A recent visit of Jim Karygiannis, a veteran Liberal Party Member of Parliament from Scarborough—Agincourt, to the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan last week has fueled a political controversy, an exchange of stern official statements and showers of criticism targeting MP Karygiannis and the Liberal Party, in addition to causing a stir and outrage within Canada’s Azeri community.
On July 17, Armenian media sources reported that during their visit to Yerevan, Armenia, Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis of Scarborough—Agincourt (Ontario) and NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice of Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie (Quebec) expressed their intention to visit Nagorno-Karabakh “to observe presidential elections” scheduled for July 19. A mountainous region of Azerbaijan where ethnic Armenians constitute a majority, Nagorno-Karabakh has been occupied by the military forces of neighbouring Armenia for nearly two decades and governed by a Yerevan-installed regime, which claims independence from Azerbaijan but remains unrecognized by the international community. The most active phase of this ongoing conflict was the 1991—1994 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, then both recently independent from the Soviet Union, which left over 30,000 people dead and 16% of Azerbaijan’s territory (Nagorno-Karabakh and seven mostly Azeri-populated neighbouring regions) under military occupation. Over 600,000 Azeris were expelled as a result of an ethnic cleansing, involving some brutal episodes, such as the Khojaly massacre of 1992, which took the lives of 613 Azeri men, women and children while they were trying to flee the war-struck area. Despite the 1994 ceasefire agreement and four UN Security Council resolutions demanding the de-occupation of the disputed area and the return of all internally displaced persons, Armenia has been unwilling to comply to this day. Peace negotiations have been conducted since 1994 under the auspices of the Organization for Security of the Council of Europe, but have yielded to practically no results so far. Meanwhile Nagorno-Karabakh continues to be internationally recognized as an integral part of Azerbaijan.
Bitter heritage of the USSR’s internal policy, scarcely populated after the ethnic cleansing of non-Armenians; underdeveloped and provided by Armenia for as much as 70% of its budget and 54% of its troops, according to non-partisan experts; using Armenian passports and currency and a slightly modified version of the Armenian flag, the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in reality is a political and economical appendage of Armenia. The latter uses this questionably democratic movement for independence to obtain a legal basis to annex the region in the future. Interestingly, the Armenian government mentioned Nagorno-Karabakh being part of Armenia in its 1991 declaration of independence, before the region even declared its claimed secession from Azerbaijan.
With the help of Armenian lobbyist organizations in the Armenian diaspora, officials in Yerevan have been working hard to create an image of a perfectly democratic society for Nagorno-Karabakh in the eyes of the West in an attempt to hush down or justify the ongoing violations of international law. Those who fall for this showcase democracy are sometimes invited to act as observers of the “presidential elections” held in the region every five years since 1992. Azerbaijan demands that foreigners visiting Nagorno-Karabakh apply for a special permission and an Azerbaijani visa to do so; otherwise they will be denied entry in Azerbaijan in the future.
This time round, federal Parliament members Karygiannis and Boulerice visited Armenia on what later turned out to be an all-paid invitation of the Armenian National Council of Canada. In spite of this trip supposedly being made on their personal initiative, the MPs could not stress enough the importance of the “democratic development” of Nagorno-Karabakh to Canada, Armenian sources report. Though well-aware of Azerbaijan’s objections, according to the same sources, and repercussions of their actions, they had planned to embark on a trip to Nagorno-Karabakh through a narrow strip of land that connects Armenia with it, ignoring Azerbaijan’s visa policy. On July 18, Karygiannis wrote on his Twitter account that Boulerice had been pressured to decide against taking this trip. Karygiannis himself turned out to be more insistent and went ahead with his original plan. In a Youtube video he later posted, Karygiannis praised the “democratic initiatives” in the region and even went as far as saying that Canada had “much to learn from these folks.”
Azerbaijan reacted immediately with Ambassador Farid Shafiyev accusing Karygiannis of illegally crossing the Azerbaijani border and picking sides in the conflict, as well as confirming Karygiannis’s status as a persona non grata in Azerbaijan from that point on, in accordance with the country’s policy. Following this statement and letters of protest sent to the Liberal Party by a number of Azeri Canadians, party leader Bob Rae could say nothing better than affirming his belief in what he saw as Karygiannis’s “expression of a personal opinion.”
Freedom of expression certainly is a fundamental principle and one of the bases of our society, and there should be no question about this. Whether or not this freedom infringes on someone’s right to be properly represented, though, is a different issue. Mr. Karygiannis’s unsanctioned trip to an area, blacklisted by many foreign ministries around the globe as unsafe and promising problems, is his own prerogative, and he should be left to deal with its consequences. What was really inconsiderate and reproachful of Karygiannis as of a Liberal and of a Canadian to do was claiming to represent Canada and voicing our alleged compassion as a nation for that so-called democracy; one built on the graves and the destroyed homes and lives of hundreds of thousands of those who had the audacity to be born Azeri. If Mr. Rae and Mr. Karygiannis truly believe in civil rights and freedoms, then a question arises as to whether a “democracy” which denies its people the very freedoms that define it, such as freedom of movement, freedom of thought and conscience, the right of participation in civil society, the right to vote, the right to own property and many others, really deserves to enjoy so much of their support. Canada is home to people who would certainly not join Jim Karygiannis in expressing his sympathetic attitudes to secessionists in Nagorno-Karabakh, including a few Toronto-based Azeris who were expelled by the Armenian separatists from the conflict zone together with their families back in the early 1990s. It is unlikely that an experienced politician and a Parliament member of 24 years, such as Jim Karygiannis, was unaware of these facts, at least judging by his own Twitter revelations.
Canadian history contains an incident dating back to 1967 when Charles de Gaulle, then president of France, visited Montreal for a world fair and in his public speech, praised Quebec’s independence movement in the midst of the FLQ terrorist attacks. The speech disturbed many in Canada and caused severe cooling in Canada—France relations. Prime Ministers Pearson and Trudeau expressed their dissatisfaction with de Gaulle’s position and wondered how it would make the French feel if a Canadian politician were to call for the secession of, say, France’s Breton-speaking province (at that time swamped by a wave of Breton nationalism). Not surprisingly, the French president resorted to populist and ethno-centrist statements in response, driving the relations between the two countries further into a crisis. Seems like Mr. Karygiannis has learned nothing from our history, which is why he chooses to indulge irredentist perpetrators of ethnic cleansings and puts steadily developing relations with recognized states at risk in a remarkably clumsy de Gaullian manner.
Indeed Karygiannis’s prejudice against certain ethnic minorities has turned into an unfortunate reality in ironic contradiction with his duty within the Liberal Party as a critic in charge of multiculturalism matters. In 2007 and 2011, he faced protests of Macedonian Canadians after he found himself “politically obliged” to refer to them as “Skopjans”, a term regarded as an ethnic slur by many Macedonians. In his defence, Karygiannis explained the term as one being commonly used in Greece. Apparently for Karygiannis, one’s ethnic origin is an answer to many questions. He is notorious for using his Greek origin as an argument to justify being unfit for the position of a multiculturalism critic, as suggested in a collective letter of Canadian cultural NGOs submitted to Bob Rae in August 2011. Plain and simple – the letter was signed by ethnic Turks and Macedonians who, in Karygiannis’s opinion, “have problems with Greeks.” For a multiculturalism critic and someone responsible for helping newcomers integrate, who sincerely believes he is right for the job, Mr. Karygiannis seems in need of adaption and a serious lesson in Canadian values himself. It is probably time for him to wake up to the fact that he left his native Greece for Canada almost half-a-century ago and that the world has significantly changed since then.
Karygiannis’s long-standing co-operation with Armenian lobbyist establishments led to him venturing to participate in a protest action of the Armenian Youth Organization (AYO) in front of the Azerbaijani embassy in Ottawa in winter 2011, where he was also joined by another MP, Nicole Demers of the Bloc Québécois elected from Laval (Quebec). In the heat of his passionate four-minute speech, Mr. Karygiannis could not be more undiplomatic than to suggest the Azerbaijani ambassador be stripped off his privileges and deported from Canada. To the Liberals’ credit, fellow multiculturalism critic Rob Oliphant rushed to make amends on behalf of his colleague who might have imagined himself the new McCarthy, but added that “Karygiannis is Karygiannis,” a rather pathetic excuse for hate speech expressed by a politician of such a high level.
Speaking of being a politician, Karygiannis does not seem to present much challenge to the anecdotal stereotype of this occupation. With a consistent decrease in the number of Liberal votes in Scarborough—Agincourt for the past four elections, having gone alarmingly lower than 50% in 2011, anyone in his position would be concerned. Appealing to the interests of the Armenian lobby would certainly gain him more popularity in a riding with almost a 1,000-strong Armenian community. Karygiannis thus believes he has much to look forward to, unlike his fellow AYO rally attendee Nicole Demers whose electorate did not express their gratitude to her for denouncing the Azerbaijani ambassador and did not elect her for another term to represent Laval in Parliament Hill during the 2011 federal election. As for Jim Karygiannis and his supporters from the Liberal Party, well, let us hope that misrepresenting Canada abroad, being declared an unwelcome person in a foreign country and putting a strain on Canada’s diplomatic relations with the latter will indeed be worth those votes three years from now…