Leaders of a pressure group protesting against a new legislation effectively scrapping draft deferments sought to downplay the opinion expressed by some officials that only a tiny minority of students is taking part in the protests as they gathered for their campaign again on Monday.
Several hundred students have been boycotting classes since last Tuesday, going around the campus of Yerevan State University, Armenia’s oldest and largest educational establishment, and urging their fellow-students to join their protest, as well as marching towards government building to show their disagreement with the bill already passed in its first reading late last month.
The bill stipulates that 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 students will be drafted to the army once they attain the age of 18.
The protesting students as well as several opposition parties in Armenia insist that the new government initiative seriously restricting the right to draft deferments will only harm the development of science in the country as most students will not pursue scientific careers after serving two or three years in the army. They acknowledge that there are corruption risks within the system, but insist that this situation should be addressed by the Ministry of Education and Science without the involvement of the Ministry of Defense.
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, they said they did not accept the prime minister’s offer to get involved in a group tasked with drafting dozens of government decisions that would be needed for the implementation of the law.
Amid the protests, Eduard Sharmazanov, a deputy speaker of parliament and a senior member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, said last week that the protesting students constituted only a tiny minority of all students in Armenia, whose number is 87,000. He said that only a few students were boycotting classes or joining street protests and all of them were from Yerevan State University.
On Monday, activists David Petrosian and Vahan Kostanian claimed that more of their fellow-students have jointed their boycott as they went to several faculties at the Yerevan State University campus and found empty class-rooms. They said that one does not have to come and stand next to them in the streets to show their position against the controversial legislation as boycotting classes was also a way of protest, albeit a ‘passive’ one.
“The mere fact that students boycott classes shows that they, too, participate in the protest in their own way," said Petrosian, who is one of the leaders of the group called “For Science Development” set up to oppose the controversial bill.
The vote on the bill in the second reading is due to take place on Tuesday and its passage appears a foregone conclusion considering that the ruling Republican Party of Armenia enjoys a comfortable majority in the legislature.
But Nataly Yoylian, one of the protesting students, believes that they will succeed in forcing the government to withdraw the legislation. “We are certain that the government will back down,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am) on Monday.