YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Russia is concerned about protests staged in Armenia against a controversial government bill allowing the existence of foreign-language schools, a senior Russian parliamentarian said on Thursday.
The bill involving amendments to two Armenian laws met fierce resistance from opposition and civic groups as well as prominent public figures after being unveiled by the government in May. Critics believe that it would jeopardize Armenian’s constitutionally guaranteed status as the country’s sole official language.
The outcry led the government to water down the proposed amendments before pushing them through parliament in June. In particular, the government agreed to restrict to two the number of foreign-language private schools that would be allowed to operate in the country.
The existing version of the bill also stipulates that up to nine foreign-language high schools can be opened elsewhere in Armenia in accordance with inter-governmental agreements signed on a case-by-case basis. The changes failed to satisfy its critics. They have vowed further vocal actions against the bill.
Nikolay Ryzhkov, a co-chairman of a Russian-Armenian commission on inter-parliamentary cooperation, said there is a sense in Russia that the protests are primarily directed against the Russian language. He said it should be in greater use in Armenia not least because of the existence of a large Armenian community in Russia.
“More than one generation of Armenians live in our country and I think one should value the language they speak,” Ryzhkov told journalists.
“I understand there are problems that need to be solved,” he said. “If I’m not mistaken, the bill will soon be discussed in the second reading. So please look at that.”
The Russian State Duma deputy, who had served as the Soviet Union’s prime minister from 1985-1990, spoke after a regular session of the inter-parliamentary commission in Yerevan. He said the commission agreed to discuss the issue at its next meeting to be held in Russia in April.
Ryzhkov’s Armenian counterpart, Aram Safarian, described it as “very important.” “Our Armenian and Russian members agreed that the 200-year-old tradition of speaking Russian in Armenia … should not be forgotten,” he said.
The two men and other members of the commission met with President Serzh Sarkisian earlier in the day. Sarkisian was quoted by his office as telling them that Russian-Armenian “strategic partnership” is successfully developing.
“Armenia appreciates and treats its friends with gratitude,” Sarkisian said before handing a Medal of Honor to Konstantin Zatulin, a senior Duma member who has long championed close ties between the two countries.
Ryzhkov, 81, has also been regarded as a pro-Armenian figure ever since personally coordinating relief and reconstruction efforts in Armenia’s northern regions devastated by the 1988 earthquake. He was given Armenia’s highest state award, the title of “national hero,” two years ago.