In the early spring of 1991, Michael Gorbachov, the first and last president of the Soviet Union was making a last attempt to prevent the inevitable death of the empire. On March 17 a referendum was held on preserving the Soviet Union. Approximately three quarter of the population voted for the continuation of the Soviet country. Armenia, together with five other states: Georgia, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia boycotted the referendum. On March 1 the Supreme Council of Armenia refused to hold the referendum in its territory and decided to hold its own referendum on independence six months later.
On August 23, 1990, the Supreme Council had already accepted the Declaration of Independence, by which the new and no longer Communist authorities of Armenia had chosen the path of creating a free and independent state. The document was signed by Levon Ter-Petrossian, the President at the time of the Supreme Council. Aram Manukian, a Member of the Parliament and ruling elite read the text for the very first time.
“To date that document is politically untouchable, legally exceptional and not a single political power casts doubts on that document. It is a document from the romantic period, but the pragmatism and realism is deep”, Manukian remembers proudly, years later.
The inevitability of the Soviet Union’s collapse was obvious to the Armenian authorities. After the referendum, the sick empire survived for only another 16 months. The economy was in an awful state, the decentralizing forces had expanded and uncontrollable processes, which accelerated the collapse of the empire, were taking place.
In his famous “It is time to jump off the train” article Vazgen Manukian, the Armenian National Movement ideologist, wrote “If an attempt is made to halt the processes in the country, then after a short time it will inevitably bring chaos and explosion and the Empire will collapse even faster. In that scenario, we are in danger of remaining under the ruins of the empire. It is preferable to approach that destruction as an independent state, recognized by the rest of the states of the world, and not as a result of such an explosion.”
During those years the majority of Armenia’s citizens could not even imagine that it was possible to live independent of Russia and blockaded by an enemy country such as Turkey. If you asked people what should not be done in the first place, they would answer, “not become independent from the Soviet Union”. However, the issue was not whether or not Armenia wanted that independence. The issue was that independence was going to become inevitable; that independence was going to knock on our door and we should be ready to accept it.
Vazgen Manukian and Levon Ter-Petrossian, who in 1990 occupied the posts of Prime Minister and President of the Supreme Council respectively, insisted that the Armenian nation should only rely on its own powers in order to achieve its national aspirations. They considered the points of view of those figures who believed Armenia could only preserve itself under the shelter of a strong state, being surrounded by enemy nations of another faith, as politically bankrupt and dangerous.
“This mind-set takes our nation towards moral slavery and deprives it of the opportunity of becoming a political ally, which is the guarantor of success in politics. The concept of Armenia as an obstacle to panturkism and therefore a factor in Russia’s interests brings the Armenian question back into complex international relations, which is full of danger for the destiny of our nation”, said Ter-Petrossian.
The failed attempted coup in August 1991 accelerated the collapse of the Soviet state. Only after the failure of the coup did the Soviet Republics declared independence, one by one. Republics who had voted in favor of the preservation of the Soviet Union. On August 24 Ukraine declared independence, Kirgizstan on 31, Azerbaijan on 30, Uzbekistan on September 1, Turkmenistan on October 27 and Kazakhstan on December 16.
On September 21 of the same year, as had been envisaged half a year before, Armenia held its referendum of independence. About 94.5 percent of the eligible voters participated and more than 99 percent say “yes” to the Armenian dream of having an independent, free and self-governing state. Legally Armenia’s independence was declared on September 21, but in fact it had taken the road towards independence in August 23 of the previous year.
The founders of the third Republic, headed by the ANM, put forward universally accepted ideas such as the creation of a free, independent, self-governing and democratic state, free and independant media, the establishment of free economic relations and living with neighbors in peace as foundations of statehood. However, most of the ideologies were discredited during the years of the ANM authorities. This created disillusionment not only towards the authorities, but also the idea towards of independence. About one million people left independent Armenia.
26 years should have been long enough for independence to have become an absolute value for the citizens of Armenia. Each year September 21 is celebrated at the state level; it is a public holiday. However, the state holiday has not yet become a national celebration for both objective and subjective reasons. Of course, the journey towards independence presupposed privation and irreversible losses for a nation seeking independence. However, those privations and losses should not have affected only one sector of the nation.
Even today, 26 years after independence, a sector of the population praises the repressive Soviet times. The reason behind this not particularly the “good, gentle” Soviet period, but also the immoral behavior that came along with independence and became a part of our everyday lives: the corruption, the violation of human rights, the rigging of elections, the injustice, the stratification of society and in some cases poverty and misery.
26 years, or 46 years from now Independence day will not be a part of our families in Armenia and will be celebrated merely officially, as long as there are unfair elections, as long as the country if ruled by authoritarian, willful civil servants instead of by the rule of law, and the rights of the true owners of the independence; the citizens, are violated, every step of the way. As long as the country does not believe in justice and the future, the holiday of Independence Day will not become a part of every family’s life.