The mayor of Boston has issued an apology and rescinded a proclamation similar to one that last month inflamed tensions in Portland between communities loyal to Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Marty Walsh

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, photographed in March 2020, says his proclamation declaring Feb. 26 as Khojaly Commemoration Day “has been hurtful to many of you” in the Armenian-American community. Associated Press/Michael Dwyer

The proclamations in Portland and Boston recognized the 29th anniversary of the 1992 Khojaly massacre, which resulted in the killing of as many as 600 Azeris by Armenian and Soviet forces.

Although the proclamations seem to caution against the ravages of war, some Armenian-Americans say they’re part of a propaganda campaign by Azerbaijan and its political ally, Turkey, which still refuses to acknowledge its ethnic cleansing of more than a million Armenians during the early 20th century.

Some also view it as 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.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said in a March 10 letter addressed to Armenian Greater Boston Community that the city was rescinding the proclamation declaring Feb. 26 as Khojaly Commemoration Day, because the proclamation had not undergone the usual review process.

“Following conversations with leaders of the Armenian-American community, we realize that this proclamation has been hurtful to many of you,” Walsh said. “Our goal when issuing a proclamation is to honor and celebrate the contributions of Bostonians from all walks of life, and not to engage in international matters that can cause pain or divisiveness. Because our typical review process was not followed in this case, I have decided to rescind this proclamation.”

Walsh went on to hail the contributions of Boston’s Armenian-American community, which he said was the third largest in the United States. Those contributions include the creation of the Armenian Heritage Park on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. And Walsh noted that the city in 2015 recognized victims of the Armenian genocide.

“I said at that event that the Armenian people have made Boston a stronger city,” said Walsh, who has been tapped by President Biden to be labor secretary. “I continue to be proud to stand in support of Armenian-Americans in Boston and the surrounding area.”

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder issued a similar proclamation last month, prompting a similar backlash from Armenian-Americans. Snyder also apologized to local Armenians. Rather than rescind the proclamation, she vowed to mark the anniversary of the Armenian genocide next month and said future proclamation requests would undergo more scrutiny.

One difference between the proclamations issued in Portland and Boston is that the former described the Khojaly killings as “genocide,” although scholars say it was not widely recognized as such, whereas the latter described it as a massacre. The reference to genocide in Portland’s proclamation especially angered some Armenian-Americans, because Turkey refuses to acknowledge its role in killing more than 1 million Armenians in World War I, an event widely recognized as a genocide.

The tensions are part of a long, complicated dispute over the mountainous territory between the two South Caucasus countries, which once again broke into all-out war late last year.

Audrey Altstadt, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies and has written books about Azerbaijan, told the Press Herald that 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 1992-94, claiming 30,000 to 35,000 lives and displacing 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.

The Khojaly massacre occurred overnight from Feb. 25-26, 1992.

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.

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