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Armenian Pensioners Reject ID Cards

Social security scheme touches a religious nerve among Armenia’s pensioners.
By Karine Asatrian

Pailun Poghosian, 79, a former teacher, is a pensioner living on her own. Although she walks only with the aid of crutches, every day for two weeks she travelled by bus from her apartment on the edge of the Armenian capital Yerevan to the centre of town.


There, she and roughly 50 other retirees staged a sit-down demonstration, from June 24 to July 8 in front of the main government building, to protest a new law which created, for the first time in the country’s history, social security cards for all Armenians.


Pailun refuses to accept her card, and as a result, she has been unable to collect her pension.


“True, I haven’t received my pension for six months, but I haven’t starved,” she said, standing outside the government offices. “Sometimes a neighbour helps me out, sometimes a friend. It’s not just my pension I want – I want them not to disrespect our human rights and our constitution.”


Like others who demonstrated, Pailun is a member of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and rejects the cards on religious grounds. She is particularly worried that her social security number might contain the figure 666.


“I have studied the Bible. I have read it three times,” she told IWPR. “This card is evil – evil as far as God is concerned, and for the government and ordinary souls.”


Pailun is one of more than 7,100 Armenians who, according to the state social welfare fund, are unable to receive payments because they do not possess social security cards.


And although not all have rejected the cards out of religious reasons - 929 people did not receive them because they lacked a new Armenian passport - a large number nevertheless view the IDs not a means to receive money owed them from the government, but as a one-way ticket to hell.


Because of the outcry against the cards, the Armenian government has bowed to the pressure and now promises to introduce changes to the new system.


Social security cards were passed into law in September, 2003. Each card contains a ten-digit code composed of numbers denoting a citizen’s sex, date of birth - which remains valid for life.


More than two million Armenians are set to receive their pensions, benefits, and government salaries through the card system, which came into force on January 1, 2005. Supporters of the scheme say it will streamline the country’s financial dealings, reduce bureaucracy and eliminate confusion.


Haik Chobanian, executive director of Norq, an analytical centre under the labour and social welfare ministry, said, “This system automatically gives each individual the ability to receive a pension. At the present moment, there are a lot of violations, and there is no system of control.


“This way we receive all information about salaries and benefits and these are recorded in a data base.”


Despite the benefits, controversy has nevertheless marked the debate over the cards from the very beginning.


After hundreds took to the streets in protest in summer, 2004, officials postponed the cards’ introduction by six months. Protesters said that any system assigning individual numbers to citizens was a violation of their rights and religious beliefs.


At the time, however, the Armenian Apostolic Church announced, “Social security cards present absolutely no danger to the salvation of the human soul, since the link between man and God is not a material one.”


In response to the ongoing protests, the Armenian government has agreed to a number of changes to the law on social security cards.


The government’s first concession will be to allow pensioners from July 11 to receive payments missed over the last six months, deputy minister for work and social questions Araik Petrosian, told IWPR. Changes will be made to the cards’ appearance and there will be no bar code or symbol.


Petrosian also said the law on social security cards would be amended to state clearly that the social security number is a document number, not the number of a person and that “there is no link between the social security card system and the religious beliefs or creeds of citizens”.


However, Petrosian said, people will not have a choice about whether to receive a card.


Parliamentary deputy Artak Arakelian argues the cards should be optional.


“[They] have a role to play in regulating various areas of society and are essential, but people should be able to choose whether or not they receive them,” he told IWPR


Haik Chobanian, of the Norq analytical centre, said that he thought the government should stand up to the protesters. If they gave in, he said, “That would mean that 40 people in the country would have more rights than the more than two million 332 thousand people who have already received social security cards.”


Armenian human rights ombudsman Larisa Alaverdian said that the problem facing civil servants is to work out “how they can carry out their functions without contravening human rights.


“If a person does not receive the pension or salary he is due, because he does not want to, I think that is a contravention of his human rights,” she told IWPR. “In this case, the legality of individual regulations aside, we cannot offend people's beliefs.”


Alaverdian sent a letter to President Robert Kocharian on July 14 questioning the constitutional legality of the law regulating the cards and asking him to bring the matter before the Constitutional Court.


Aida Harutiunian, 66, a protester in the recent sit-ins, is carrying on protesting.


Aida lives in reduced circumstances on the southern outskirts of Yerevan with her 84-year-old mother, Anik – a World War Two veteran who is bed-ridden due to chronic illness. “I somehow survive by taking everything I have to the flea market to sell,” she said.


Despite the government’s concessions, Aida remains unconvinced, “Social security cards are linked to the devil. I am prepared to go hungry, but I will not sell my soul to the devil.”


Karine Asatrian is a journalist with A1+ television station in Yerevan.


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