Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said Thursday that the city will give more scrutiny to community requests for mayoral proclamations after accidentally inflaming community tensions rooted in a history of violent conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

“One of the many lessons learned over the course of the last few days is that, in the case of international issues, especially when there’s a conflict, there needs to be much deeper scrutiny of how and if the city of Portland is weighing into that issue,” Snyder said.

Snyder signed a proclamation last week recognizing Friday as Khojaly Remembrance Day. The proclamation was drafted at the request of Mainers of Azerbaijani descent to acknowledge the 1992 killing of hundreds of Azeris by Armenian and Soviet forces. The Azerbaijan Society of Maine is planning a candlelight vigil in Monument Square from 6-7 p.m. Friday.

While Azeris say the recognition is important to promote healing and increase public awareness, some people of Armenian descent see it as an attempt to diminish their historical suffering caused by Turkey, a country culturally and politically aligned with Azerbaijan. And some see the proclamation request as part of a public relations campaign in the wake of recent fighting that displaced many Armenians from a disputed territory in the mountainous border between the two countries.

Tarlan Ahmadov wrote a resolution to acknowledge the Feb. 26, 1992, massacre of hundreds of Azeris by Armenians. Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said the city has changed the process for reviewing community requests for mayoral proclamations after accidentally inflaming tensions rooted in a historical conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Tarlan Ahmadov, who emigrated from Azerbaijan to Maine nearly 20 years ago, said the proclamation is important to Portland’s relatively small Azeri community, which he estimates to be 50 to 60 people. He remembers seeing horrifying images of the massacre in the news as a young man living in his home country. And he sees the proclamation as a way to remember the victims and prevent similar events from happening in the future.

“There is no political motivation,” said Ahmadov, who works as the state refugee coordinator for Catholic Charities. “This is rather the remembrance of the victims. We are educating the public and making awareness of this tragedy and the loss of innocent people.”

However, Mainers of Armenian descent criticized the proclamation as historically inaccurate and as part of a broader public relations campaign by Azeris after they recaptured a disputed territory between the two South Caucasus countries last year. One person with ties to Armenia was particularly upset with the Khojaly massacre being described as a genocide – especially since the Armenians themselves were victims of ethnic cleansing by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire that claimed an estimated 1 million lives during World War I.

The Khojaly proclamation states that 613 people died, including 106 women and 83 children, and “the perpetrators of this genocide are still at large and have not been brought to justice yet.”

Gerard Kiladjian, president of the Armenian Cultural Association of Maine, said he and his wife were among those who contacted Mayor Kate Snyder about the proclamation. He said he Snyder has been very receptive to their concerns and apologized for any pain she has caused. He plans to meet with Snyder next week. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

It goes on to say: “The tragic event in Khojaly is a sobering reminder of the terrible damage that can be inflicted in wartime and it exemplifies the enduring need for greater understanding, communication, and tolerance among people worldwide.”

Similar resolutions recognizing Khojaly Remembrance Day have been passed in several states and cities over the years, most recently in cities in Florida and Illinois. And they too refer to the massacre as genocide.

“It was a war crime, but it was not a genocide,” Paul Proudian, whose Armenian parents came to the United States in the 1950s, said of the Khojaly massacre. “To call it a genocide is clearly an attempt to diminish the Armenian experience here and create false equivalence where none exists.”

Proudian, who lives in Gray, estimated that 100 to 200 Armenians live in the Portland area.

ROOTS OF CONFLICT

Audrey Altstadt, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies and has written books about Azerbaijan, said it is generally accepted that fewer than 500 people were killed during the 1992 violence. The tragedy, although it was “a targeted massacre,” does not meet the international definition of genocide, she said.

Altstadt said the historical conflict stems from a disputed border drawn between the two countries when they were both independent republics of the Soviet Union. She said the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region was placed inside of Azerbaijan by the Soviets, even though it had an Armenian majority population and Armenians controlled the administrative functions.

Small-scale fighting between the Azeris and Armenians began in the late 1980s, she said, and escalated into an all-out war after the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. The war raged from 1992-1994, claiming 30,000 to 35,000 lives and displacing between 750,000 to 1 million people in the region. Armenian forces captured the Nagorno-Karabakh region and maintained control after a cease-fire was declared, she said.

Altstadt said that 1994 cease-fire was generally followed until last year, when Azerbaijan launched an offensive, using drones obtained from Turkey, and ultimately reclaimed the territory. A cease-fire was negotiated by Russia on Nov. 10. Azerbaijan retained control over the disputed region and Armenians have been protesting the agreement, causing political turmoil.

Altstadt said the push to recognize Khojaly Remembrance Day in U.S. states and cities began about 10 years ago, when the Azerbaijan Embassy in Washington, D.C., began running ads on public buses. The campaign was an effort to counter the vilification of Azeris and the political clout of Armenians, she said. The embassy has invested “a great deal of money” into public diplomacy and lobbying, which is likely spurring the push to recognize the massacre.

“It’s interesting to me that you would have a small community of 50 to 60 Azerbaijanis and it would cross their minds to approach the mayor for something like this,” she said. “That used to not be the case.”

Altstadt said that the remembrance campaign – and the debate of what is a genocide and what isn’t – seems to be an exercise in “comparative victimhood,” with each side claiming their suffering is greater than the other’s.

NEW PROCLAMATION PROCESS

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said, “In the case of international issues, especially when there’s a conflict, there needs to be much deeper scrutiny of how and if the city of Portland is weighing in to that issue.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Snyder said she frequently receives requests for mayoral proclamations, which do not need council approval, for a variety of occasions, whether it’s celebrating a local business or recognizing a resident’s 100th birthday. Typically, the person will submit their proclamation for the mayor to sign, and she said that’s what happened in this case.

She had no idea she was stepping into long-standing international conflict that flared up late last year.

“I’m not one to stir the pot,” Snyder said. “I certainly was not looking to do that. In fact I have lost sleep. I feel terrible because it’s such a current and deeply felt issue in these communities in Portland. I don’t want to do anything to make an already difficult situation worse.”

Snyder said requests for mayoral resolutions, which don’t require City Council action, typically undergo minimal review before being signed, but future requests will now be reviewed more closely by herself, City Manager Jon Jennings, his chief of staff, Dena Libner, and in some cases city attorneys.

Snyder does not plan to rescind the proclamation and will instead look for a way to recognize the Armenian genocide on April 24.

The city installed a monument honoring the Armenian settlers on Cumberland Avenue, between Franklin and Boyd streets, in 2003. That area of Bayside was home to Portland’s Armenian population until the city seized and demolished homes in the area so it could build Franklin Street.

Gerard Kiladjian, president of the Armenian Cultural Association of Maine, said he and his wife were among those to contact Snyder about the proclamation. He said he doesn’t hold any animosity toward Snyder, who has been very receptive to their concerns and apologized for any pain she has caused. He plans to meet with Snyder next week to discuss next steps.

“We feel comfortable that she gets it and she understands it and will take the steps necessary to revise the process they follow to make sure that proclamations are properly vetted and the language is appropriate and accurate,” Kiladjian said. “We’re definitely happy to meet with the mayor so she can understand a little bit more about where our community comes from, what we’re all about and all the contributions Armenians have made.”

Ahmadov said he did not intend to minimize anyone else’s suffering – he only wanted to honor the innocent lives lost 29 years ago. He said Azerbaijani Americans were filled with fear when fighting broke out last year and heard reports of violence against his people, here in the U.S.

“We want to see a life of happiness and coexistence,” he said. “For me, every soul – whether it’s Armenian, Azerbaijani, Russian or American – every human soul is very important. It has value. It’s God’s creature. I cry for everyone.”

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