Despite Azeri Meddling Montebello City Council OK’s Sister City Ties with Stepanakert

Montebello Mayor blasts Azeri interference in city’s affairs

MONTEBELLO–Despite pleas and veiled threats from Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to the United States to the Montebello City Council–the Southern California city unanimously approved a resolution on October 26–formalizing a sister-city affiliation with the city of Stepanakert–the capital of the Mountainous Karabagh Republic.

The 5-0 vote cemented the relationship between the two cities–after the formation in March of a Montebello-Stepanakert Sister City Committee. Organized by the Armenian National Committee of San Gabriel Valley (ANC-SGV)–the 22-member committee is composed of Armenian Americans–as well a number of local civic-minded individuals–which include two current City Councilmembers–Bob Bagwell–Norma Lopez-Reid–and the Montebello Chief of Police Garry Couso-Vasquez–as well as two candidates for the City Council–Octavio Guzman and Jeff Siccama.

In a room packed by an estimated 200 people–the City Council approved the resolution in a roll call vote–which concluded in a thunderous applause from the audience. "This is a historic vote," observed Serge Samoniantz–chairman of the ANC-SGV and the Sister-City Committee–"and I would compare it to the 1967 vote in the same chambers–where the then-council approved to grant the Bicknell Park public land for the establishment of the first Armenian Martyrs Memorial in the United States. The overall resolve of the Montebello City Council members must be recognized and commended," Samoniantz noted–after thanking them for their courageous stand.

Horizon TV filmed the proceedings and interviewed several of the audience members for a later broadcast.

Three weeks prior to the vote–Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to the US–Hafiz Pashayev sent a letter of protest to the City Council–urging the Mayor to reconsider the sister-city relationship–claiming that the cultural relationship could damage US-Azeri foreign relations.

"I know your city has a vibrant and active Armenian population–but US foreign policy is clear on this issue. There is no justification for declaring [an] ethnic-cleansed city as an ‘Armenian city.’" The Ambassador also urged the city "not to take action which may be used as a tool in the hands of a separatist regime."

In response to Pashayev–Montebello City Mayor Bill Molinari noted–"I have reviewed the concerns you have raised–but find them unconvincing." Pointing out that a sister-city relationship is not between governmen’s–but it is a cultural point of contact between the population of two cities–Molinari stated–"Stepanakert is a historically Armenian city that has survived a brutal war of aggression and blockade waged by your government. Today–Stepanakert proudly serves as the capital of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabagh."

After noting that US diplomatic representatives regularly visit Stepanakert and "consult with Nagorno-Karabagh’s democratically elected leaders," Molinari advised Pashayev–"rather than seeking to obstruct the further strengthening of Stepanakert-Montebello cultural relations–I would suggest that your government devote itself to ending its long-standing violation of US policy– namely Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act–which condemns your government’s illegal blockade of Nagorno-Karabagh."

Pashayev had also sent a similar protest letter to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger–warning the governor that "this move by the City Council comes at a very sensitive time in the [peace] negotiations and can easily upset the long striven-for balance to the degree that can slow down or even disrupt the process."

In a short letter of reply to the Ambassador–Schwarzenegger’s Chief of Protocol–Charlotte Mailliard Shultz–informed him that–"in California–sister-city relationships are commonly established at the discretion of local jurisdictions. Therefore–we are forwarding a copy of your letter to the Honorable William Molinari–Mayor of Montebello–and Mr. Serge Samoniantz–a member of Montebello’s Sister City Program Committee."

Although diplomatic protocol requires that a foreign government contact an American municipality through the US State Department–the Ambassador’s letter was able to circumvent these procedures and reach local officials. In light of this–several local elected officials are considering preparing letters of protest to the US State Department–upset at this foreign intervention into the internal–cultural affairs of the City of Montebello. In fact–on October 20–Molinari also lodged his protest with the State Department–stating that–"this intervention [by the Embassy of Azerbaijan] is unacceptable."

The sister-city affiliation will allow for cultural–educational–health care–and business opportunities between the people of Montebello and the residents of Stepanakert who are recovering from the long struggle for independence from Azeri rule. An exhibit of rugs from Stepanakert will be showcased at the Montebello Armenian Center on November 19. The Sister-City Committee also plans to host an exchange of students–teachers–and business people from Montebello to Stepanakert during the summer of 2006.

The ANCA is the largest and most influential Armenian American grassroots political organization. Working in coordination with a network of offices–chapters–and supporters throughout the United States and affiliated organizations around the world–the ANCA actively advances the concerns of the Armenian American community on a broad range of issues.

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