Celebrations in Yerevan marking the 30th anniversary of Armenian independence

Armenia Marks Anniversaries of Independence and Disastrous Attack


YEREVAN – Armenia marks two historically significant anniversaries this week: thirty years of independence from the USSR on Tuesday, September 21, and the start of last year’s Azerbaijani invasion, on September 27.

September 21 marks the 30th anniversary of a fateful referendum in 1991 in which Armenians voted overwhelmingly in favor of regaining sovereignty from the USSR. The Armenian Supreme Soviet – by then already renamed the National Assembly — formalized the results of this referendum two days later on September 23 when it declared the independent Republic of Armenia. The Supreme Soviet had already declared Armenia’s independence in August of 1990.

Despite this year’s event coinciding with the 30th anniversary of this historic event, the traditional celebration schedule usually reserved for the quinquennial, which involves a military parade, concerts, and a massive fireworks display, was considerably toned down given its close proximity to the more somber anniversary of the Second Artsakh War. Indeed, the impending 30th anniversary celebrations became a bitter subject of debate among Armenians in the runup to last Tuesday with some calling for the event to be cancelled all-together out of respect for the victims of last year’s brutal Azeri invasion. Others, however, argued that the sacrifices of Armenia’s defenders made the celebration of independence that much more potent.

Bitter divisions aside, the events of the September 21st celebrations apparently moved both detractors and proponents with its somber, and respectful tone. Dispensing with the usual fanfare, this year’s anniversary included a beautiful open air concert by the Armenian State Ballet which performed interpretive dances evoking scenes from Armenia’s modern history, accompanied by classical and traditional hymns by the Armenian philharmonic Orchestra. The outer walls of Yerevan’s imposing Republic Square served as a canvas on which colorful Armenian national symbols were projected.

The anniversary celebration was formally dedicated to the memory of the martyrs of the 2020 War, and this fact was not ignored by the Prime Minister. In a speech inaugurating the concert, Pashinyan said “The burden of the 44-day war in 2020 is hovering over this square, and perhaps this circumstance is the symbol of the crossroads that the great Tumanyan spoke about.” Speaking of the victims of the war, “They fell so Armenia could live on, they fell so Artsakh could live on. And as long as Armenia lives, as long as Artsakh lives, they are alive,” Pashinyan added. The mrime minister also announced the formation of a memorial park on the site of Yerevan’s Botanical Garden to immortalize the fallen soldiers.

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Below the podium, several rows of trees, wrapped in Armenian flags, were scheduled to be replanted at the botanical garden. Invoking yet again the theme of rebirth from death, Pashinyan stressed that the new park would not be a cenotaph, but a place where “children will be able to run around, have fun, and make noise.”

President Armen Sarkissian, Armenia’s nominal head of state, also attended the concert. Earlier in the day, he had presented medals to servicemen who had served with distinction during last year’s war. “The roots of statehood lie in unity, solidarity and national accord,” Sarkissian told guests.

Among the absent at the concert were Levon Ter-Petrossian, Robert Kocharyan, and Serzh Sargsyan – Armenia’s first, second, and third presidents, respectively. Despite receiving official invitations, they chose to boycott the commemorations entirely. They place the blame for last year’s military defeat squarely on the current prime minister’s shoulders. Pashinyan, who has accepted responsibility for the war, has nonetheless claimed that his predecessors also share blame for its outcome, due to years of corruption and flawed negotiations which left the country ill-prepared to face the impending threat.

Catholicos Karekin II, Yerevan Mayor Hayk Marutyan and Human Rights Defender Arman Tatoyan were also absent, attending similar celebrations in Stepanakert.

In lieu of a fireworks display, which Pashinyan had already announced would not be taking place out of respect for the dead and those suffering from PTSD, a unique spectacle was formed by a formation of LED-covered drones which arranged themselves to form the shapes of different Armenian historical figures, as well as the Armenian coat of arms which was visible in the night sky across Yerevan.

“They used drone technology to kill, we use it to create art” one commentator was heard saying in Yerevan’s Republic Square as crowds, which had otherwise remained relatively silent, began to cheer. Another commentator critical of the government said “while the budget for this event is hard to swallow, at least it’s not a trophy park,” referring to Azeri dictator Ilham Aliyev’s inauguration of a racist triumph park in Baku several months ago.

Just a few days later, Armenians were once more marking an anniversary, this time, one year since Azerbaijan – backed and coordinated by Turkey – launched an unprovoked invasion of the Republic of Artsakh.

The war, which lasted 44 days ended on November 9 with a Russian-brokered ceasefire in which Armenia agreed to cede 4 of the 7 provinces still under its control around the Soviet-era borders of Artsakh, an exchange of prisoners and saw the entry of Russian peacekeepers into the region to protect the Armenian civilians in Artsakh.

The war cost the lives of 3,781 Armenian soldiers and civilians. 253 remain missing including 45 who are believed to be in Azeri captivity. Casualties on the Azerbaijani side are more difficult to determine. Azerbaijan enforced a much tighter control on media during the war and refused to provide casualty lists until the end of offensive operations. Azerbaijan’s official claim of 2,879 killed has been questioned by experts and Azerbaijani civil society groups, many of whom estimate the real number to be closer to six thousand.

On the morning of September 27, Pashinyan and other government officials visited Yerevan’s Yerablur pantheon, where most of the martyrs of both the First and Second Artsakh wars are buried to pay respects to the fallen. Other prominent Armenian political figures also followed suit. The government pledged to strengthen Armenia politically, economically and militarily to ensure that the children and relatives of those who made the ultimate sacrifice would live in a country worthy of them.

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