At least a hundred university students in Yerevan boycotted classes on Tuesday in protest against the Armenian government’s plans to largely abolish temporary exemptions from military service enjoyed by most of them.
The protesters rallied outside the main building of Yerevan State University (YSU), demanding a meeting with Education Minister Levon Mkrtchian. They marched to other YSU buildings after Mkrtchian and other Education Ministry officials declined to meet with their representatives.
Male students of state-run Armenian university eligible for government scholarships have until now been allowed to perform compulsory military service after completing their undergraduate, graduate or post-graduate studies.
Under a government bill passed by the Armenian parliament in the first reading late last month, draft deferments would be granted only to those students who would agree to undergo parallel military training and serve in the army as officers for three years after graduation. The Armenian Defense Ministry, which drafted the bill, says that that this would close a key loophole for evading military service and reduce “corruption risks” among military and university officials.
Government officials also argue that more than 80 percent of 18-year-old Armenian men enrolled in state universities are already drafted to the armed forces because they pay tuition fees. Letting the other students continue their studies uninterrupted is unfair, they say.
Critics say the measure would prevent many students from becoming scientists or scholars. They say it would also not stop the sons of many senior government officials, pro-government politicians and wealthy businesspeople from dodging military service.
“Yes, we admit that there is corruption in the education system, but we also think that problems existing within the education system must be addressed within the system,” said one of the protesting students.
The protesters, among them female students, tried to enter some YSU departments in a bid to get more students to join their campaign. They found the entrance doors of most of those departments locked from inside, however. Students attending classes there were thus unable to leave the buildings.
Marat Grigorian, the dean of the YSU’s Geography and Geology Department, criticized the protest and backed the controversial bill, which is expected to be passed in the final reading next week. “That bill won’t hurt higher education,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatuyun.am).
Ruben Melkonian, who runs the YSU’s Department of Oriental Studies, was also critical of the boycott. Still, he said the students have a legitimate right to voice their demands and concerns.