Students protest against extended military conscription

On 29 November 2017, the President of the Republic of Armenia signed the new law on ‘military duty and military service’, which states that to get a military draft deferment, all male students must sign contracts with the Armenian ministry of defence and must agree to serve in the military for three years after completing their undergraduate studies.

Previously, male students who had been awarded a government scholarship had the right to postpone their military service until they finished their studies up to doctoral level and only had to serve for two years.

In addition, the new law states that male students will be required to attend military classes every Saturday from the second year of their studies. If they don't do this, students will be conscripted and will serve for two years in the army as soon as they turn 18 unless they suffer from significant health problems.

The new law was brought in to address what the government saw as corruption in the practice of students getting exemptions to delay military service.

Its adoption sparked protest from hundreds of students from different universities, several opposition parties and public figures in Armenia. They argued that adoption of the bill was not preceded by appropriate government-led research on the impact of the reform on higher education and that society, stakeholders and experts had not been consulted.

However, students attending the strike were threatened with being awarded low grades and with having their right to free education at some universities rescinded.

Education and development

A protest group, Science for Development, claims that the bill is a short-term and ineffective solution and will not address problems within the education and military sectors. Proponents of the legislation deny it will harm scientific development and that it will ensure fairer treatment of young men who do not receive draft deferments and exemptions.

The Science for Development initiative proposes that a limited number of military deferment places for students pursuing postgraduate degrees be allowed, taking into consideration the demands of the state, which still need to be determined.

It also proposes the postponement of the current parliamentary discussion around the Law on the Status of Military Servicemen and Conscripts and to make the two bills concordant. Taking into account the fact that students currently pursuing bachelor or masters degrees have legitimate expectations of military deferment for their further studies, the initiative also proposes that the places that have been available over the previous years continue to be so.

Finally, the initiative proposes that postgraduate students should not be subject to conscription after finishing their doctoral dissertations – even if they have not reached the age of 27, the upper age limit for conscription – as they are producers of scientific value.

Activist and member of Science for Development Vahan Kostanyan said: “They say that this bill will establish justice, but we don’t see a clear basis for this assertion. Loopholes will remain and statistics show that many young people avoid the army through the health system. This project will only bring harm to education and science. And education will be even less attractive.”

After several days of strikes and hunger strikes, it was proposed that students become involved in roundtable discussions with Armenian parliament members and government officials about the issues raised and what they think needs to be changed.

Several meetings have been held where students have presented their concerns, highlighting how this new bill would disrupt lifelong learning opportunities.

David Petrosian, one of the leaders of Science for Development, told lawmakers and representatives of the ministries of defence and education that the government should not seek to solve the country's military issues by sacrificing its educational ones.

Proposed amendments

Students have come up with two proposals that still need to be discussed by government representatives and lawmakers. They recommended that the government work out a flexible draft deferment policy that will help develop the country’s science and education system, will ensure the continuity of the education process and at the same time will address corruption around deferred military service for students.

Government representatives are convinced that all issues should be regulated by government decisions and sub-legislative acts.

Some of the sub-legislative acts it has put forward to amend the bill include extending students’ right to postpone their military service to citizens under the age of 19 who study abroad, as well as to students with remarkable talent whose GPA is 100 (the highest grade).

According to a decree from the minister of education and science, a commission will be created that will consider this proposal and whether to extend it to young people studying in industries recognised by the government as priorities.

Armenian students are still not satisfied and are worried about whether the further regulatory acts under this bill will satisfy our demands around the right to deferment for male students enrolled in higher education. The military defence of the country should never be achieved by sacrificing the right to free access to education and students' voices should never be repressed by illegal means and threats.

Mariam Yevdokimova is a member of the General Secretariat of the Armenian National Students’ Association.