YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—In a rally joined by Armenia’s leading opposition parties, thousands of people took to the streets of Yerevan at the weekend to protest against a controversial pension reform that has increased social security deductions from many workers’ wages.
The crowd marched through the city center after hearing speeches in Liberty Square delivered by the leaders of a pressure group campaigning against the reform and top representatives of the four opposition parties. They demanded that the Constitutional Court repeal a corresponding government bill that took effect on January 1 or at least halt its implementation.
The bill requires Armenians born after 1973 to pay social security taxes equivalent to between 5 and 10 percent of their monthly wages, in addition to contributions made by their employers. That money has to be deposited with private pension funds licensed by the state.
The unpopular measure stems from Armenia’s transition to a new system whereby the amount of pensions will depend on workers’ lifelong social security contributions. It has sparked particularly vehement objections from young and relatively well-paid professionals, many of them employed in the information technology sector. Hundreds of them have demonstrated on a regular basis since last November.
Saturday’s demonstration was by far the largest street protest against the reform staged so far. It brought together not only young people affected by the reform but also many older Armenians angry with the government.
“The pension law has no popular support,” one of the organizers of the rally told the crowd. “They [the authorities] want to fool us and are spreading lies. This campaign will end in our victory,” he claimed.
Opposition speakers hailed the protest, with Naira Zohrabian of the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) calling the reform a “plunder.” Another lawmaker, Ruben Hakobian of the Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, dismissed government claims that the opposition is exploiting the issue for political purposes. “Yes, this rally is being guided. But it is guided by the overwhelming majority of the people,” he said.
The BHK, Zharangutyun as well as the opposition Armenian National Congress and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation jointly appealed to the Constitutional Court last month. They claimed that the controversial bill breaches, among other things, citizens’ property rights guaranteed by the Armenian constitution.
The court is due to open hearings on the appeal later this month. It has rarely made decisions going against the government.
Davit Manukian, one of the leaders of the protest movement, said that the activists are prepared for a rejection of the opposition lawsuit. He said they will take “more radical but legal actions” if the court sides with the government. Other protesters spoke of possible strikes and sit-ins.
A deputy chairman of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), Galust Sahakian, made clear on Monday that the authorities remain adamant in reforming the existing pension system which they believe is not sustainable. “The HHK has definitely not changed its opinion because it is the result of years of work,” he told reporters.
Sahakian also downplayed the significance of Saturday’s rally. “Five or ten thousand people cannot define the civil society,” he said.
President Serzh Sarkisian strongly defended the reform on December 13. He urged his government to be “much more active” in explaining its merits to the population.