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Armenia Approves Controversial Foreign-Language School Bill

YEREVAN -- Armenia's National Assembly has adopted a controversial government bill allowing the existence of a limited number of foreign-language schools in Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

The bill entailing amendments to two Armenian laws met with fierce resistance from opposition and civic groups as well as prominent public figures after it was unveiled by the government in May. Critics say it will jeopardize the constitutionally guaranteed status of Armenian as the country's sole official language.

The outcry led the government to water down the proposed amendments before pushing them through parliament in the first reading in June. In particular, the government agreed to restrict to two the number of foreign-language private schools allowed.

The altered bill also stipulates that up to nine small foreign-language high schools can be opened elsewhere in Armenia in accordance with inter-governmental agreements signed on a case-by-case basis.

The changes failed to satisfy critics, who have staged street protests outside the parliament and government buildings in Yerevan. They have vowed more protests and legal action against the bill.

"The law contains no threat to our national identity, the preservation of the Armenian language, or the development of our national school [system]," Education Minister Armen Ashotian told RFE/RL after parliament wrapped up final debate on the issue on December 21.

Parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian said the government has addressed critics' concerns and echoed government arguments that foreign-language schools will help reverse the post-Soviet decline in educational standards. "We will be more flexible in the organization of education, more competitive, and more receptive to the best international education programs," Abrahamian said during the debates.

The two opposition parties represented in the 131-member legislature remained adamant in rejecting the bill. "With this package, we are clearing the way for the entry of [foreign] sects into our language sphere as well," said Artsvik Minasian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). "And this is a matter of national security."

All two dozen lawmakers affiliated with the Dashnaktsutyun and Zharangutyun parties boycotted the vote. But it was backed by 69 other deputies representing the parliament's pro-government majority.