerbaijanis, Armenians are, in actuality, burying and harming themselves. Armenia cannot continue to live on foreign contributions, forever beggars to the whims of her providers. It should not be forgotten that Russian troops are already permanently stationed in both Georgia and Armenia and, to date, only Azerbaijan has stood up against Russia's expansionist tendencies to swallow up the entire Caucasus-again.
A country must develop its own resources, both natural and intellectual, and in doing so, cultivate strong, reciprocal relations with its immediate neighbors. Even the largest countries in the world cannot survive economically if they live in isolation. How much truer it is for small countries like us-Armenia and Azerbaijan.
No single individual is responsible for the acts and deeds of his or anybody else's ancestors. Being consumed with the past will only doom the future, especially at a moment in history when cooperation between us could guarantee prosperity to us all. We used to be friends-Azerbaijanis and Armenians. Continuing to fight over Nagorno-Karabakh will only jeopardize the possibility of independence for both our nations and ultimately force both of us to succumb to the domination of Russia once again.
Instead of spending energy blocking Congressional assistance to Azerbaijanis, it would make much more sense for Armenians to enlist the support of the Armenian-American lobby to push Congress for the oil pipeline to pass through Armenia into Turkey (which is the shortest, probably most economical route). This kind of farsightedness would enable Armenia to drink from the wealth of Azerbaijan and build their own lives in prosperity which, in turn, will help to heal and strengthen both our peoples and both our lands.
From Azerbaijan International (3.3) Autumn 1995.
© Azerbaijan International 1995. All rights reserved.