Armenia’s parliament has passed in its second and final reading a controversial bill that would restrict draft deferments.
Eighty-six lawmakers in the 105-seat National Assembly approved the proposed legislation on November 15, with six lawmakers voting against it.
The votes against the bill came from the opposition Yelk faction in the legislature, which is dominated by the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and its junior coalition partner, Dashnaktsutiun.
President Serzh Sarkisian is expected to signed the text into law.
The bill, which passed in its first reading late last month, has sparked protests among students, several opposition parties, and public figures in Armenia.
Under the proposed legislation, to get a draft deferment all male students who want to pursue science studies must sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense and agree to serve three years in the military after completing their studies.
Otherwise, the students will be drafted once they turn 18.
The protesting students as well as several opposition parties and public figures in Armenia say the legislation will harm the development of science in the country by allowing interruptions in the education process and discouraging students from pursuing scientific careers.
Proponents of the legislation deny it will harm scientific development while saying it will ensure fairer treatment of young men who do not get draft deferments and exemptions from military service by seeking science educations.
Five members of the For Science Development group this week started a hunger strike against the legislation and effectively barricaded themselves inside a lecture room at Yerevan State University, saying they will stop their strike only after the bill is withdrawn from parliament.
Among the hunger-strike participants is student activist David Petrosian. He told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that they were protesting against parliament’s decision to proceed with debate on the bill without heeding their concerns and without making any changes in the bill.
“With this hunger strike, we try to show to all citizens that their voice matters…. Public apathy that has spread among us is very sad. And this way we contribute to the overcoming of this apathy,” the activist said, speaking from behind the closed door of the lecture room occupied by the protesters.
Petrosian, who already served in the army, said that three of the five other students who have declared a hunger strike 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 said.
The protests sparked by the legislation are in their second week. Several hundred students have been boycotting classes since November 7 while urging fellow students at Yerevan State University, Armenia’s oldest and largest educational institution, to join their protest. They have also marched on government buildings to protest the bill.
Armenia’s prime minister, education, and defense ministers met with leaders of the protesting students recently, but they did not agree to stop their protests even after being offered the chance to participate in decisions on carrying out the law once it is adopted.
Defense Minister Vigen Sarkisian has repeatedly said the new bill is aimed at restoring fairness among young men of draft age and not giving special treatment to science students.
Sarkisian has insisted that the legislation’s goal is not to man the military. Proponents say the legislation will also reduce corruption by closing a key loophole to avoiding compulsory military service.