By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Armenia put on the biggest show of its military might in seven years Thursday as it marked the 15th anniversary of its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union and received congratulations from U.S. President George W. Bush and other world leaders.
Hundreds of soldiers, military vehicles, towed artillery systems and other pieces of hardware paraded past the country’s leaders standing on a podium erected in Yerevan’s main square for the occasion. Thousands of ordinary people were also present at the procession that was broadcast live by the main Armenian television stations.
“Today Armenia is a steadily developing country,” President Robert Kocharian told the troops lined up in the sprawling Republic Square. “Successful reforms are underway in all areas of life. The high tempo of economic growth makes Armenia a new, more promising country.”
The independence holiday marked for the past 15 years is dedicated to the September 21, 1991 referendum in which a crushing majority of Armenians voted to secede from the crumbling Soviet Union. Armenia’s first post-Communist parliament formally declared independence two days later.
Kocharian’s office said the Armenian leader received congratulatory messages from about two dozen world leaders, including the presidents of the United States, Russia, France, Germany, China and Iran as well as Emperor Akihito of Japan.
The military parade, the first since September 1999, was the highlight of official celebrations of the event that were taking place in the Armenian capital and other parts of the country throughout the day. They were due to end with fireworks and a late-night pop concert to be staged in another major Yerevan square.
In his speech, Kocharian praised the role of the Armed Forces in Armenia’s post-Soviet history. “The armed forces of the Republic of Armenia are a reliable defender of the Motherland of all Armenians,” he said.
The parade began with Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian inspecting the troops in a white convertible and separately congratulating each section of soldiers representing the five Armenian army corps, the interior and border troops as well as the armed forces of Nagorno-Karabakh. Their goose-stepping march around the square was followed by a procession of armored personnel carriers and artillery systems. Warplanes, including Russian MiG-29 fighter jets, and helicopter gunships roared overhead in the meantime.
The high-profile event did not feature tanks and other armored vehicles with caterpillar tracks that could damage asphalt covering the repaired streets of central Yerevan. The Armenian authorities instead put on display what appeared to be new surface-to-surface rockets with a firing range of up to 110 kilometers. The displayed weaponry also included Russian-made Krug, Osa and S-125 anti-aircraft missile systems that make up Armenia’s air defenses.
Many of the people in the packed Republic Square were clearly impressed. “I think the parade was brilliantly organized,” said one young woman. “The only shortcoming is that not everyone here got a good view of it.”
Even prominent opponents of the Armenian government welcomed the scale of the celebration. “I note with satisfaction that the authorities which in essence have nothing to do with independence … are marking our greatest holiday with so much pomp and fanfare,” said Paruyr Hayrikian, who had spent 17 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps for agitating for Armenia’s independence.
“I am proud of having seen independent Armenia,” said Vazgen Manukian, another prominent oppositionist who served as the country’s prime minister in 1990-1991. “This is not exactly Armenia I dreamed about, but everything still lies ahead.”
(Photolur photo: A long-range surface-to-air Krug missile on parade in Yerevan.)