By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Hrach Melkumian
Armenia marked on Friday the tenth anniversary of a referendum that led to its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union.
The overwhelming majority of Armenians had voted for secession from the crumbling USSR at the time. September 21 has since been officially celebrated as the independence day and is a public holiday.
In a written address to the nation, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian referred to independence as Armenians’ “greatest achievement of the past decade.” Markarian said the hardships suffered by the people since the Soviet collapse “have not shaken our belief in freedom and independence.”
But most ordinary Armenians were rather ambivalent about the latest chapter of their long history. “We have gained freedom but also had many losses,” said Albert Badalian, a retired engineer in Yerevan. “Our rulers have used freedom and independence for their own benefit, while the common folk is worse off,” said Alina, a middle-aged school teacher.
“Everything has changed,” explained one college student. “The borders are now open and we have more links with other countries. You can read more books, listen to more music records and do other things.”
The main official ceremonies dedicated to the anniversary got underway in the evening. Senior government officials, leading politicians and foreign diplomats attended a reception given by President Robert Kocharian. Public festivities culminated in a folk and pop concert at Yerevan’s Freedom Square.
The Armenian government has received congratulatory messages on the occasion from many world leaders, including U.S. President George Bush.