By Ruzanna Stepanian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian was publicly snubbed on Wednesday by hundreds of angry university students protesting at his government’s plans to abolish their deferments and exemptions from compulsory military service.
The protesters demonstratively cut short their meeting with Sarkisian at Yerevan State University (YSU) after he strongly defended the controversial measure and ruled out any concessions.
“Everything is just a pretext to dodge the military draft,” the powerful minister told them bluntly, brushing aside arguments against drafting male university graduates before they can complete their studies on the post-graduate level.
The students and many top academics claim that the propose change would deal a serious blow Armenia’s science and system of higher education that have already suffered heavily from the post-Soviet lack of government funding. They say many young men would lose interest in studying for a master’s degree or doctorate after spending two years in the Armenian Armed Forces.
Sarkisian countered that if the government were to follow this logic it would have to stop drafting young men with other important occupations. “Why should a painter serve in the army?” he said. “We shouldn’t interrupt painting, should we? [According to your logic] doctors, musicians and teachers shouldn’t serve either. But who is going to defend this country?”
The Defense Ministry and other government agencies argue that the existing law is conducive to bribery among university officials in charge of graduate admissions. Many male students are believed to enroll in the state-funded programs to delay their draft or avoid it altogether.
Sarkisian went on to declare that an even fairer solution would be to scrap all kinds of service deferments, including those enjoyed by undergraduate students. “I am deeply convinced that every young Armenian must serve in the army once he turns 18. I don’t care whether this bill will be passed or not because it is incomplete.”
Sarkisian repeated his pledge to ensure that army conscripts with post-graduate degrees are able to use and develop their knowledge in the military. Challenged by one doctoral student of linguistics to explain how exactly he could fit into the Armenian military, the minister noted that he himself had earned a degree in Armenian philology from YSU before becoming the commander of Nagorno-Karabakh’s army in the war with Azerbaijan.
The university’s overcrowded conference hall became nearly empty mid-way through the meeting after the bulk of the students walked out, shouting and whistling in an apparent protest at Sarkisian’s intransigence. Their leaders told them leave the auditorium and attend a separate indoors gathering of the protesters held across the street.
Participants of the emotional meeting vowed to continue to boycott university classes until their demands are met. There were again female students among them. One of them drew cheers when she said, “There is a loss of faith and a sense among the students that they can not change anything. No, we can and we will.”
The students plan to hold a demonstration in Yerevan on Friday. The government, however, appears determined to quickly push the proposed legislation through parliament. It might be debated by lawmakers as early as next week.
The three parties that hold the majority of seats in the National Assembly and are represented in the executive largely support the controversial initiative. Their leaders are expected to meet in the coming days for more detailed discussions on the subject.
One of those parties, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), spoke out Wednesday in favor of delaying the parliament debate. Dashnaktsutyun’s parliamentary leader, former Education Minister Levon Mkrtchian, said the government should do a better job of explaining the wisdom of the change to the public. He also called for amendments that would rule out the bill’s retroactive impact on university graduates.
“The best solution would be to draft everyone aged 18 into the army,” said another Dashnaktsutyun leader, deputy parliament speaker Vahan Hovannisian.
Meanwhile, one of the authors of the bill, Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian, admitted that combating university corruption is not the sole purpose of the initiative. “There are issues which can not be discussed openly in journalists’ presence,” he told RFE/RL without elaborating.
(Photolur photo: Students raising their hands to put questions to Sarkisian.)