Army or education? Young men in Armenia face a dilemma

18 December 2017
Armenian recruits (Armine Avetisyan /OC Media)

The new law on conscription has left many Armenian students stunned. While stressing their commitment to serving the country, many worry that in practice, it will be hard to obtain Master’s degree after three years of non-deferrable military service.

‘I have no intention of escaping from the army’

From 7 to 15 November, the study process of higher education institutions was suspended in Yerevan. The students were protesting. They were protesting for one purpose: they were against the draft law on conscription submitted by the Ministry of Defence.

Student’s poster saying ‘There will be deferment’ (Armine Avetisyan /OC Media)

‘I don’t mean I don’t want to go to the army, I have no intention to escape from the army, even more, during the April War, I tried to go to the border as a volunteer’, 22-year-old Garik Petrosyan, who is studying at the Yerevan State University’s (YSU) Faculty of Applied Mathematics, told OC Media.

‘When you leave your education incomplete, then it becomes difficult to re-enter the educational process. There are boys, who don’t even want to continue their education afterwards. We also need to finish the Master’s degree to obtain complete knowledge, but in this case our education will be unfinished. Do you know what? As soon as I feel that the army needs me, I will go without any hesitation, but now I want to study’, Garik said.

Garik is one of hundreds of students who have been protesting against the new law for days.

He and his supporters conducted a monitoring and found out that in case of application of the law, only up to 140 students will be deprived of the right of deferment.

‘In this case, we are talking about 130–140 students. This number cannot even [significantly] increase the size of the army, but it is a great blow to the science and education’, said Garik.

Interrupted studies

On 15 November, the Armenian parliament adopted the draft law ‘On the Military Service and the Status of Servicemen’ with the second reading and on 29 November it was signed by President Serzh Sargsyan. According to the law, only those men will be eligible for receiving deferment, who will sign an agreement with the Ministry of Defence obliging them to serve in the army for three years after receiving the Bachelor’s degree. Otherwise, they will be drafted to the army for two years as soon as they reach the age of 18. This means that the study process of prospective Master’s students will be interrupted.

According to the former law, the age of boys drafted to the army in Armenia was 18 years old. The military service lasted two years. Those young men, who entered higher education institutions after graduating from high schools received the deferment right — including until receiving Master’s degree.

The students argue that the new legislation will prove very disruptive to the education process — it will become very difficult to either start or resume university studies after military service. Although the new law won’t apply to those who now have the right of deferment until 31 December 2020, certain current bachelor students will be affected.

The authorities took into consideration the students’ requests

First the students announced a student strike, then they started a protest action before the parliament building.

Their protests did not remain unanswered. The prime minister, the minister of defence, and the minister of education and science invited the men to a meeting.

The official meetings, however, did not give any significant results.

On 15 November, Armenia’s parliament, the National Assembly adopted the law in the second reading after which Speaker Ara Babloyan met with some of the protesters, and the young people decided to stop the strikes and demonstrations. Both sides made an agreement that the law would be discussed during a round-table meeting.

‘We posed an important issue — the maintenance of the places of deferment, which should ensure the principle of continuity of education for bachelor, master, or PhD students. There is already an agreement on our first offer, only the criteria and indicators have to be simplified’, Davit Petrosyan, a 22-year-old student of YSU Faculty of International Relations, told OC Media.

Davit meeting the prime minister (gov.am)

Davit was one of the active participants in demonstrations. He met with all the concerned officials, even announced a hunger strike during the protests.

‘Perhaps I will repeat myself, but we have been misunderstood. None of us is going to escape from the army, especially me’, says Davit, adding that he actually passed his military service. Now the law does not apply to him, and he is just fighting for the sake of his friends so that the young men’s education doesn’t remain incomplete.

Regardless of all kinds of negotiations, the law was nevertheless adopted on 29 November.

‘We expected this step. But we are going to continue our negotiations. The army has many positive aspects: it shapes a man’s personality, the human relationships are put on the right ground. Just one plan should be developed in order for the army not to hinder the development of science. If we can prove that we are right, there will be a change in the law’, says Davit.

Davit is convinced that they can succeed.

A working group will be set up next to the Ministry of Defence where the students’ proposals will be discussed with their participation.

Parallel realities: first, the army, then, the education

19-year-old Nver Melikyan has been serving in the army for one-and-a-half years. He was drafted from Ararat region in the west of Armenia.

‘Serving in the army is mandatory, first I have to go to the military service and then think about studying. In my opinion, this is the right sequence, serving the homeland cannot be avoided. At the age of 20, I will be discharged from the army, I will be more mature and will go to study’, says Nver.

Nver (Armine Avetisyan /OC Media)

Nver has not decided yet what he will do after his discharge. He says he is focused on the service at the moment.

‘The army is a very large school, we can say, it is the highest educational institution. Serving in army sobers up and strengthens us. We are in front of the enemy’s eye, we must be very well-trained in the military art in order to give a right counterattack to Azerbaijan, if needed’, says Nver.

‘In the army, a boy becomes a man and we have always thought like that in our family, I haven’t even thought for a moment about not going to the army’, says another 18-year-old soldier, Yakob Sargsyan.

Yakob has four older brothers. All of them have passed compulsory military service. He says now he it’s his turn to keep the borders of the motherland safe.

Yakob (Armine Avetisyan /OC Media)

‘I defend my homeland and my family living here. We are five brothers and we have one sister, who will think about her safety, if not us?’ says Jacob and criticises the protest actions organised in Yerevan against the new law on conscription.

‘I don’t think that our boys, who are protesting today, won’t come to guard the border if needed. Now they have dedicated themselves to study, let them study and then come to the army. But they should certainly come. The army is a good thing. At first it seems difficult to serve, and then they will understand that they do a good job’, says Jacob.

Having a strong army is a matter of priorities

According to the data presented by the Armenian Minister of Defence, Vigen Sargsyan, there is a practice in Armenia where only 16 percent of the recipients of the first academic deferment are drafted to the army, i.e., the academic deferment becomes a door not to serve in general.

‘Both the society and the armed forces need to be constantly developed. And we will do it with different programmes and in line with time, thus we have adopted and implemented the draft law “On the Military Service and the Status of Servicemen” ’, noted Norayr Smbatyan, deputy head of the Department of Personnel and Military Education at the Ministry of Defence in an interview with OC Media.

Norayr Smbatyan (Armine Avetisyan /OC Media)

The high-ranking officials note that this law clearly explains that it is the constitutional duty of every citizen of the Republic of Armenia to participate in the defence of the country.

Meanwhile, Levon Mkrtchyan, Minister of Education and Science, is convinced that the law, while limiting the right of the deferment from the military service for studying, will not harm the education, as a young man, who is 18 years old, has not even decided whether he will become a builder or a scientist in the future.

‘Our country has challenges, and the April events [2016 escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh] can always be repeated. Each of our citizens should be ready to fulfil their duty to the homeland’, said Mkrtchyan during a press briefing on 6 November.

Meanwhile, Davit Petrosyan and his friend, Yuri Avagyan, have started a hunger strike.

'There is nothing more to be done than ending the talks with the authorities, given no result’, Davit Petrosyan announced this on his Facebook page on 18 December.

‘Now we’re launching a hunger strike again and we will stop only if our demands are met’, he wrote.

[Read OC Media’s feature from Azerbaijan: Duty of an only son: to serve the motherland or continue the family name?]

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