25 years have elapsed since the historic moment when Armenia regained independence. During the past two and a half decades ideas of independence and the people who once championed them were discredited to a certain degree, particularly against the background of heavy economic and social problems, which came instead of the expected prosperity. However back then these were cherished dreams of but a handful of people, mostly intellectuals, whom few would have understood, let alone followed in the “first social country of the world”.

Text: Tigran Zakaryan / Photos: Rouben Mangasaryan


The spirit of independence

It is to be admitted, despite the wide-spread opinion on the contrary, that there were ideas of independence in Soviet Armenia, although their role should not be exaggerated either.
The idea of independence was popular among certain individuals even as early as in 1950’s when the Soviet Union was just starting to awaken from its “deep Stalinism”. In 1955-1958 in the city of Gyumri (then Leninakan) a dissident group was active, which distributed leaflets with a call to create a “united and independent” Armenia. “Down with the deceitful communist dictatorship which is preventing reunification of our Armenian nation! Long live our free and independent state to come!” one of the leaflets said.
During the “thawing” years the Armenian people, along with others in the USSR, become more outspoken on its own rights, including the right to commemorate its greatest tragedy, the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire. Moscow initially tried to quell those sparks of national consciousness, however soon revised its course and started to cooperate and even channel those demands in a way which was in its own interest, underlining in particular, Tsarist and later Soviet Russia’s “decisive” role in “saving” Armenians from a complete destruction.
Nevertheless a handful of Armenians in the country of soviets challenged that image of Russia as a “savior” of their country and insisted on the idea – which by that time seemed delirious – that the solution of the Armenians’ national issue is not in a tightest union with Moscow under the USSR’s powerful umbrella, but in separating from it and creating an independent Armenian statehood.
The underground United National Party founded by Stepan Zatikyan and his associates (in 1966, according to other reports, in 1967) which distributed samizdat materials (the first issue of the journal “Paros” reportedly was in 5,000 copies) had a clearly articulated anti-Soviet position and placed national values at the top of agenda.
This was more dangerous to the Soviet authorities than the simple “nationalism” of which Kremlin functionaries sometimes accused certain Armenian party fellows or intellectuals, as they normally concentrated on the rights of Armenians as an ethnic group and never raised the issue of separation from the USSR. Zatikyan and his associated were soon arrested by the KGB and sentenced to prison terms. Meanwhile the KGB repressions did not stop after Zatikyan’ release from the prison. Following a series of mysterious explosions in Moscow Metro in 1977 Zatikyan and two others, accused of being his “accomplices” were charged of organizing terrorist acts. Zatikyan was sentenced to death and shot in 1979.
Then a young activist, Paryur Hayrikyan took the charge of the party, which was put an end to by new arrests. Hayrikyan reinvigorated the independents movement by founding his National Self-Determination Union in 1987 by the time when “glasnost” (relative freedom of speech) was officially a part of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies.


The epoch of glasnost, half-freedoms and halfhearted reforms under Gorbachev opened the Pandora Box of nationalism and unresolved problems of the past, which the Soviet leadership never managed to settle.
In Armenia as early as in 1987 under semi-legal conditions signatures were collected for a petition urging incorporating the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) into Soviet Armenia.
Since February 1988 in Yerevan rallies broke out in support of the wish of the NKAO, already expressed formally, to secede from the Azerbaijani SSR and become a part of the Armenian SSR. The mood in Moscow immediately expressed in the “central” (i.e. all-Soviet Union) media, particularly in the Central TV’s Vremya news program which called the protesters “extremists”, whose number by that time exceeded tens of thousands. Also the central authorities intervened into the ongoing anti-Armenian pogroms in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait with a “delay” of several days, which seemed an impossible occurrence under the over-centralized power structure in the country of soviets.

Nevertheless a public discussion of Armenia’s independence in 1988 seemed unrealistic. One can even remember discussions in early 1989 when arguments like “how many hours such an independent Armenia would survive next to Turkey?” seemed quite plausible. An argument following the same logic could be found, in somewhat modified version, in the current social and political discourse in Armenia. For the same reason the issue of independence was also by 1980’s downgraded in the agenda of the Diaspora, which traditionally was the hotbed of the ideas of a united and independent Armenia. After a long silence on the developments in the homeland, on 1 October 1988 ARF (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) Dashnaktsutyun, Hnchak and Ramkavar parties in a rare united move, speaking in the name of the Diaspora, in a statement called on the Armenians in homeland to “abstain from acts […] which could be perceived as a disloyalty towards Soviet authorities.” Such a passive stance of the diaspora parties, including of the ARF, which kept declaring independent Armenia as its aim, caused dismay both in Armenia and in some Diaspora circles.
Head of the US-based Zoryan Institute, Gerard (Jirair) Libaridian, for instance, as a sign of protest left the ARF, criticizing the party for their failure to realize the social and political reality in the homeland.
Soon the political parties in the Diaspora had to follow unfolding developments. When the movement for the independence of Armenia assumed an irreversible dimension, many realized that the myth on Diaspora as the main source and depository of Armenian nationalism until the homeland’s independence, was ruined. Hence Armenia became the centre of Armenian national policy where the nation was perceived not only and not that much as an abstract cultural and historical community but as a concrete social and political unit. In the meantime it would be exaggerated to state that early on the leader of the Karabakh movement and the people were mature for the idea of independence. The leaders rather followed the events in that direction, rather than preceded them. Almost a decade following the breakup of the USSR in an interview to the Dutch scholar Tomas de Waal, first Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosyan said that the idea of indepen dence was first seriously discussed only by summer 1989 after a strike of about one million of miners in Russia who put forward their politic al demands. “That is the time; we need to fight for independence. Also because it would have been too dangerous if we were not ready for that in case Soviet Union collapsed” Ter-Petrosyan recalled as quoted by De Waal.

The very idea of independence, in Ter-Petrosyan’s words split the Karabakh movement. Intellectuals and political activists like Silva Kaputikyan, Zori Balayan and Igor Muradyan who were concentrating only on the idea of Karabakh’s integration into Soviet Armenia, left the movement.
Certain individuals, on the contrary, were well ahead of the leaders of the Karabakh movement in the matter of independence. Movses Gorgisyan (in the future he became one of the first victims of the starting war with Azerbaijan) from the NSDU on 28 May 1988, the day when the first republic was proclaimed in 1918, in the Freedom Square of Yerevan flew the national tricolor as a symbol of the demand for independence.
Movements in Armenia were developing along with other processes, namely, the fall of the Berlin wall, demise of pro-Moscow regimes in Central Europe and an intensification of nationalist and democratic demands inside the USSR. Even Russia’s first congress of people’s deputies adopted a declaration on the state sovereignty of the RSFSR on 12 June 1990, which widely opened the door for similar developments in other Soviet republics.
On 24 November 1988 the Supreme Soviet (parliament) of the Armenian SSR passed a resolution dismissing all Soviet Central authorities’ decisions and laws in the territory of Armenia unless they were approved by local authorities. Moscow immediately responded this by sending troops who effectively took power in Armenia for several months. Leaders of the Karabakh movements were arrested while Karabakh’s autonomy was suppressed.

Things changed in spring 1989 when the jailed leaders of the movement were set free and the topic of independence started to be discussed openly. Armenian negotiators, according to Vazgen Manukyan, a prominent leader of the Karabakh movement, made it clear to the authorities in Kremlin that if the central authorities resolve the Karabakh issue in line with Armenian demands, the demands for independence could be dropped. The “Karabakh for independence” barter did not take place (whereas it effectively took place in the case of Azerbaijan) as Moscow was increasingly losing its own leverages of power and even could not, or did not wish to, lift the blockade imposed on Armenia by Azerbaijan since summer 1989.
Under the given circumstances Armenia anyway found itself alone in resolving its vital problems. It was forced to think about setting up an Armenian national army after armed confrontations on the border with Azerbaijan as well as in Karabakh. In fact a parallel power along with the Soviet power existed in Armenia on the eve of the parliamentary elections on 20 May 1990, which was a remarkable success for Ter-Petrosyan’s Armenian All-National Movement.
Ter-Petrosyan became the speaker of the newly elected parliament, thus assuming the office number one in Armenia, putting an end to 70 years of Communist rule in the country. On 23 April 1990 the Declaration on Independence was adopted which marked independence merely as an aim, also changing the country’s formal attributes, such as the name (suppressing the words Soviet Socialist), national flag etc. Armenia, along with the Baltic states, Georgia and Moldova did not take part in the referendum on preserving the Soviet Union held on 17 March 1991, thus declaring on its firm stance in seceding from the disintegrating USSR. Instead a decision was passed to hold a referendum on Armenia’s independence. Paruyr Hayrikyan and some other radical politicians were advocating for immediate declaration of independence however the failed putsch in August 1991 showed that the centre still was potentially dangerous. The strong anti-independence stance of the coup leaders was clearly demonstrated during the short period of the putsch, when according to observers a shift to brutally suppressive actions by Soviet troops in Karabakh was remarkable.
After the failed coup the prospects for independence became much more realistic and the people of Armenia almost unanimously voted for it in the referendum on 21 September. The Belavezha agreement between the Slavic republics, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, which were the core of the Soviet Union, sealed the fate of possibly the greatest utopia in history which cost millions of lives of many nationalities, including of Armenians.
Currently as we throw back our view to the history of last quarter of a century we can remark the striking naivety which was present during the referendum. To most people born under the Soviet power, with some knowing Stalinism by their personal experience, the ideas of civil rights were understandably foreign. However the referendum was a choice which gave a chance for a better future of Armenia at least ensuring its external security, which was by that time becoming increasingly problematic.
The citizens of Armenia living in the second decade of the XXI century have a mission which is like a referendum on daily basis. It is up to them and their daily “referenda” to decide whether they should live in a law-governed, independent, socially protected and safe society or not.