Harutiunian has faced in recent weeks small-scale street protests staged by various extra-parliamentary opposition groups and activists. They are particularly unhappy with new guidelines for the teaching of Armenian history, literature and other subjects in schools, which were issued by his ministry this summer.
The protesters claim that those guidelines are at odds at with traditional Armenian values. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports denies this and cites the need to update school curricula.
Harutiunian defended his policies at a news conference on Wednesday. He said that the ministry has been constructively discussing the guidelines with teachers across the country and has received more than 2,000 proposals from them. He also claimed that some veteran academics oppose the declared reforms because they have been stripped of lavish funding that had been provided to them by Armenia’s former government.
The two opposition groups represented in the parliament added their voice to the calls for Harutiunian’s resignation. They forced later on Wednesday a parliament debate on their proposal to petition Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian to sack the minister and his longtime political ally.
The National Assembly rejected the motion by 84 votes to 35. Deputies from Pashinian’s My Step bloc, which controls 88 parliament seats, voiced strong support for the embattled minister during the debate.
Their colleagues representing the opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK) accused Harutiunian of mismanaging the country’s education system. One of them, Gevorg Gorgisian, alleged that the current authorities are bullying and firing schoolteachers for political reasons.
Harutiunian, who is a senior member of My Step, strongly denied that. “For the past 30 years our teachers have never been as free as they are now,” declared the 41-year-old former university lecturer.
Harutiunian went on to trade insults with lawmakers from the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), who charged that he promoted “perversion” by meeting with a transgender activist in his office in 2018. He hit back by seemingly pointing to BHK leader Gagik Tsarukian’s past criminal record.
A Soviet Armenian court had convicted Tsarukian of involvement in a 1979 gang rape of two women outside Yerevan and sentenced him to 7 years in prison. Newly independent Armenia’s Court of Cassation overturned the guilty verdict in the mid-1990s.
The BHK’s parliamentary group condemned Harutiunian and boycotted the government’s ensuing question-and-answer session in the National Assembly in protest.
Pashinian endorsed Harutiunian’s thinly veiled attack on Tsarukian the following morning. “It’s hard to disagree with the minister,” he wrote on Facebook.
Tsarukian responded by calling for a constitutional amendment that would bar “individuals with serious mental problems” from holding high-level government posts.
Tsarukian, who is also a wealthy businessman, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution and charged with vote buying in June. He strongly denies the accusation, saying that Pashinian ordered it in response to his calls for the government’s resignation.