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Armenia: Ruling On 'State Symbols' In Schools Bucks Larger Trend

The Armenian Ministry of Education has ordered secondary schools to post portraits of President Robert Kocharian during the new academic year. Already under fire for its policies concerning religions other than the Armenian Apostolic Church, the government also directed schools to hang pictures of the church's head, Catholicos Garegin. RFE/RL reports that the obligatory display of state symbols in schools runs counter to a general trend in Europe away from such practices.

Prague, 26 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Armenian Ministry of Education early this month ordered that President Robert Kocharian's portrait be hung in secondary schools during the current academic year.

The directive comes from Education Minister Levon Mkrtchian, who is a senior member of the Dashnaktsutyun Party, or Armenian Revolutionary Federation Party, which supports the president.

But Mkrtchian's ministry denies that his order has any connection with presidential elections coming up in February. Deputy Education Minister Aida Topuzian said the ministry merely is hoping to boost civic consciousness and patriotism among the country's 530,000 students aged between 6 and 17 years.

Mkrtchian himself told RFE/RL that the goal is to instill patriotic feeling. "This is not compulsion. It just shows that this is the Armenian state, because the Armenian state maintains the schools. We should instill patriotic feelings in our children," Mkrtchian said.

The ministry's order has stirred little concern in Armenia, but conversations with educators and education officials in other countries show that compulsory displays of state symbols run counter to the general trend in Europe.

A longtime educator in France, for example, said she cannot recall ever having seen a public official's portrait in a public school. Such a display, she said, certainly has not been required in recent years.

But in the Czech Republic, the custom since the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire has been that portraits of the head of state hang in school classrooms. President Vaclav Havel's picture adorns many school walls today. But such displays have not been mandatory since communist times. The Education Ministry's Tomas Grec said: "The tradition arose a long time ago during the reign of Emperor Franz Josef. This is a long tradition. There is no decree concerning having presidents' portraits in the classrooms."

In Armenia, Kocharian faces a potentially tough challenge in next year's elections. Earlier this month, 16 opposition groups and parties announced that they have formed a coalition with the one common goal being to oust Kocharian. The opposition accused Kocharian of trying, "to retain and reproduce his power at any cost."

Kocharian took office as Armenian president the month following the resignation of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, who resigned in February 1998 in a conflict over the Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Kocharian is a native of Nagorno-Karabakh and served as the enclave's president from 1996-98. He is a Soviet Army veteran and a former communist.

The Education Ministry decree is not confined to Kocharian portraits. It also requires that Armenia's red-blue-and-orange flag be displayed, as well as pictures of Catholicos Garegin, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

In Russia, such compulsory displays are a thing of the past. Russian Education Ministry spokesman Vladimir Ustenko said that before the Bolshevik Revolution, schools were expected to hang likenesses of the tsar. In Soviet days, Lenin's portrait was seen everywhere, and Stalin's was required until the beginning of the thaw that followed his death in 1953. Now, Ustenko said emphatically, it is strictly a matter of choice. "No one has issued any kind of order [about official portraits]. But whoever wants to hang them [can], and -- good grief -- those who don't want to, don't. There's not much fuss about that these days," Ustenko said.

In the United States, public schools are operated by state and local authorities. Educators often display the U.S. flag and sometimes official photographs of the president or governor. But there is no national requirement for such displays. John See, spokesman for the National Education Association, said to his knowledge, "it's just a common practice." He said it is not legally mandated, "certainly not by federal law." But, "there may be some local, and even state, requirements," See said.

One aspect of the Armenian Education Ministry's decree is at even greater variance with general practice throughout Europe and the United States: that is the requirement for portraits of the head of the church to be displayed. Most Western states strive to maintain a separation between religions and public institutions, including schools. But Armenia's official favoritism toward the Armenian Apostolic Church has drawn widespread international comment and is to be a topic of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly this week.

The Armenian government restricts minority religions from seeking new converts, and the history of the Armenian Apostolic Church is a required school subject.