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Armenian Students Protest Conscription Drive

Postgraduates no longer automatically let off serving in the military.
By Hasmik Hambardzumyan

Students in Armenia are furious about a cut in the number of post-graduate places that secure an exemption from military conscription, saying the government is wrong to favour the army over academia.

Under the conscription system, all males between 18 and 27 have to serve two years in the army, but until now, people studying for a master’s degree or the higher “aspirantura” qualification have been exempted and allowed to continue their studies uninterrupted.

The Armenian army is, however, suffering a shortage of men. The current generation of conscripts was born in the years immediately following the end of the Soviet Union, when the birth rate fell dramatically.

Students say the reduction in post-graduate places is intended solely to swell the ranks of the army.

“Before this ruling, I could have calmly gone on to do a master’s degree. Last year, there were 13 places available for Spanish language, but this year there won’t be any,” said Sos Avetisyan, a student in his fourth year at Yerevan State University. “The government’s decision violates my rights, and there are many others like me.”

For the academic year starting this September, there will be 1,543 master’s degree places funded by the state. That number is unchanged from last year, but now 1,193 of these places will not exempt the holders from doing military service. As for the aspirantura – a qualification above a master’s but not as high as a western doctorate – there will be just 122 funded places, down from 134 this year.

Avetik Ishkhanyan, a rights activist from and head of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, said the government was violating students’ rights and ignoring the law.

“The public always needs to know the rules of the game. They are changing the rules in the middle of the game, when people had already made their plans. Changing the rules mid-game is completely unacceptable. Such actions will increase distrust of the state,” he said.

Government officials insist the changes are well-thought-out reforms intended to modernise the education system, and deny that a spell in the army would do postgraduate students any harm.

“Neither education nor the sciences will suffer any harm from these changes,” said Robert Sukiasyan, head of the education ministry’s department for higher education. “Anyone who wants to continue their studies can resume them on returning from the army no matter how much time has elapsed, whether two or four years.”

In May, several dozen students staged a protest against the changes outside Yerevan State University. Among them was physics student Daniel Ioannisyan, who said the government had not taken account of the damage the changes would do to education.

“Students who are for example completing a BA in the physics faculty and have the potential to become good physicists will not go on to do a master’s. They’ll be dispersed around military bases, where at best they’ll peel potatoes or stand guard holding guns. That’s a very poorly-conceived use of resources,” said Ioannisyan.

“I don’t see how someone will continue in the basic sciences and achieve valuable things after a spell in the army,” he said, adding that neither the prime minister nor the education minister had served in the army.

Armenian officials note that the country has yet to sign a peace deal with Azerbaijan to end the currently dormant conflict over Nagorny-Karabakh.

Vagharshak Harutyunyan, a former defence minister, says the government needs to do more to ensure the armed forces are in a fit state to defend the country for the eventuality that the conflict flares up again.

“I think people have to serve in the army, especially in our country given that the conflict hasn’t even ended,” he said.
Harutyunyan said young men should go into the military straight after school, with no postponement. “That’s the age when they are most receptive and physically ready for it. [In Georgia] the army did not survive because they said students wouldn’t be conscripted. Our army survived because we conscripted everyone without exception.”

Demands made by students go beyond the conscription issue, and include calls for examination results to be made public, so as to end corrupt practices in the admissions process for post-graduate courses. This demand went unheeded as the lists for 2010 admissions closed in early June.

“Our goal today is to continue the fight for another 360 days so we can influence the number of places next year,” said Ioannisyan.

Hasmik Hambardzumyan is a correspondent for www.panorama.am.
 

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