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Trump silence on Nagorno-Karabakh weighs on Armenian-American voters

President TrumpDonald John TrumpStephen Miller: Trump to further crackdown on illegal immigration if he wins US records 97,000 new COVID-19 cases, shattering daily record Biden leads Trump by 8 points nationally: poll MORE’s silence on a weeks-long conflict in the southern Caucasus is roiling the Armenian community in the U.S., which is expressing outrage over a lack of action by the administration.

The Armenian American community, which numbers about 1.5 million, has called for the president and Congress to condemn Azerbaijan for an outbreak of fighting last month in the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh that they view as part of their historic homeland.

They are further outraged by Turkey’s interference in the conflict and the president's unwillingness to condemn Ankara.

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On Thursday, thousands of Armenian-Americans gathered outside the White House to protest the lack of action and urgency from Trump.

“Even a single tweet from Trump calling for peace — and we’re not even talking about standing by or with Armenia at this point — talking about a call for peace, as simple as that. And even that is not happening,” said Arsen Kharatyan, who helped organize the protest.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Trump by 8 points nationally: poll Ivanka Trump raises million in a week for father's campaign On The Money: McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 | Lawmakers see better prospects for COVID deal after election MORE issued a statement on September 29, two days after fighting erupted, saying Trump should call the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to insist on a ceasefire and condemn Turkey’s interference. 

While Trump joined a statement with France and Russia to call for an end to the fighting, he refrained from calling out Turkey as interfering in the conflict. Trump has cultivated a relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“We’re encouraged by VP Biden calling out Turkey’s interference, Turkey is pouring fuel on the fire,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA). 

“We have yet to see that from President Trump and that’s certainly something that many Armenians around the country are taking notice of.” 

The issue is unlikely to turn the presidential race, but it does have 2020 implications.

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The largest Armenian communities are in Los Angeles, New York and Boston, Democratic cities in safe states for Biden.

Yet there are also significant communities in key swing states — about 50,000 in Michigan, 35,000 in Florida, 30,000 in Pennsylvania and 10,000 in Wisconsin. Trump narrowly won these states in 2016 with a difference of 1.2 percent of the vote or less. 

As a tight-knit, Christian community, Armenian Americans are more likely to vote on issues rather than party. On top of domestic concerns, they weigh candidates based on their recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide at the hands of Turkey — a position no president has taken out of concern for relations with Ankara — support for religious freedom and positive relations with their historic homeland.

Their arrival in the U.S. has come in waves of escaping massacres against their people — the Hamidian Massacre of the 1890s by Ottoman Turks and the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century.

More Armenians came to the U.S. in the late 1980s, ahead of the fall of the Soviet Union and an outbreak of war between the young nations of Armenia and Azerbaijan, with atrocities committed on both sides and centered around the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

“Historically our community has had strong ties to the Republican community, especially during the Cold War because the Republicans really stood against communism and gave the Armenians the vision and the inspiration that Armenia could be independent from the Soviet Union,” said Ara Chalian, who serves on the national board of the ANCA but has served as the local committee chair in Philadelphia. 

“But the younger Armenian community seem to be more strongly tied to the Democratic party.”

The outbreak of violence last month in Nagorno-Karabakh has mobilized the community, who feel a deep connection and responsibility to advocate for the protection of Armenia and Armenians living in the conflict zone. 

“Preserving the Armenian state is going to be paramount and right now, I think you can make the case very easily that the Armenian homeland is being threatened with another genocide,” said Taniel Koushakjian, editor of Flarmenians.com. 

“I think this is going to be the most important issue for Armenian Americans going into November.”

On Friday, Russia announced it was mediating a ceasefire to quell the nearly two weeks of fighting.

Spurred to action, the Armenian-American community is raising money and donations for those affected by the fighting. They’ve called for sanctions on Azerbaijan and Turkey and the halt of U.S. military assistance to those countries. 

“The current president’s positions have not made Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh safe and that makes our community want to take action,” said Chalian, the ANCA representative in Pennsylvania.

“And when most people want to take action they will not vote for an incumbent that has not met their expectations, especially when it comes to human rights.”

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Neither the Trump nor the Biden campaigns list a coalition of Armenian Americans on their campaign websites.

An Armenian Americans for Trump Facebook page, with nearly 6,000 members, is largely concentrated in California. 

A representative for the grass-roots Armenian Americans for Biden group said they have increased their outreach in the days since the outbreak of fighting with a focus on mobilizing the community in battleground states and working with the Biden campaign. 

This builds on other calls of support for Biden from Armenian Americans. In June, Democratic Michigan State representative Mari Manoogian, who is of Armenian descent, endorsed Biden. 

And in August, Harut Sassounian, president of the United Armenian Fund, a coalition of the seven largest Armenian-American organizations, wrote an op-ed in The Armenian Weekly that he was voting for Biden.

“Given Pres. Trump’s pro-Turkishness, non-existent position on Armenian issues and his erratic behavior, I have decided to vote for the Biden/Harris ticket,” he wrote. 

“Four years ago, I did not vote for either Trump or Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump may continue to campaign after Election Day if results are not finalized: report Hillicon Valley: Biden campaign slams Facebook after thousands of ads blocked | Majority of voters in three swing states saw ads on social media questioning election validity: poll | Harris more often the target of online misinformation Analysis: Where the swing states stand in Trump-Biden battle MORE, given my total disappointment with both candidates. However, I cannot remain neutral this time around…”

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Ani Saryan Kopf, a family doctor and ANCA chairperson in Wisconsin, said her community is deeply concerned about what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“To support Armenia and support Nagorno-Karabakh with aid and with relief – if the leaders don’t support those things, that certainly would affect voting,” she said.

“There’s a lot of issues even presently with what might sway somebody either one direction or another. Certainly this event in Nagorno-Karabakh is really hitting home with a lot of our community members.”

While Biden has committed to recognizing the Armenian genocide if elected, community members also remember the failure of the Obama administration to fulfill that campaign promise, and have little faith that a President Biden would follow through. 

“The Armenian Community is smart – through the years candidates, on both sides of the aisle, while running for office have made promises to our community and then failed to follow through with this country's official recognition of the Armenian Genocide,” Corinne Khederian and John Janmian, the respective Volunteer State of Michigan Vice Chair and Director of the Armenian Assembly of America, wrote in an email to The Hill. 

Khederian is a former locally-elected Republican official and Janmian served in the Bush administration.

The two expressed praise for Congress passing a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide over the Trump administration’s objections.

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They said they are further heartened by the efforts of the administration to respond to the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, which included Trump’s joint statement with France and Russia, statements by Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUPDATED: Pompeo's son raised 'hackathon' event in email to State Department Pompeo: US citizens born in Jerusalem can now list Israel on passports The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump, Biden blitz battleground states MORE and a call by Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun to the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan calling for a ceasefire. 

They’d also like to see the passage of a recently introduced resolution condemning Azerbaijan as the aggressor in Nagorno-Karabakh and denouncing Turkish interference — where Ankara has sided with Baku and sent fighters to the region. 

“We place and hold sacred our United States citizenship while not forgetting issues that affect our Motherland, Armenia, and are pro-active when those issues come up and try to be of assistance,” they said.