Bittersweet Observations on Independence Anniversary

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Until September 21, 1991, the last Armenian independent state was in Cilicia, which fell victim to the Mamelukes in 1375. Its ruler, King Leo VI, was taken as a captive to Egypt. Ever since then, Armenians had been seeking to re-establish a sovereign homeland, with many leaders advancing the idea of Armenian liberation.

Israel Ori (1675-1711) was one of those extraordinary leaders with military, diplomatic and business skills who knocked on the doors of European powers and Russian czars, giving his life on the road towards his dream.

Joseph Emin was another statesman (1726-1809) who pursued that dream. They were followed by the founders of the political parties, beginning in 1885, when the first organized political party was founded in Van, inspired by the ideas of Mugurdich Terlemezian, a freedom fighter, Khrimian Hayrik, a writer and religious leader and Mugurdich Portukalian, an intellectual and journalist. But the dream remained elusive.

Armenians lived under foreign domination for almost six centuries. They never gave up on the hope or struggle.

In the meantime, they developed the power of self-preservation in their genes to challenge the forces of adversity, alienation and assimilation. Otherwise, how can one explain the phenomenon that a people living for centuries under foreign domination continued to preserve their language and religious faith against all odds?

Armenians were always comfortable with the idea of independence as long as it remained an abstract idea. They would cherish it, shape it along their desires and pursue it relentlessly. But they did not know how to cope with independence once it became a reality.

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The first time Armenia became independent was in 1918. There was a clash of empires and a collapse of empires. The Russian and the Ottoman empires collapsed as the majority of Armenians were living under the rule of those two empires. Out of the ruins of those empires, a small territory of Armenia emerged. Armenians fought for their self-defense as they took a last stand against the Ottoman forces at the Battle of Sardarabad. But independence came as a result of other developments. Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan had formed a federation to withstand the overwhelming forces of the powers in the region. The federation was called the Seym. Under Turkish pressure, Georgia and Azerbaijan declared independence, which brought about the demise of the Seym. Armenians had no alternative but to follow suit.

An odd situation had developed: the Armenian National Council (Azkayin Khorhurt) was headquartered in Tiflis (modern Tbilisi), the capital of Georgia. The Council declared itself to be in control of Yerevan and its environs, which could be swallowed up by the neighboring nations, if left unattended, as happened to Javakhk, now occupied by Georgia, and Karabakh, later occupied by Azerbaijan.

Armenia became independent almost involuntarily. Independent Armenia’s last prime minister, Simon Vratzian, wrote in his book, The Republic of Armenia: “People were sad. They were crying as if a mother had given birth to a sick child.”

Thus, our first brush with independence, after six centuries, came at a time when it was least expedient.

It was a time of internal, regional and international turmoil. New and competing empires were emerging on the ruins of the old ones. It was a time of nationalism and ideological warfare. Armenia was caught in that melee; inexperience in self-rule, combined with ideological conflict plagued a small nation of refugees huddled on a sliver of land.

The first year of independence was guided by a spirit of collaboration, where different factions came together to form a national government. But within a year, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) wrested control, throwing down a challenge to the other parties, particularly the communists, who were backed by Moscow. The polarization became so intense that it shot the foundations of the republic. After two and a half years, Armenia lost its independence. Independence had come about involuntarily and it disappeared in the same manner, leaving in its wake pain, hunger and bloodshed.

In 1920, Armenia was incorporated into the Soviet Empire and eventually became one of its 15 constituent republics.

For 70 years, Armenia survived under Soviet rule. The Soviet Union was a social experiment which resulted in a high body count: Stalinist terrors, war ravages and Siberian exiles became the destiny of the Armenian people, as well as those from the other republics.

However, despite all adversities, Armenia experienced its most prosperous period in modern times under the Soviet yoke. Culture, industry, technology and science flourished. And because the Iron Curtain did not tolerate travel or emigration, Armenia’s population hit 4.5 million. In a way, the Soviet restrictions served as a blessing in disguise.

This contradiction raises an existential question: Should Armenians live under foreign rule in order to thrive?

After 70 years of terrorizing its own people and the world, the Soviet empire collapsed. Levon Ter-Petrosian’s Pan-Armenian Movement would believe that the Karabakh movement caused the collapse of the empire. Yet, in reality, it was the interaction of geostrategic forces which caused the implosion of a domestically weakened system. Thus, 15 independent nations emerged from the ashes of the once-mighty empire. Once again, independence arrived at Armenia inadvertently, involuntarily. Although the West hailed the 15 emergent republics as democracies, in fact, they were 15 mini-potentates ruled by former communists who had simply changed their hats.

For 70 years, the system strove and educated the Soviet masses. But with the collapse of the system, the greedy classes whose appetite for plunder had been frustrated by the system, somewhat, got a free hand.

In each and every republic, a class of oligarchs emerged to exploit their own people. From Belarus to Kazakhstan, from Tajikistan to Azerbaijan, one-man rule was established in each state and Armenia was not immune from that malaise.

Armenia’s independence came with authoritarianism. The ruling elite did not bother that their kin was abandoning the country because of the misery their usury had caused.

The famous Armenian painter, Harutune Galentz, had a great sense of humor. He used to say during the Soviet period: “If you like the revolution that much, let’s make another one.”

Lo and behold, Galentz’s revolution came after the first revolution. And that was the Velvet Revolution, which in fact came to Armenia voluntarily, unlike the previous periods of independence which were thrust upon Armenians.

This revolution has pledged to bring an end to the corruption. Should that happen, Armenia’s economy may revert to a positive mode to give hope to people to live in Armenia and help the cou