Armenia: Students Protest, Declare Hunger Strike Over Draft Deferment Bill
Changes in Armenia’s military conscription laws have resulted in large-scale protests among students in the country, including a small group who have announced a hunger strike.
On November 15, Armenia’s parliament passed a law significantly altering the practice of allowing young men to defer their mandatory two years of military service if they enter the university. The bill will require young men who want to delay serving to sign an agreement with the Defense Ministry promising to join the army upon finishing their studies. After graduating, they will be required to serve for three years in a location and under conditions determined by the Ministry.
The new deferment bill comes as part of a broader program to more deeply integrate the Armenian military into society. Officials argue that the program is necessary for a country where any citizen may need to serve as soldier, given Armenia’s longstanding, simmering conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan.
However, rights activists worry that the bill will further militarize the country. They note that, according to a study by the Bonn International Center for Conversion, Armenia is already the third most militarized country on earth after Israel and Singapore.
Hundreds of students at Yerevan State University and the Yerevan State Conservatory have protested the change in the law over the last several days. On November 14, David Petrosyan and four members of “In The Name of Developing Science” — a protest group he coordinates — locked themselves in a YSU classroom and declared an open-ended hunger strike.
The student strikers argue that the new deferment bill could harm the development of science in Armenia. Hunger striker Petrosyan alleges that parliament does not want the students’ voices to be heard and aims to prevent them from being present for the debate on the bill. He and the four other protesters launched their hunger strike to coincide with the draft law’s second reading.
They would also like to attract more students to their cause. “The civic apathy that has spread among us is very regrettable,” Petrosyan told Radio Azatutyun through the door of the classroom where he and his co-strikers had barricaded themselves. They say they would end the hunger strike once parliament halts debate on the draft law.
While the demonstrators admit that some people use education to avoid military service, Petrosyan insists that the protest is about fairness, not dodging civic duty. He notes that, of the five hunger strikers, four have already served in the army.
But not everyone sympathizes with the strikers. Few professors have reportedly joined in supporting the students. “The Armenian youth are conducting a demonstration in order not to serve in the army,” Marat Grigoryan, Dean of the Faculty of Geography and Geology at YSU, told JAMnews, terming the protests “shameful.”
“This is a violation of justice, where some must serve in the army and others don’t have to,” he added.
Meanwhile, during the November 14 parliamentary debate, MP Hayk Babukhanyan from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia claimed that George Soros had inspired the student protests, even providing a grant of $20,000 to a local non-governmental organization to support them.
After the law was passed, hundreds more students gathered outside parliament and vowed to continue protesting.