By Ruzanna Stepanian
The Armenian government was forced into an embarrassing retreat from its controversial bill on military service on Thursday amid increasingly vociferous protests by university students whom it wanted to draft without any further deferments.
The bill was unexpectedly withdrawn from parliament at the initiative of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian who admitted that his cabinet failed to win public support for its passage. In what might be interpreted as a stern rebuke to Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, he said that authors of the legislation should have explained its rationale to the public “in a timely and appropriate manner.” He said they should have been more receptive of concerns voiced by critics of the government plans to end military duty deferments and exemptions enjoyed by graduate students.
Markarian also attacked the Ministry of Science and Education for conspicuously avoiding any involvement in the intensifying row, describing its stance as “incomprehensible and unacceptable.”
The announcement came after Markarian’s consultations with President Robert Kocharian and a meeting leaders of hundreds of male students that have been boycotting university classes for more than a week. A government spokeswoman told RFE/RL that the authorities now plan to organize public discussions on the issue involving student representatives and senior academics. They will try to hammer out a mutually acceptable solution, she said.
The student leaders reacted cautiously to the move, demanding explicit guarantees that the draft law will not be reintroduced to the National Assembly in its current form. “We need a final assurance that the coalition forces running the government will not come up with such an initiative anymore,” one of them, Aram Ananian, told RFE/RL. He said Kocharian should personally make such a pledge.
Ananian added that the students’ big rally in central Yerevan planned for Friday will go ahead despite the obvious success of their smaller protests staged so far.
Hundreds of them staged on Wednesday a demonstrative walkout from a meeting with Sarkisian at Yerevan State University, protesting against his vocal support for the measure. The powerful minister, believed to be one of its initiators, brushed aside critics’ arguments that the interruption of post-graduate studies would damage Armenian science and higher education. He stated bluntly that the protesting students simply want to postpone or avoid altogether the two-year service which is obligatory for other male citizens.
Sarkisian’s reaction to Markarian’s decision was not immediately known.