By Karine Kalantarian, Shakeh Avoyan and Anna Saghabalian
President Robert Kocharian said on Wednesday that Armenia is firmly on the path of sustainable development fourteen years after declaring independence from the Soviet Union, an anniversary marked as a public holiday.
“The Republic of Armenia is celebrating its 14th anniversary as a steadily developing state. We continue to successfully implement comprehensive reform programs,” Kocharian said in a speech at a reception attended by senior government officials, politicians and public figures.
The event was part of official ceremonies marking Armenia’s Independence Day. It is devoted to a September 21, 1991 referendum in which the vast majority of Armenians voted for secession from the disintegrating Soviet Union. Kocharian and other Armenian leaders paid traditional visits to Yerevan’s Yerablur military cemetery as part of those ceremonies.
In his speech Kocharian pointed to four consecutive years of double-digit growth reported by his government, saying that was made possible by “political stability” in the country. “Economic growth should directly affect the well being of our citizens and we are determined to fully implement our poverty reduction program,” he said. “Work and social security -- this must be our slogan for the coming years.”
Kocharian’s optimism was echoed by parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian. “During these 14 years our people have seen a lot of hardship and difficulties,” he said in an interview RFE/RL earlier in the day. “But today we can say that Armenia is an established state with all its shortcomings, omissions and successes. I think we are entering the period called ‘beyond establishment.’”
“A lot of has been done but there are also numerous unsolved problems,” Baghdasarian added, singling out Armenia’s high unemployment rate.
However, leaders of the Armenian opposition, who boycotted Kocharian’s reception, painted a bleaker picture of post-Soviet achievements. “We are going through very difficult times,” said David Shahnazarian, a key member of independent Armenia’s first government. “Our freedom and independence have been compromised by the existing criminal authorities that have nothing to do with our statehood.”
“That doesn’t mean the independence was not a right thing,” Shahnazarian told RFE/RL. “Having independent statehood is a dream of every people.”
Many ordinary Armenians seem less than enthusiastic about the results of the decision they made 14 years ago, citing enormous hardship which they have experienced since the Soviet collapse. “It’s good that we are independent,” said one woman in Yerevan. “But that independence is formal. Independence should not mean turmoil and poverty.”
The post-Soviet impoverishment has been particularly severe in the country’s rural areas where the results of the economic growth are still barely visible. “If we knew what it will lead to, who would have said yes [at the 1991 referendum]?” said one man in Akunk, a village in the central Kotayk province.
“They pay me 6,000 drams ($13) and it is barely enough to pay for electricity and gas. Why should I celebrate the independence?” asked a local pensioner.
But not all villagers were nostalgic about their Soviet past and lavish state subsidies. “There can be no better holiday than independence day,” said a middle-aged man in the neighboring Zar village. “Even though the state doesn’t care about us now, those of us who works hard live well.”