SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The 30th anniversary of the Sumgait Pogroms was commemorated Wednesday at the California State Capitol during the inaugural hearing of the Senate Select Committee on California, Armenia and Artsakh Mutual Trade, Art and Cultural Exchange.
The committee hearing entitled “California, Armenia and Artsakh Trade Agreements, Civil Rights Issues and University of California Divestiture and Budget Impacts” covered a wide array of issues of importance to the Armenian-American community and featured moving testimony by attorney and activist Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte, updates on the establishment of a trade Memorandum of Understanding between Armenia and California, and the latest in the effort toward divestment from the Turkish Government by the University of California. The Select Committee was founded by Chairman Anthony J. Portantino (SD-25) following positive impressions he formed during a visit to Armenia and Artsakh prior to his election to the California State Senate.
In her remarks, Astvatsaturian Turcotte outlined the atrocities that Azerbaijanis committed against Armenians through her own family’s experiences. “In response to this freedom movement in Karabakh, the Armenians of Azerbaijan were slaughtered in the city of Sumgait and then Kirovabad and then in my home city of Baku,” said Turcotte. “We were completely driven out of our homes, from our streets, and from the city that we built.”
In 2012, Astvatsaturian Turcotte published her book, titled Nowhere, a Story of Exile, which she wrote at the age of 14 as her family settled in North Dakota as refugees. During her testimony, she explained how the book is based on the childhood diaries she kept as her family was fleeing Baku and during their years as refugees in Armenia.
Turcotte stressed that the massacres in Sumgait were only the beginning of this anti-Armenian and xenophobic behavior that was set forth by the Azerbaijani government. “Sumgait was a turning point and a blueprint for Azeris to begin with their government orchestrated expulsion of 400,000 Armenians from their wealth, their position of power, and from their own history within Azerbaijan,” continued Turcotte.
The activist also explained that the anti-Armenian behavior in the 1980s is being repeated today by the Azerbaijani regime against the Armenians living in Artsakh. “No one should ever forget the innocent lives lost in the most brutal, horrible ways,” she concluded, stating that the circumstances today are similar to 1988 because justice in Sumgait was never properly served.
Both Senator Portantino and Senator Scott T. Wilk (SD-21), appreciating Turcotte’s remarks, explored ways of further cooperation between Artsakh and California and questioned how diaspora Armenians could get more involved in sharing the stories similar to Anna’s.
“Yesterday, was a great day for California, Armenia and Artsakh relations and I was very proud to be a part of it. Our speakers and presenters made a passionate case for the recognition of human rights abuses and the benefits of signing a mutual trade agreement between California and Armenian. The UCLA students were particularly compelling with their passionate presentation on Divestiture. It made me excited to be in the Capitol,” commented Portantino.
Following Astvatsaturian Turcotte’s testimony, Gordon Hinkle, Vice President of the California Center (Global Operations) and Valery Mkrtoumian, Deputy Consul General of the Republic of Armenia presented the benefits of signing an MOU between California and Armenia. Hinkle provided the general benefits of MOUs and discussed California’s interest in engaging with foreign governments. In the past, Hinkle has helped lead numerous executive level trade missions to numerous cities and provinces in China.
Meanwhile, Deputy Consul Mkrtoumian explained the importance of an MOU between California and Armenia and highlighted the need for a trade office to solidify relations. He added that the IT and agricultural sectors of Armenia provide great potential for further trade and cooperation between Armenia and California.
“The strength of US-Armenia relations is based on the shared values and common vision for a secure world,” said Mkrtoumian while highlighting the different methods by which both economies could excel through an MOU. “There are more favorable business conditions now which would attract investments for US companies.”
The process of potential divestment by the University of California from the Turkish Government was first explained through testimony provided by Jagdeep Bachhner, Chief Investment Officer, Vice President of Investments at the University of California, who expressed willingness to work with students to find solutions while highlighting the interests of the UC in maintaining its financial obligations and investing in emerging markets.
When discussing efforts toward divestment from Turkey, members of the Armenian Youth Federation and co-founders of the Divest Turkey movement, Arev Hovsepian, Razmig Sarkissian, and Aram Manoukian discussed their involvement and presented a timeline of the movement that was initiated in 2014. They explained that this has been a grassroots initiative organized by students and to date, resolutions to divest have passed in every one of the nine UC campuses without any “no” votes.
Hovsepian provided an overview of the movement from its inception, ultimately leading to the passage of AB1597, which was introduced in the California State Assembly by Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian (AD-46) and which passed unanimously last June by a vote of 67-0 after the issue gained great momentum through the student movement.
“This campaign, now statewide, was originally organized by a group of just 7 college students. Our objective was clear: to push for divestment from Turkish government as a result of its increased human rights violations, limiting of the basic freedoms of speech and expression, denial and perpetuation of the Armenian Genocide, and harmful policies against Kurdish, Armenian, and Jewish minority populations,” said Hovsepian. She continued to urge that investing in the Turkish Government directly contradicts long-standing unequivocal recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the State of California.
“I was very honored to have had the opportunity to present on the importance of the UC divestment from Turkey before the first hearing of the Select Committee. I believe that our testimony made a compelling case to the CIO from the University and I felt he was being very respectful of our student perspective, going so far as to invite us to formally present in the future to the University Investment Committee Directly. We are grateful to Senator Portantino for this opportunity and we are optimistic that it will lead to a positive outcome,” commented Hovsepian.
Sarkissian added that divesting from the Turkish Government is in the best interest of the University of California and State of California in addition to the countless moral and ethical reasons that justify such a move. Sarkissian then explained the corruption in Turkey, beginning from jailed journalists, human rights abuses, arrests of Kurdish politicians, and the 2016 coup to highlight the risks of investing taxpayer dollars in Turkey.
“When we started this movement, it was to move forward from Armenian Genocide recognition. I’m so proud that the State of California recognizes the Armenian Genocide. I’m so proud that all the UC campuses recognize the Armenian Genocide and I’m also proud that I was able to earn a degree in Armenian Studies and was able to learn about the Armenian Genocide in my classes. But to say we recognize the genocide and then put money in the coffers of the Republic of Turkey is a slap in the face,” concluded Sarkissian.
Manoukian, during his remarks, expressed that students like him are not satisfied with the current status quo and demand that action be taken. He explained that it should be the obligation of a respected institution to uphold the values it so diligently shares and teaches, and investing in Turkey is the exact opposite.
Commending the student leaders for their informative presentation, Senators Portantino and John Moorlach (SD-37) suggested the student representatives attend a meeting of the subcommittee of the Board of Regents to further discuss the matter. The hearing concluded with Senators Portantino and Wilk presenting a resolution commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Sumgait Pogroms to the ANCA-Western Region Chair Nora Hovsepian and the Executive Director of the Armenian Assembly of America Mihran Toumajan. “Thank you for being here on this solemn 30th anniversary. We send our prayers and well wishes to the families of the descendants,” concluded Portantino.
This first hearing of the Select Committee on California, Armenia and Artsakh Mutual Trade, Art and Cultural Exchange was successful in providing a platform to expand on relations between the State of California and Armenia and Artsakh through trade and commerce. During the public comment portion of the hearing and in response to the panelists’ presentations and positive comments by various members of the Armenian community who attended from all parts of California, several members of the Azeri community voiced their protests against the work of the Select Committee.
Select Committee Chairman Portantino, in his concluding remarks, noted the passion in the student representatives during their presentation and remained hopeful that the appropriate steps be taken by the UCs to find a solution.
Members of the Senate Select Committee on California, Armenia and Artsakh Mutual Trade, Art and Cultural Exchange include Senators Anthony J. Portantino (Chair), Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (SD-24), Josh Newman (SD-29), and Scott Wilk.
In addition to participating in the hearing, representatives of the ANCA-WR Board and Staff spent the day in Sacramento accompanying Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte and the student activists on visits to various legislative offices to discuss key issues of importance to the Armenian-American community.
A full video recording of the hearing can be viewed at www.facebook.com/ANCAWesternRegion.