Prime Minister Karen Karapetian defended on Thursday the Armenian military’s plans to draft more university students when he met with several organizers of continuing street protests against the measure.
Defense Minister Vigen Sargsian and Education Minister Levon Mkrtchian also took part in the meeting that lasted for about two hours. Mkrtchian met them separately on Wednesday.
The leaders of students boycotting classes said Karapetian did not accept their demands for the government to withdraw a controversial bill that would essentially scrap remaining draft deferments. In their words, he suggested instead that they propose amendments to the bill after it is passed by the Armenian parliament in the final reading.
“The opposite side did not share our view. Therefore, we will continue our struggle,” one of the protest leaders told more than a 100 fellow students rallying outside the prime minister’s office in Yerevan.
Another leader urged the students to continue the boycott that began on Tuesday. So far it has mainly affected classes in Yerevan State University (YSU), the largest and oldest in Armenia.
The protesters again gathered at the YSU campus earlier in the day, urging more students to join their campaign. They then marched to Karapetian’s office.
The main official rationale for the bill drafted by the Armenian Defense Ministry is to close a key loophole to avoiding compulsory military service. Officials say the measure would affect only about 15 percent of male students of state-run universities who are eligible for government scholarships. The other students, who pay tuition fees, are already drafted at the age of 18.
Critics say that the minority of studies must be able to continue their studies uninterrupted. They say that is essential for the development of science and scholarship in the country.
Defense Minister Sargsian has repeatedly dismissed such arguments. He has argued that only a small percentage of students qualifying for draft deferments pursue academic or scientific careers.
Deputy parliament speaker Eduard Sharmazanov, who is also the spokesman for the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), likewise said on Thursday that the bill will not hurt higher education in the country. He also insisted that most Armenian students do not back the protesters’ demands.
“There are dozens of universities in Armenia but there are rallies only in one of them and they involve only some of its students,” Sharmazanov told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “We have 87,000 students. How many of them are protesting?”