YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — Amid continuing protests the Armenian parliament on Wednesday passed in its second and final reading a controversial bill that, in particular, restricts the rights of students to draft deferments.
Eighty-six members of the 105-seat National Assembly dominated by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia and its junior coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), voted in favor of the legislation, with six lawmakers voting against it.
The votes against the bill came from the opposition Yelk faction, whose representative Ararat Mirzoyan before the ballot called on his fellow parliamentarians to vote against the legislation that has sparked protests among students.
Hundreds of students of Yerevan State University, Armenia’s largest and oldest educational establishment, as well as students from some other universities have held protests against the legislation under which in order to get a draft deferment all male students who want to pursue their studies must sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense and agree to serve three years in the military after completing their studies at the location chosen by the Ministry. Otherwise, the legislation stipulates, the students will be drafted to the army once they attain the age of 18 to serve for two years.
The protesting students as well as several opposition political parties and public figures in Armenia believe this measure will only harm the development of science in the country as it will imply interruptions in the education process or will otherwise discourage the few students who want to pursue scientific careers from entering post-graduate studies.
To discuss the situation, representatives of the protesting students met with Prime Minister Karen Karapetian, Education Minister Levon Mkrtchian and Defense Minister Vigen Sargsian last week. After the meetings, however, students continued their protests, including the boycott of classes, saying that they were not satisfied with the government’s approach.
Five members of the group called “For Science Development” locked themselves in a lecture room at Yerevan State University on Tuesday, declaring they had gone on a hunger strike. One of the protesters felt bad and was attended to by ambulance medics later that day. Four of the activists continued their hunger strike, refusing to leave the room despite calls from the university’s rector. They, however, joined the protest outside the parliament building today.
Activists who rallied in front of the National Assembly in Yerevan today said they were determined to continue their struggle despite the adoption of the law.
Defense Minister Sargsian, who initiated the legislation as part of his Nation-Army doctrine, and other government officials say the main purpose of the legislation is not to man the military, but to restore justice among those male students who get draft deferments and exemptions from military service and those who don’t. They believe the new law on army service and the status of servicemen will not harm science in any way, but will only eliminate corruption by closing a key loophole to avoiding compulsory military service.