Armenian Identity Crisis

Institute for War & Peace Reporting
Aug 4 2004


Fearing politicians and hellfire, protestors force delay in law on
identity cards.

By Naira Melkumyan in Yerevan

Armenia’s government has postponed plans to introduce identity cards
for the country’s approximately three million residents, following
protests from many who feared for the safety of their civil liberties
– or their souls.

Because of street protests, complaints and public renunciation of the
documents, the scheme will now be introduced only at the start of
2005, not July 1 this year as had been intended. Just 900,000 people
have received the cards to date.

The plan is to give all residents – Armenian and foreign nationals,
refugees and those without status – a card showing a 10-figure
identity number, date of birth, sex and passport number. The plan is
to store the data for 400 years.

The United States government’s development agency USAID has donated
1.3 million dollars worth of technical aid to launch the system, while
government costs have so far reached about 200,000 dollars.

Social services minister Agvan Vardanyan told IWPR that the new system
will help the government ensure that pensions and social security
benefits are paid, and cut fraud.

About 40 political and public associations have formed an umbrella
group called Against the Numbering of People, to campaign what they
call “numbering and coding of people to remove their individuality”.

Some protestors see a spiritual dimension to the threat to their

Khachik Stamboltsyan, chairman of the charity Mkhitarich, said the law
is the work “of the devil and foreign secret-service agents”.

He said that identity numbers were linked to dark forces, and noted
that some of the 10-digit codes were bound to include the number 666,
the Biblical mark of Satan.

The Armenian Apostolic Church, which dominates religious life in the
country, also had reservations, but gave its blessing after the
government promised to change any number that featured 666.

The General Episcopal Council and other leading Apostolic Church
bodies tried to assuage fears among believers, saying that the
identity system “does not pose any threat to the salvation of the
human soul, because relations between man and God are not material”.

Vardanyan told IWPR that the government had secured backing from the
head of the church, Catholicos Garegin II, and that several priests
had already been issued with cards.

But Armen Avetisyan, a spokesman for the group Against the Numbering
of People and leader of the Armenian Arian Order, said that the
centuries-long lifespan of the cards proved there was scope for

“Putting citizens’ data together in one centre is dangerous from the
point of view of national security, and I am sure that this is all
being done by outside forces,” he said.

There is considerable support for these views. “I am not convinced by
the arguments made by state officials. To them we’re just laboratory
mice they are trying to turn into zombies, with the aim of making us
easier to control,” said Nune, a 45-year-old hairdresser. “First they
assign personal numbers, then they start implanting microchips under
your skin.”

Officials disagree. “There is no threat here to national security.
The year, month and day of birth is not the kind of information that
could harm our security; it constitutes data on citizens that can be
presented within the bounds of international accords,” said Smbat
Saiyan, head of the social insurance department at the Social Security
Ministry, told IWPR.

State ombudsman Larisa Alaverdyan said the protestors should be
listened to, even if they only constituted a minority.

So far about 1,000 people have returned their cards and more are
expected to follow. Against the Numbering of People says it has
collected 150,000 protest signatures and is also gathering support
among members of parliament to call for a hearing at the
Constitutional Court.

Avetisyan said that his organisation had received complaints from
employees in the state health and education sectors, as well as from
within the police, about being pressured to accept the card, even
though until July it was meant to be a voluntary scheme. The Institute
for Human Rights said it had received 100 complaints.

But the social security ministry insisted there was no substance to
such complaints. “When you start to investigate them, it becomes clear
that there are no facts,” said Saiyan.

Opponents of the scheme, as well as the ombudsman, are proposing a
year’s delay, but the government says its new deadline will hold. A
previous attempt to introduce personal identity codes was abandoned
two years ago.

“We are ready to listen to them, but the government does not currently
see any need to make changes to the law,” said minister Vardanyan.

Naira Melkumyan is an independent journalist based in Yerevan.