Accused of bending an ear to Armenian lobbyists, Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Silver Lake) has introduced a resolution in the state Assembly, urging the United States to recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic as a sovereign state, raising the ire of Azerbaijanis in the United States and abroad.

Nagorno-Karabakh, a region formerly known as Artsakh, has been at the center of controversy since 1921, when the Soviet Union wrested about 1,700 square miles of mountainous land from Armenia and created its own state.

Since 1991, bloodshed has been spilled over the territory with Armenians fighting against Azerbaijanis.

The territory is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan and, since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have held peace talks on the region’s disputed status.

If Nagorno-Karabakh became an independent state, it would be controlled by ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis alike, although the former makes up a majority of the region’s population.

In an online issue of Azernews, the pro-Azerbaijan website accused Gatto of playing to Armenian lobbyists, something Gatto doesn’t deny.

“I have not hidden the fact that I’ve worked with three Armenian advocacy organizations on this bill. It’s not a hidden thing,” the assemblyman said Thursday.

The organizations are the Armenian Council of America, the Armenian National Committee of America and Unified Young Armenians. 

“These are groups standing up for the rights of people of Armenian descent that want self-determination,” Gatto said.

Gatto said the accusation of playing in favor of Armenian lobbyists misses the bigger overall issue.

“That’s like saying the French were in bed with the American lobby. It’s a very Soviet attitude to say people don’t have a right to self-determination,” Gatto said. “I thought the entire world was in accord with self-determination. The area is now in a state of detente. The Azerbaijanis tried to take it back by force and they failed.”

On the Azernews website, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Elman Abdullayev said single states such as California shouldn’t determine the foreign policy of the United States.

“Gatto's resolution, which recognizes the occupied Nagorno Karabakh as a ‘sovereign state,’ refers to the rights of people to self-determination,” he said. “However, it doesn't indicate the current regime of the so-called ‘Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’ was established through the military occupation of the Azerbaijani territory and ethnic cleansing by the Armenian armed forces.”

Gatto submitted the proposal on Jan. 6. If it is passes both houses of the state legislature, Gatto said a copy of AJR 32 will be sent to President Barack Obama, the secretary of the U.S. Senate, the clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives and to each member of the California delegation in Congress.

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Follow Tim Traeger on Twitter: @TraegerTim.

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