By Shakeh Avoyan
The Armenian government has made largely symbolic concessions to hundreds of citizens refusing to receive Western-style social security cards on religious grounds, a senior official said on Thursday.
The move came amid continuing angry protests staged outside the government building in Yerevan by passionate followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church who see “satanic” motives behind the ongoing reform of the country’s social security system. Many of them have been unable to get pensions and poverty benefits ever since the plastic cards became mandatory on January 1.
Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Ara Petrosian told RFE/RL that the government has drafted amendments to a relevant Armenian law that are designed to placate the mostly elderly protesters. “We have held discussions and reached agreement with representatives of the opposite side,” he said.
“The law is not a dogma and there may always been a need to amend it. In essence, these changes somewhat meet those people’s demands.”
According to Petrosian, the government will issue slightly modified cards for religious Armenians which would have “limited” personal information about their holders and would specify that their numbers are not personal ones.
Opponents of the cards believe that the very fact of attaching numbers to human beings contradicts one of the main tenets of Christianity. They also claim that the authorities want to know and register all details of their private life.
“All of our personal data, including our intimate relations, are being taken under control,” said one woman that picketed the government building along with other protesters.
Government officials have repeatedly dismissed such fears, saying that individual accounts attached to social cards will only contain information about a person’s employment history and pension contributions. The introduction of the cards is part of the ongoing reform of Armenia’s Soviet-era pension system and its broader social security net. The reform is also supposed to complicate widespread tax evasion.
“Today 99.9 percent of our active population, or 2,360,000 people, already have social cards,” said Petrosian, adding that only 190 families eligible for poverty benefits are refusing those cards.
The official had no estimates as to the number of elderly people deprived of their pensions for the same reason. Protest organizers earlier put their number at about 500.