President Serzh Sarkisian criticized on Monday youth activists protesting against his government’s decision to essentially abolish temporary exemptions from military service that have long been enjoyed by many students of state-run universities.
Speaking at Yerevan State University, he indicated that the government will not scrap a corresponding bill passed by the Armenian parliament last month despite a series of protests staged by several hundred students.
“No matter how much students tell us to publicly ask citizens of the Republic of Armenia to take pity on us and defend the homeland, we will not do such a thing because the homeland is not only ours, the homeland is everyone’s,” Sarkisian said in a clear reference to the organizers of the protests.
“We have no problem with student activism,” he went on. “We have no problem with listening to any proposal. But I believe that now is the time for each of us to perform their duties first and only then teach others how they should perform their duties.”
One of the protest leaders, Yuri Avagian, rejected the criticism. He argued in particular that he and some of the other student leaders have served in the Armenian army. Avagian also said that the government rejected all major proposals submitted by the protesters during discussions held last month.
Avagian and another student activist, Davit Petrosian, went on a short hunger strike last week in a bid to renew their campaign against the bill. Avagian said on Monday that the campaign will continue. But he could not say what forms it will take.
Draft-age male students having government scholarships have until now been allowed to perform the two-year military 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 main author of the controversial bill, said during parliament debates in October that it will close a key loophole for evading military service and reduce “corruption risks” among military and university officials.
The protesting students, backed by the opposition Yelk alliance, say the new rules will prevent many students from becoming scientists or scholars.