By Ruzanna Stepanian
Tens of thousands of people, among them President Robert Kocharian, formed a human chain around Armenia’s highest mountain on Saturday in a giant dance that celebrated the 87th anniversary of the restoration of Armenian statehood.
The traditional Armenian circle dance took place along the 163-kilometer perimeter of the sprawling Mount Aragats and was meant to symbolize “national unity” on one of the country’s most important public holidays. Organizers led by Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian hailed it as a resounding success, saying that more than 160,000 people participated in the unprecedented event.
“We will try to express the unity of our nation around Aragats,” Kocharian said before he and other top government joined hands with ordinary people in the area about 60 kilometers north of Yerevan. “Thank you all for coming,” he added.
Asked by a reporter what concrete goals the dancers rallied around, Kocharian replied, “Let’s not talk about politics here.” But his defense minister, Serzh Sarkisian, clarified that the idea is to build a “good country.”
The dance began at 3 p.m. local time after a public “blessing” voiced by the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Garegin II, and lasted for 15 minutes, with several Armenian fighter jets roaring overhead. Participants, each of them part of a group assigned to a particular section of the area, began arriving at the Aragats foot early in the morning.
The massive movement was overseen by the police that closed some of Armenia’s key highways for regular traffic. Thousands of buses and minibuses were diverted from their service routes in Yerevan and other parts of the country to transport people to the scene. The operation left public transportation in the capital effectively paralyzed throughout the day.
Officially, the event was organized by Hovsepian’s Nig-Aparan non-governmental that unites prominent natives of the Aparan district adjacent to Mount Aragats. However, government involvement was evident throughout the process. Kocharian’s presence only underscored it.
Local government bodies in Yerevan began enlisting participants several months ago. Each of them was promised free transportation and food.
The Armenian leader insisted earlier that he will not join the dance. He explained on Saturday that he deliberately misled the public and media to avoid any political “exploitation” of the issue.
The Armenian opposition has denounced the event as a public relations stunt aimed at deflecting public attention from the country’s woes and shoring up the ruling regime’s popularity. Many local commentators also see it as a further manifestation of Hovsepian’s growing political ambitions.
May 28, officially called Republic Holiday, is dedicated to the 87th anniversary of the creation in 1918 of a short-lived Armenian republic that was later incorporated into the Soviet Union. “May 28, 1918 is a holiday marking the resurrection, survival and eternity of a people that was brought to the verge of extermination,” Kocharian said in a written address to the nation.