Portland Mayor Kate Snyder has rescinded a mayoral proclamation that reopened old wounds between local Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

Snyder said in a letter this week that after “significant reflection” and community conversations, she was rescinding a proclamation recognizing Feb. 26 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. But some Armenian Americans criticized the proclamation, saying it was part of a propaganda campaign by Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are former Soviet republics that have fought on and off since the 1980s, including a recent conflict over disputed territory in the mountainous border between the two countries.

Snyder quickly apologized to members of the Armenian-American community angered by the proclamation in February, and promised that the city would more carefully review future proclamation requests related to international conflicts. She did not decide to rescind the proclamation until this week, however.

“I have heard from, and engaged with, many members of the Portland community who have shared their experiences, feelings and insights,” Snyder said in her April 1 letter. “I understand there is longstanding disagreement and conflict. That said, I believe it’s in the city’s best interest to remove this proclamation from the public record.”

The move comes three weeks after former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh rescinded a similar proclamation and apologized to that city’s Armenian population, which he said was the third-largest in the U.S.

Westbrook City Councilor Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte, a survivor of anti-Armenian ethnic cleansing in Azerbaijan, applauded Synder’s decision. She said Armenian refugees who came to Maine felt targeted by the proclamation. She said the proclamation was based on “falsified history” and seeks to distract attention from a February 1988 massacre of Armenians.

“I commend (Snyder) for her strength, her thoughtfulness and resolve through this difficult time and for doing the right thing,” Turcotte said in an email. “As a refugee, my faith in this country and everything it stands for is as strong as it was the day I became a citizen.”

The mayor’s decision was disappointing to some Azerbaijani-Americans, who said it felt like a sign that nobody cared about the Khojaly massacre.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Tarlan Ahmadov, who drafted the proclamation rescinded by Snyder. “I was not only upset by her actions, but also about what some people in the Armenian community in Maine put on the Facebook. It was just heartbreaking how they were bragging and bullying all of us.”

Ahmadov hopes that both communities can come together, have a dialog and move toward healing.

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.

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

Altstadt said that a 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.

Snyder’s letter said that, like Walsh, she only wanted to honor and celebrate Portlanders of all walks of life.

“I once again apologize for the pain and harm that the issuance of this proclamation has caused, and I remain dedicated to process changes for all proclamation requests which, among other things, includes review for historical accuracy and unintended consequences,” she said.


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