President Serzh Sarkisian celebrated on Tuesday the 30th anniversary of the start of a popular movement for Nagorno-Karabakh’s unification with Armenia, saying that it marked “the revival of the Armenian people.”
“Monte [Melkonian] (an American-born Armenian military commander killed in action in 1993) was right to say that if we lost Artsakh (Karabakh) we would turn the final page of Armenian history,” Sarkisian said in a written address to the nation. “February 20, 1988 was a moment of unity, determination and national revival of the Armenian people.”
On that day the legislative assembly of Karabakh, then an autonomous region in Soviet Azerbaijan, voted for the mostly Armenian-populated territory’s unification with Armenia. The decision came amid large demonstrations taking place in Stepanakert which swiftly triggered huge rallies in Yerevan.
With both the Soviet and Azerbaijani authorities rejected those demands, there were counterdemonstrations and anti-Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan later in 1988.The bitter conflict escalated into an all-out war in Karabakh as the Soviet Union fell apart at the end of 1991.
Around 7,000 Armenian fighters and over 1,260 civilians, most of them Karabakh residents, died during the war stopped by a Russian-brokered truce in May 1994. Azerbaijan publicized in 2014 an incomplete official list of over 11,500 Azerbaijani combat deaths. Its late President Heydar Aliyev had spoken of some 21,000 Azerbaijani war casualties, including civilians. The warring sides have suffered hundreds of more casualties in ceasefire violations since 1994.
The nearly three years of fierce fighting left the Karabakh Armenians in control of almost the whole of Karabakh. They also fully or partly occupied seven Azerbaijani districts surrounding the disputed enclave. International efforts to settle the conflict have still not yielded a breakthrough.
Sarkisian claimed that the Karabakh Armenians would have faced “physical extermination” had they not taken up arms and won the war. “Now, three decades on, we can confidently assert that the Karabakh movement saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” he said in his statement.
Karabakh’s population is still facing the same security threats as in 1988, the Armenian president added in a clear reference to Azerbaijani leaders’ regular threats to reconquer the territory.
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev again condemned “Armenian occupation” of Karabakh when he met with a European Union envoy on Monday. He said Yerevan’s “hypocritical and unconstructive position” is the main obstacle to the conflict’s resolution. Sarkisian insisted earlier in this month, however, Baku’s “maximalist” demands are to blame for the lack of serious progress in Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks.
Born and raised in Stepanakert, Sarkisian was an active member of the 1988 movement. He commanded Karabakh Armenian forces in 1991-1992 and went on to become Armenia’s defense minister and hold other high-level positions in Yerevan.
The movement’s 30th anniversary was marked in Stepanakert earlier this week with official ceremonies attended by thousands of people.