YEREVAN, Soviet Union — Amid the jubilation of a brand-new holiday christened Armenian Independence Day, almost 2 million voters in this Caucasus Mountain republic cast their ballots Saturday in favor of breaking away from the Soviet Union.
Although the formal results of the referendum were not available by late Saturday, officials said that more than 85% of those eligible had voted and that the number required for approval--two-thirds of the electorate--was assured.
"Maybe three or four people voted against it," one Armenian parliamentary deputy joked.
Even as Armenia celebrated, however, efforts to negotiate a settlement of its bloody dispute with the neighboring republic of Azerbaijan encountered new difficulties. At issue is the embattled region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave within predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan that is populated largely by Christian Armenians.
Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, leading a peace mission to the area, proposed restoring Nagorno-Karabakh to its status as a fully autonomous region--the same status that it had before 1988.
Yeltsin said that Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has the authority to change Nagorno-Karabakh's status by presidential decree. But Azerbaijani officials, in opposition to Yeltsin's proposal, asserted that only their Parliament has the authority to change the region's status.
Here in Armenia's capital Saturday, independence and not Nagorno-Karabakh was the first thing on most people's minds. Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, anticipating a massive vote for independence, called on foreign leaders to recognize his country's sovereignty.
"If they don't recognize it, they will be acting unjustly," he told reporters at his local polling station Saturday morning.
Ter-Petrosyan said that the Armenian Parliament plans to declare independence Monday and that Armenia would then be open to negotiations for retaining economic and other links--but only as a fully sovereign nation--with the Soviet central government and any other republics that press ahead to full independence.
The Soviet Union recognized the independence of the three Baltic republics--Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania--earlier this month, and eight of the 12 remaining Soviet republics had proclaimed their independence before Saturday. However, Armenia is the first to carry out a referendum on independence according to the requirements of Soviet law.
Throughout the Armenian capital, its pinkish stone buildings bright in the September sun, residents spent Saturday celebrating the referendum's expected outcome with street music, balloons, speeches and wild motorcades flying the vivid orange, red and blue of the national flag.
On Opera Square in the city center, construction worker Eduard Chakhoyan was already introducing his son and daughter to the new holiday.
"We don't know the results yet, but we are sure the referendum will pass," Chakhoyan said. "And from today on, we'll always have an independence day, and Armenia will be different, and its people will be different too."
The feeling of freedom, he said, "is like a stone has been lifted off your soul."
At Elementary School No. 67 in central Yerevan, voting booths were decorated in frilly blue curtains, and the ballot box was decked in satin. By 10 a.m., 400 of the district's 1,300 voters had already come in. The school's staff decided to take a breakfast break that looked more like a celebratory feast.
Over bread, fruit and sausage, election commission member Geram Mikaelian raised his glass of smooth Armenian brandy and proposed a toast:
"I want to drink to the collapse of the last empire. And may the entire planet now live free, and everyone be masters of their own rivers and mountains and valleys."
Aida Kazaryan, the school's director, said some of the district's voters had crossed out the "no" on the ballot so hard they had torn through the paper.
Robert Vartanyan, a factory manager, took his grandson to the polling station to prepare him for his future career. "This is the president of Armenia in the year 2010," he said proudly. "Write his name down--Robert Ovsipyan."
In the euphoria of the moment, Yerevan's celebrators put their economic privations out of their thoughts and said the future would inevitably be better than the present.
"Our spiritual independence will be restored," said Armen Elbakian, director of the republic's musical comedy theater. "The main thing is not just that there be things on the store shelves, but that a person feel master in his own land."
Armenia, the smallest of the 12 remaining Soviet republics with a population of only 3.2 million on largely arid land, suffers from typical Soviet food and fuel shortages made worse by frequent blockades on a main railroad supply route that runs through neighboring, hostile Azerbaijan.