YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The Armenian government pushed through parliament on Thursday its controversial legal amendments allowing the existence of foreign-language schools in the country.
The National Assembly adopted them in the first reading by 71 votes to 13, with one abstention, amid continuing protests staged outside the parliament building by the most vocal opponents of the measure.
A leader of the assembly’s pro-government majority indicated that the authorities will not rush to have the bill adopted in the second and final reading and are ready to make additional changes in it.
Galust Sahakian, a senior deputy from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that the final parliamentary debates on the issue will not take place before this autumn. The government and parliament majority are ready to consider “new proposals” from all “interested parties,” he said.
“The key thing is not to harm our native language and the linguistic mentality of Armenian children but at the same time to make sure we can integrate into the world’s educational systems,” said Sahakian.
The government has already twice watered down the amendments to Armenian laws on public education and language in the face of fierce criticism from opposition groups, prominent intellectuals and other public figures who regard them as a serious threat to Armenia’s sole official language.
The current version of the bill allows only two full-fledged foreign-language schools in the country. They must be privately owned and located in two resort towns.
Despite these and other restrictions, the parliament’s two opposition factions representing the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the Heritage Party voted against the bill. Their representatives stood by their demands that the government make no changes in the language.
They insisted that a limited number of foreign-language schools can operate in Armenia even without such changes. The ARF’s Artsvik Minasian said the language law, which upholds Armenian’s dominant status, must be kept intact for national security considerations.
Sahakian hinted that the government might accept such a compromise solution.
Meanwhile, about 100 people demonstrating outside the parliament building reacted furiously to the vote results, chanting “71 traitors!” and “Anti-National Assembly!” “They are now touching the Armenian language,” cried one woman. “This is the end of the Armenian nation.”
“We will continue to fight against these ignorant people,” said another protester. “They only think about business.”
Armen Hovannisian, a leader of a broad-based pressure group that organized the protest, brushed aside the changes made in the legislative package and vowed to continue to campaign against it. “They will feel the growing power of civil resistance on their skin every day,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service, referring to the authorities. “We are going to unite all sound forces of the society, regardless of their political views.”
“In Armenia, education for Armenians must be only in Armenian,” he added.
The protesters booed and jeered pro-government lawmakers that voted for the bill as the latter came out of the building moments later. They also confronted two opposition deputies that showed up too late for the parliament vote.
“You can be late if your vote doesn’t decide anything,” one of the deputies, Vartan Khachatrian, told the crowd.