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World View: Eurasian rumble comes to Newport

NEWPORT BEACH — Can you say, "Nagorno-Karabakh"?

Mumbling that double-barreled name to my boss' face triggered a moment of rare discomfort between us. The keen eyes of my editor narrowed and squinted at me through his glasses.

His face formed a question mark. This was something he didn't know.

"You know, that oil-rich enclave in the Caucasus," I said.

He didn't.

I was telling him about my plans to leave the newsroom earlier than usual the following evening, a Friday, because I wanted to attend a speech in Newport Beach before the World Affairs Council of Orange County by the "president" of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Little did he know that I had on my poker face. The truth is that I was only slightly less ignorant about Nagorno-Karabakh. I was right about its strategic location but not quite right about its richness in oil.

I first heard about Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, when I was a postgraduate student of international relations at the London School of Economics. A nasty ethnic conflict had flared up in Nagorno-Karabakh, or Artsakh, as it is also known. That war was a sideshow in the European press compared with the war in former Yugoslavia, which I was studying and researching then for my master's thesis at LSE.

The neighboring South Caucasian republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan were fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian-dominated enclave inside Azerbaijan's national boundaries. A ceasefire has been in place since the mid-'90s, yet tensions have persisted.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are small countries that cropped up with the breakup of the Soviet Union, where the backyards of three regional powers — Russia, Turkey and Iran — converge. On the Lower 48 scale of geography, Armenia is about as big as Maryland and Azerbaijan is slightly smaller than Maine, according to the CIA's World Factbook.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a dot on the map. It's a patch of western Azerbaijan that Armenia controls. The disputed territory, whose ethnic Armenian majority wants Nagorno-Karabakh to break free of Azerbaijan, may lack oil but black gold is a factor in the conflict.

The territory lies near gas and petroleum pipeline routes that are important for supplying Western Europe with energy resources from the land-locked Caspian Sea, a bonanza of oil and gas fields.

The Republic of Azerbaijan, which straddles the Caspian, has long coveted a pipeline route to the Mediterranean passing through Nagorno-Karabakh, which would be the most direct route for a pipeline leading from the Caspian to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Azerbaijan's problem is that Armenian forces control the enclave.

Azerbaijan accuses Armenia of cleansing Nagorno-Karabakh of its population of ethnic Azeris, while ethnic Armenians counter that with their own claim that Azerbaijan has targeted Armenians from the enclave's ethnic majority with its own brand of ethnic cleansing.

The situation there is a mess, all right. And if you thought the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was complicated, try and wrap your head around this hotspot in the South Caucasus with the impossible name.

As a longtime student of international relations who knows a fair bit about ethnic conflicts — such as the 26-year conflict in Sri Lanka that ended in 2009 — I thought I might get a clearer understanding about the conflict in tiny Nagorno-Karabakh by attending last month's speech in Newport Beach. I was looking forward to the appearance there by the "elected president of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh" — as the World Affairs Council program for the evening billed it diplomatically — and expecting the occasion to be charged at least with a subsurface electric tension.

So on the night of Nov. 19, at the same hour that Newport Beach anticipated Santa's arrival at Fashion Island for the annual lighting of the shopping mall's Christmas tree, I motored across town to the Pacific Club on MacArthur Boulevard to witness the apparition of the Kris Kringle of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Dressed in a charcoal gray suit, he was a balding, clean-cut, middle-aged man of medium height and build named Bako Sahakyan. The so-called president of Nagorno-Karabakh was escorted to the talk by Grigor Hovhannissian, Armenia's Consul General in Los Angeles, and a diplomatic security detail from the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

I deliberately refer to Sahakyan as the "so-called" president because Nagorno-Karabakh isn't officially a country. Neither the United Nations nor the United States recognizes the self-proclaimed republic. Had the U.N. and U.S. opened diplomatic relations with Nagorno-Karabakh, Secret Service special agents likely would have trailed Sahakyan on his jaunt about the Southland.

The club's ballroom was filled mostly with members of Southern California's Armenian diaspora, including Fr. Moushegh Tashjian, archpriest of St. Mary Armenian Church in Costa Mesa. Off to one corner was a table around which sat about a dozen ethnic Azeris, quietly and politely listening to the president's speech. The Azeris were affiliated with the Irvine-based Azerbaijani American Council, a grassroots activist group.

Before his speech, they had been standing outside the club in the night's soft drizzle, silently holding up umbrellas and protest signs critical of Sahakyan's visit. When the president was introduced, the Azeris remained seated without applauding, as the rest of the room gave Sahakyan a rousing welcome.

Translated monotonously into English, his Armenian-language speech was predictably flat and boring.

It went like this:

Artsakh's existence as an independent nation is "pivotal to maintaining and strengthening stability in the South Caucasus," Sahakyan said. "Any disputed issues should be resolved through dialogue and peaceful means, but Artsakh's independence and security are 'non-negotiable.'"

Albeit muted, the fireworks came after the speech, when Sahakyan took some screened questions from the audience. In the spirit of fairness, the event's organizers had permitted a question from the Azeri table to filter through, provoking a hushed groan from the crowd of Armenians.

The question had to do with an alleged massacre of Azeri civilians in the Nagorno-Karabakh town of Khojaly in March 1992 by Armenian forces.

"We think that the Khojaly incident as presented by Azeris is falsified," the president replied. He ended his answer there.

I was waiting for the Azeri table to explode and spark a brawl with the Armenians in the room, or go after Sahakyan with their dinner knives and forks. But everyone kept it civil.

This is America, after all. People here are free to express opposing political views without having to resort to killing one other.

IMRAN VITTACHI is the Daily Pilot's city editor. You can reach him at (714) 966-4633 or imran.vittachi@latimes.com.

What Do You Know?

If you're a high school student in Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, Corona del Mar or Irvine, who is dreaming of a career in diplomacy or international trade and business, why not sign up for the third Academic World Quest and have some fun over the winter break prepping for this team contest among high schools in Orange County? The World Quest is being hosted on Feb. 26 by the World Affairs Council of Orange County to test students' knowledge of foreign policy and international relations.

The mission of the 43-year-old council, whose board of directors counts former U.S. ambassadors and captains of industry, is to foster dialogue, learning, and the exchange of ideas about current issues on the globe's stage that test or stretch U.S. foreign policy.

The deadline for signing up for the competition is Jan. 19. To find out more about the Academic World Quest and other educational programs or internship possibilities, call the World Affairs Council of O.C. at (949) 253-5751, e-mail the council at wacoc@hotmail.com, or visit its website at http://www.worldaffairscouncil.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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