The main ceremonies marking the public holiday in Armenia again took place in Sardarapat, a village 40 kilometers west of Yerevan and the scene of a crucial battle between Armenian armed forces and the advancing Turkish army. After weeks of fierce fighting the Turkish offensive was repelled on May 26, 1918. Armenia declared national independence two days later, restoring sovereignty over parts of its historical lands after centuries of foreign rule.
The first republic ceased to exist in November 1920 when its Dashnak leadership in Yerevan, facing an imminent invasion by Kemalist Turkey, was forced to cede power to Bolshevik Russia. Armenia regained independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, of which it had been a part for nearly 70 years.
“Ninety-two years ago, after a long break, the Armenian people declared its independence on a small part of its historical territory. On May 28, an Armenian became a citizen of his state,” President Serzh Sarkisian said in an address to the nation on the day. “Even in our own days there are people who do not have the realization of being a citizen of the state, do not feel its strength and responsibility.”
“The feat of May 28 was first of all performed in our consciousness and hearts,” stressed Sarkisian, adding that lessons must be drawn from the 1918 events.
“Lesson number one – no one in the world is obliged to fight for you and instead of you. Lesson number two – no one is obliged to establish statehood instead of you. Lesson number three – it is possible to gain separate victories over a people that has formed state institutions, but it is impossible to commit genocide against it. Lesson number four – the Armenian people is in a position to solve the most difficult problems facing it, problems solutions to which at times seem unimaginable. The Armenian people is simply invincible if it appears to the world united. Lesson number five – one has to believe in the abilities of the Armenian people, its great potential to fight, build, think and create,” the Armenian leader said.
Sarkisian and other Armenian officials were among thousands of people who visited the war memorial at Sardarapat on Friday. He laid a wreath at the Memorial dedicated to the heroes of the Battle.
The Armenian Apostolic Church also acknowledged the significance of the day in the history of the nation. Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, also laid a wreath at the memorial. The Armenian spiritual leader offered a prayer for the souls of the perished defenders of the land.
In a congratulatory message on May 28 Catholicos Karekin II said the proclamation of the first Armenian Republic was “a turning point in our history, which also became a testimony of our people’s aspirations – to build a democratic, legal and civil state; to build a free and just society.”
“These contributions and the love for the homeland today shall direct our lives, become spirit and inspiration for our efforts and labors, so that we build a secure, prosperous and joyful future for our homeland and people,” said the Catholicos.
The other two South Caucasus republics also gained independence briefly at the end of the First World War.
Armenia’s eastern neighbor and regional archrival Azerbaijan also marked the independence of its 1918-1920 democratic republic on May 28.
In his remarks on the eve of the celebration, the Azerbaijani leader repeated his threats that the Azerbaijani army is capable of restoring the country’s territorial integrity “at any time” and “within a short term”. Ilham Aliyev said that Azerbaijan’s independence in the early 1990s was endangered by “Armenian separatists” in Nagorno-Karabakh, but was saved due to his late father Heydar Aliyev, who is held as national hero in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan and Armenia-backed ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh fought a bloody war in 1991-1994 as a result of which the former Armenian enclave achieved de-facto independence from Baku. Earlier this month Armenia and Karabakh marked the anniversary of the 1992 capture of Shushi, an Azeri stronghold near Karabakh capital Stepanakert, that marked a turning point in that war.
On Thursday, Aliyev again described the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute as a major problem facing his country and stressed that Azerbaijan would do everything to restore its territorial integrity. He also condemned last week’s parliamentary elections in Nagorno-Karabakh.