The crowd also comprising Catholicos Garegin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and Karabakh’s entire political leadership gathered in the main town square and marched to a monument to the victims of the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan.
Sarkisian and the other dignitaries laid flowers at the memorial and an adjacent cemetery where hundreds of Karabakh Armenians killed in the fighting were laid to rest. A Karabakh honor guard marched there during the ceremony in tribute to the dead.
The bitter war, which left an estimated 30,000 people dead on both sides, began three months after the legislative council of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast declared the mostly Armenian-populated territory an independent republic on September 2, 1991.
Official celebrations of the anniversary began on Thursday, with Bako Sahakian, the still unrecognized republic’s president, handing awards to military personnel and other local residents. Sarkisian attended and delivered a speech at the ceremony.
“Tomorrow is a blissful day not only for Artsakh (Karabakh) but for the entire Armenian nation,” he said. “It’s a holiday of human and national liberty, it’s a holiday of human and national dignity, it’s a holiday of restoration for once abused human rights, it’s a holiday of victory for historic justice.”
“Once Artsakh was Armenian pain, today it is Armenian pride,” he added. “The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh is an established state with all essential structures.”
Sarkisian, who commanded Karabakh Armenian forces in 1991-1993, contended that the disputed region’s population would have “perished” had it not defeated, with Armenia’s substantial help, the Azerbaijani army. “We chose life, and today we celebrate the victory of life over death,” he said.
The Karabakh-born president further reiterated that the Armenians would never agree to any settlement of the Karabakh conflict that would place the territory back under Azerbaijani control. “Whatever was possible in 1923 is not possible in the 21st century,” he said, referring to Karabakh’s incorporation into Soviet Azerbaijan.
Sarkisian and his predecessor Robert Kocharian, also a native of Karabakh, expressed confidence earlier this week that the international community will eventually recognize Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan.
Despite championing such recognition, both men have long resisted calls by some Armenian opposition groups for Armenia to formally recognize Karabakh as an independent state. They believe that the unilateral move would seriously complicate a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Kocharian, who governed Armenia from 1998-2008, also took part in the Stepanakert march. He declined a comment when approached by an RFE/RL correspondent.
Also attending the celebrations were other prominent Karabakh Armenians holding high-level government positions in Yerevan. One of them, Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, held up the Karabakh society as a model for Armenia.
“In Artsakh, there is virtually no gap between the rulers and the people, and such an exemplary society that can also be developed in the Republic of Armenia,” Ohanian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“Karabakh has moral, historical and legal grounds to have its independence recognized by the world,” said Arkady Ghukasian, a former Karabakh president who now works as a senior diplomatic adviser to Sarkisian.