By Atom Markarian
The government announced on Thursday largely symbolic changes in its plans to introduce mandatory social security accounts for Armenia’s citizens which prompted religiously motivated objections from the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Under the scheme approved by parliament last year, every Armenian national will be given a lifetime “individual code” that will contain information about their incomes and social security contributions. Government officials say it is essential for combating tax evasion and embarking on a radical overhaul of the country’s pension system.
But according to the quasi-official church and some of its passionate adherents, the very idea of attaching a particular number to a human being runs counter to the basic tenets of Christianity. Citing excerpts from the Bible, they have sought to portray it as a diabolic and sinful undertaking. Their campaign has gathered momentum recently, putting government officials on the defensive.
The government’s changes, unveiled Social Security Minister Aghvan Vartanian, amount to renaming “individual codes” into encoded “social security cards.” “The numbers will be given to the cards, not the individuals,” he explained. “The number of a card will be unique and unchangeable.”
Vartanian said the changes have been approved by the leadership of the Apostolic Church and will enter into force after Armenia’s government-controlled National Assembly passes corresponding amendments to the Law on Individual Codes. He said the government has also agreed to make sure that no social security account carries the “diabolic” number 666 mentioned in the New Testament.
The changes, however symbolic, are a rare example of the Armenian Church influencing government policies on non-religious affairs. The church, whose privileged status is upheld by the law, has until now been primarily preoccupied with toughening government restrictions on activities of non-traditional religious groups.
Vartanian further revealed that the government has rejected critics’ demands to make the social security scheme optional, and not mandatory as will be the case next year. “All questions that worried our society and church have been resolved, and the system will be put in place,” he said. “This is a state program which will be mandatory starting from July 1, 2004.”
The government says the new employment and income records will mark the first step in Armenia’s transition to a new pension system based on the so-called pay-as-you-can principle whereby the amount of retirement benefits depends on life-long social security contributions of employees. The existing Soviet-era pension system does not differentiate between the size of contributions and is based on the so-called “solidarity of generations.” With the number of pensioners approaching that of citizens employed in non-agricultural sectors of the Armenian economy, it is increasingly difficult to sustain.