YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–A standing committee of the Armenian parliament approved on Friday a watered-down version of a controversial government bill that would allow the existence of schools where the main language of instruction is not Armenian.
The move, backed only by committee members representing President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party, paves the way for its adoption, in the first reading, by the full National Assembly next week.
The Armenian government has faced a storm of criticism from opposition politicians, media and public figures, including those loyal to the Sarkisian administration, ever since it drafted relevant amendments to Armenia’s laws on education and language in late April.
They believe the proposed changes endanger Armenian’s constitutional status as the country’s sole official language. The critics include virtually all members of the presidential Public Council, a panel of prominent political and public figures making policy recommendations to Sarkisian.
The uproar forced the government to make significant changes in the bill late last month. It now makes clear that foreign-language schools can only be private and above the elementary level. It also stipulates that there can be no more than 15 such schools across the country. In addition, they would be required to teach one-third of their subjects in Armenian.
These changes failed to satisfy its opponents both inside and outside the parliament. The parliament committee on science and education endorsed the bill after a four-hour heated discussion that mainly featured negative evaluations. The committee’s Republican chairman, Artak Davtian, said it might be watered down further before being passed in the final reading.
“The draft law will be acceptable to us if foreign-language teaching is allowed only in high schools,” said Naira Zohrabian of the Prosperous Armenia Party a junior partner in the governing coalition.
Representatives of the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the Heritage Party rejected the bill in full. ARF parliamentary leader, Vahan Hovannisian, at the same time berated those critics who compare the government measure to high treason and question the patriotism of Armenians educated in Russian-language schools during the Soviet era.
A broad-based coalition of Armenian intellectuals actively campaigning against the bill also remained dissatisfied. About a dozen of its members picketed the parliament building during the committee meeting with banners rejecting foreign-language schools and demanding Education Minister Armen Ashotian’s resignation.
The protesters included Ruben Tarumian, an architect who designed a popular Armenian-language computer font. “If well allow the opening of even one foreign-language school, there will be a chain reaction of second, third and fourth such schools coming into existence,” he told RFE/RL.
“We are going to fight to the end,” said Armen Hovannisian, another campaigner. “This variant also must not be adopted.”
Ashotian seemed untroubled by the protest as he made his way into the parliament compound. “We don’t see anything dangerous here and welcome such civic activism,” he said.
Speaking to RFE/RL after the committee meeting, Ashotian stood by the government line that foreign-language would help to boost educational standards that have declined since the Soviet collapse. He said the amendments would also allow renowned international schools to open branches in Armenia.