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Armenian Defense Ministry Takes The Offensive To Close Deferment Loophole


University students in Yerevan protest on November 9 against government plans to largely abolish military draft deferments.

The Armenian military has set its sights on potential conscripts who may not be so eager to join its ranks, giving students an offer they literally can no longer find a way to refuse.

If the army has its way, certain university students would no longer be able to defer the country's mandatory two-year military service until after they finish school, which currently opens a slight window to dodge the draft in perpetuity.

Under a new bill proposed by the Defense Ministry, everyone would face the same choice: either sign up for three years of service or be drafted into the military when you turn 18.

The draft legislation, if approved, would close a loophole that allows some university students to defer service. Critics, many of them students, are fighting the idea.

Some fear academics in the Caucasus nation of 3 million will suffer if the bill passes. Some fear it signals the creeping militarization of society. And then there are the common concerns -- the very real prospect of war, the sometimes deadly hazing within the military -- that lead many young Armenian men to try to avoid service in the first place.

Education Minister Levon Mkrtchian (right) meets on November 8 with representatives of students protesting against government plans to scrap draft deferments.
Education Minister Levon Mkrtchian (right) meets on November 8 with representatives of students protesting against government plans to scrap draft deferments.

Hundreds of students at Yerevan State University have held daily protests outside the school since the start of November, and dozens are boycotting classes. On November 14, several students took things to a new level by announcing a hunger strike.

Backers of the bill say it will affect a small percentage of male students -- about 15 percent -- at state-run universities who are eligible, or have received, government scholarships who can currently defer military service until they end their studies. They say it will stop the "trade" in scholarships they claim many of the country’s elite secure to avoid the army.

Despite the backlash, the Armenian parliament on November 15 passed the legislation on a second and final reading.

Eighty-six members of the 105-seat National Assembly dominated by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia and its junior coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), voted in favor of the legislation, with six lawmakers -- all from the opposition Yelk faction -- voting against it.

President Serzh Sarkisian has expressed his support for the bill and is expected to sign it into law.

If and when he does, the law will come into effect in January 2021, meaning that it will not apply to students who have already been granted deferments.

Things are far from clear at this point, however. After the vote in parliament, student leaders announced they were suspending their protest action pending a "roundtable" discussion on the bill with government officials sometime next week.

Students demonstrate outside Yerevan State University on November 8. Students are wary the Armenian military will send them to Nagorno-Karabakh or another potential hot spot.
Students demonstrate outside Yerevan State University on November 8. Students are wary the Armenian military will send them to Nagorno-Karabakh or another potential hot spot.

The proposal comes a year after some of the worst violence over Nagorno-Karabakh -- the ethnic Armenian-populated breakaway region of Azerbaijan that was the cause of a deadly war between Armenia and Azerbaijan -- since a cease-fire was worked out in 1994. In April 2016, nearly 100 were killed over the course of four days of intense fighting.

Ethnic Armenian fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh, who receive backing from Yerevan, lost control of some of the territory that Armenia and Azerbaijan have disputed for decades.

The development put the Armenian military on the hot seat, with critics both in the public and politics questioning its ability to defend the country’s interests.

Since then, Sarkisian and his government have talked about the need to overhaul the country’s military, based on a so-called "army-nation" model.

"The Armenian Army has been in a deep crisis for a number of years," says Olesya Vartanian, a South Caucasus analyst at the International Crisis Group.

"The government generally supports a deeper militarization of society, and this law project is part of this plan. The reforms discussed plan to merge everyday life with military service – the so-called 'army-society' model," Vartanian said in an e-mail response.

With this hunger strike, we are trying to show citizens that their voice matters. Public apathy that has spread among us is very sad. With this action, we hope to play a part in overcoming this apathy."
-- Protest leader David Petrosian

Defense Minister Vigen Sargsian has also repeatedly stated that the new bill is aimed at restoring equality when it comes to male students who get draft deferments and exemptions from military service and those who don’t.

Education Minister Levon Mkrtchian has insisted that it will not hamper the development of science and scholarship in the country, a concern expressed by some critics.

In an apparent reference to Israel, he has argued that science and technology has "spiked" in other countries that have not had draft deferments.

Besides, he told reporters earlier this month, "if we look at who has pursued and obtained doctoral degrees [in Armenia] and how many of them have stayed in science, we won’t see a nice picture."

Meanwhile, the protests seem to be gaining some traction.

RFE/RL journalist Karlen Aslanian speaks with David Petrosian, who together with four other protesters went on a hunger strike inside a locked lecture room of Yerevan State University on November 14.
RFE/RL journalist Karlen Aslanian speaks with David Petrosian, who together with four other protesters went on a hunger strike inside a locked lecture room of Yerevan State University on November 14.

Five members of the protest group For Science Development locked themselves inside a lecture hall at Yerevan State University on November 14, saying they would stop their hunger strike only after the bill is withdrawn from parliament. A day later, however, they joined the protests outside the university, even as they vowed to continue their hunger strike.

One of the protest leaders, David Petrosian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that they were stepping up their efforts after parliament ignored their concerns over the bill and scheduled a second reading of the legislation.

"Besides, with this hunger strike we are trying to show citizens that their voice matters," said Petrosian. "Public apathy that has spread among us is very sad. With this action, we hope to play a part in overcoming this apathy."

Petrosian, who already served in the army, said that three other students in the five-member group had also completed their military service.

"Four of us have served in the army. And by this we want to prove that this is a movement for fairness and justice," he says.

According to RFE/RL's Armenian Service, about three dozen students from the Yerevan State Conservatory have also joined.

Students are especially wary that, if they sign a three-year contract, the Armenian military would send them to Nagorno-Karabakh or another potential hot spot.

Many also fear hazing that could await them from within their own ranks.

In its World Report 2016
, Human Rights Watch said that "Armenian rights groups reported that violence among conscripts and a higher number of noncombat deaths remain concerns."

The Safe Soldiers database from the Armenian activist group Peace Dialogue records fatalities in the Armenian armed forces.

According to the database, from 2010 to 2016, the Armenian armed forces (including the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army) suffered a total of 472 fatalities.

This number includes 133 fatalities during frequent cease-fire violations and 80 during the April 2016 Four-Day War, the bloodiest clashes on the Armenian-Azerbaijani line of contact since 1994.

Other causes of death recorded by the Safe Soldiers database are: suicide, murder, health issues, violations of safety rules, negligence, and "undefined."

However, few if any defense officials or their supporters in the government appear eager to tackle hazing.

Ending deferrals for university students, meanwhile -- many of whom are seen to be from elite families -- is popular with the general public.

"In my opinion, this is probably not the best way to reform Armenia's army, but might be the cheapest way, with results in a shorter period of time," explains Vartanian. "Otherwise, the government would need to invest in profound military reform, including in education. That would lead to changes in the system [only after] a decade or so."

Politicians, she says, can't wait that long. "This is all about money and time."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Tony Wesolowsky, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian Service
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