By Emil Danielyan and Hrach Melkumian
The presidents of the United States and Russia pledged to strengthen their relations with Armenia in separate messages to President Robert Kocharian congratulating him on the 13th anniversary of the country’s independence from the Soviet Union officially marked on Tuesday.
U.S. President George W. Bush described Armenia as a “major partner” of the United States, according to Kocharian’s office.
“The United States will work hard to assist the government and the people of Armenia in achieving economic growth, strengthening democratic institutions and resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” Bush was quoted as saying. “I expect that cooperation between our nations and the very friendly ties between our peoples will be further reinforced.”
“I am particularly thankful for Armenia’s important anti-terrorist support for the United States,” he said.
Armenia opened its airspace for the U.S. military aircraft following the September 11 terrorist attacks and is now preparing to send troops to Iraq. Yerevan’s decision to join the U.S.-led occupation force in Iraq was welcomed by the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, last week.
“I am convinced that a further deepening of the Russian-Armenian strategic partnership is in tune with the fundamental interests of our countries and plays an important role in maintaining peace and stability in the Caucasus,” read Russia’s President Vladimir Putin letter cited by the Armenian presidential press service.
The independence holiday is dedicated to the September 21, 1991 referendum in which the overwhelming majority of Armenians voted for secession from the Soviet Union just months before its collapse. Armenia’s first non-Communist parliament formally declared independence two days later.
Former President Levon Ter-Petrosian and other leaders of the Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) party which ruled the country at the time were due to gather for a private celebration. The deputy chairman of the now opposition party, Andranik Hovakimian, said the challenges confronting Armenian statehood are as serious as they were 13 years ago, pointing to the unresolved Karabakh conflict and the resulting closure of Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Hovakimian repeated the HHSh claims that the policies of the current Armenian leadership do not facilitate a Karabakh settlement. “The dangers to our statehood persist because we are pursuing emotional policies,” he said.
The HHSh remains unpopular among many Armenians who blame it for the economic decline and rampant corruption of the early 1990s. Ter-Petrosian and his allies are also accused of rigging Armenia’s first post-independence elections.
Meanwhile, Kocharian began the official ceremonies by visiting the Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan where hundreds of Armenians killed during the war with Azerbaijan were buried. Later in the day he hosted a traditional official reception on the occasions.
“Today’s Armenia is an established state with a pronounced commitment to deeper economic reforms, democratic transformation and international engagement,” Kocharian told government officials, foreign diplomats and other dignitaries attending the event.
The two top leaders of the Armenian opposition, Artashes Geghamian and Stepan Demirchian, were also invited to the reception. But they both turned down the invitations in protest against Kocharian’s spring crackdown on the opposition.
“How could I accept an invitation from the man who ordered the beating of my colleagues on April 5 and April 13?” Geghamian said.
“We will not take part in the celebration because we don’t find it possible after what happened in April. Nobody has been punished yet for the repressions, torture and other illegalities,” Demirchian argued.
The boycott was denounced by a leading member of the governing Republican Party (HHK). “This is not a particular individual’s holiday,” Galust Sahakian told RFE/RL.