By Shakeh Avoyan
More than 200 elderly people rallied in central Yerevan on Wednesday to condemn the government’s refusal to pay their pensions due to their religiously motivated refusal to receive Western-style social security cards that became mandatory in Armenia this year.
It was the latest in a year-long series of protests by the most radical adherents of the Armenian Apostolic Church against the introduction of the cards that give every working-age citizen a lifelong social security number.
The process is part of the ongoing Western-backed reform of Armenia’s Soviet-era pension system and its broader social security net. The individual accounts will contain information about a person’s employment history and pension contributions. The authorities say that this will, among other things, complicate widespread tax evasion.
Under a relevant law passed by the Armenian parliament in 2003, no resident of the country can be employed and paid a salary without having such a card starting from January 1, 2005. Armenian pensioners must also have one in order to continue to receive their modest retirement benefits.
According to one of the organizers of the protest, Khachik Stamboltsian, nearly 500 elderly Armenians defy this requirement because they believe that the very idea of attaching numbers to human beings contradicts one of the main tenets of Christianity. They are therefore unable to get their pensions, he said.
The number of people who gathered outside the main government building in Yerevan, some of them holding religious slogans and even copies of the Bible, was visibly smaller, though. “We are not a thing to be counted with numbers,” said one angry man.
Asked whether he is against having passport numbers as well, he replied: “When you change your passport you get a different number.”
“These are satanic cards,” agreed another protester.
The Apostolic Church essentially shared such views until the authorities agreed in late 2003 to enact a number of largely symbolic amendments to the law. One of those amendments make sure that no social account carries the “satanic” number 666 cited in the New Testament. The church has since urged its followers to embrace the cards.
“I regret that some naïve and credulous elderly people are being misled about the role and significance of social security cards,” Labor and Social Affairs Minister Aghvan Vartanian told RFE/RL, reacting to the protest.
“Over the past year we did our best to inform the society what the social cards are all about,” he said. “But there will always be a group of people that do not want to accept any explanation.”
Vartanian added that more than two million Armenians, or at least 95 percent of the adult population, already have such cards.