An Armenian youth activist went on hunger strike on Monday in protest against the government’s controversial decision to essentially abolish temporary exemptions from military service that have long been enjoyed by many students of state-run universities.
The activist, Davit Petrosian, was one of the organizers of a series of street demonstrations held by disgruntled students this fall. The protests did not stop the Armenian parliament from passing a relevant government bill.
Petrosian and several other protesting students already went on hunger strike on November 14. Although the bill was passed in the second and final reading the following day they ended the protest and agreed to hold talks with representatives of the government and the National Assembly.
The first such meeting took place on November 22, with the protest leaders submitting proposals relating to an Armenian law on compulsory military service. Government officials insisted afterwards that the amended law will not undergo more changes.
Announcing the fresh hunger strike in a video message posted on the Internet, Petrosian complained that the government has refused to make any major concessions. He dismissed government assurances that students boasting “remarkable achievements” will be exempt from military service on a case-by-case basis.
Draft-age male students having government scholarships have until now been allowed to perform the two-year service after completing their undergraduate or graduate studies. Under the amended law, draft deferments will be granted only to those students who will agree to undergo parallel military training and serve in the Armenian army as officers for three years after graduation.
Defense Minister Vigen Sargsian, the key author of the controversial bill, said during parliament debates in October that it would close a key loophole for evading military service and reduce “corruption risks” among military and university officials. He said that less than one-fifth of recipients of such deferments have eventually served in the army.
Other officials argued that the vast majority of male students have already been drafted to the armed forces in the past several years because of having to pay tuition fees.
The protesting students, backed by the opposition Yelk alliance, say the new rules will prevent many students from becoming scientists or scholars. They also say that the amended law will not prevent sons of many senior government officials, pro-government politicians and wealthy businesspeople from dodging military service.
Joined by another student, Petrosian began the hunger strike inside an auditorium of Yerevan State University (YSU), the focal point of the recent protests.The YSU rector, Aram Simonian, criticized the protest action as “untimely” and said it “cannot have any positive outcome.”
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), Simonian also said that Petrosian and other protest leaders attended last week a conference in Poland organized by U.S. philanthropist George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. “They probably got some assignments there,” he claimed.
Vahan Hovtanian, another protest organizer, laughed off Simonian’s claim.