The Armenian government on Tuesday scrambled to end an unprecedented strike by hundreds of artists of the National Opera and Ballet Theater in Yerevan protesting against its controversial reform of the pension system.
Deputy Culture Minister Artur Poghosian was said to have promised a 20 percent rise in their wages during a two-hour meeting with the theater’s management and staff. Neither he nor the Ministry of Culture made any statements afterwards.
The strike was announced on Monday evening to more than two thousand spectators who gathered in the state-run theater to listen to Anoush, a famous Armenian opera. The performance was cancelled as a result. Witnesses said that some in the audience hailed the protest with cheers and applause.
The theater director, Kamo Hovannisian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that the performance was rescheduled for February 23. “Naturally, there is a bit of tension right now,” he said. “We are trying to defuse it. The main thing is to ensure that the theater continues working as usual.”
Hovannisian would not say whether the management will stop collecting additional social security contributions from hundreds of employees born after 1973, a key requirement of the unpopular reform. The protesting artists as well as many other Armenians affected by the measure say that the authorities must stop enforcing it at least until a Constitutional Court ruling on the matter.
The court suspended the reform on January 24 pending consideration of an appeal against its legality lodged by Armenia’s leading opposition parties. The authorities say this does not mean that deductions of up to 10 percent of workers’ wages must stop now.
No opera or ballet shows were scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday. Most of the protesting artists apparently reported for work in the morning but refused to take part in rehearsals. “We haven’t yet decided what we are going to do, but I think that we won’t be working,” said one female singer.
The angry mood among singers, ballet dancers and orchestra musicians clearly changed after the meeting with Deputy Minister Poghosian held in the afternoon. Many of them were reluctant to talk to journalists as they emerged from Yerevan’s sprawling Opera House later in the day.
“We will have to perform [on February 23] if we are told to,” said one male artist. “I don’t know anything,” claimed one of his colleagues.
According to two male ballet dancers, Poghosian told the protesting staff that their wages were raised by 20 percent recently. “We are only now hearing about that,” one of them, Aharon Petrosian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. Petrosian insisted that he and his colleagues did not get any pay rises in January.