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Israel is actively seeking out bilateral pension agreements with countries of the Former Soviet Union to provide greater social security to those who worked for many years in the FSU before making aliya.
Fifteen countries currently have such agreements, which allow nations to pay pensions to citizens and residents who have left for Israel. All except Uruguay are located in Western Europe. According to Israel's National Insurance Institute, some 150,000 elderly olim from the FSU, many of them poor, could receive pensions from abroad if Israel had such agreements with eastern European states.
Israel imports some NIS 1.8 billion annually in pensions, while exporting just NIS 13 million, according to attorney Jacob Sasporte, director of the NII's Division of International Conventions, who represents Israel in pension agreement negotiations. By law, these pensions are paid directly into the individual's bank account, bypassing the Israeli government and the NII completely.
To date, Western Europe has been very forthcoming with pension exports.
"The trend in Europe is to export," Sasporte said, citing new European Union guidelines that make pension exports an EU policy. "Countries that enter the EU will sign pension agreements," he added.
"Already this year, I created the Bulgaria and Slovakia agreements without any problems," Sasporte said, "and we already have agreements for most of Western Europe, including Germany, Austria, Holland, England, France, Switzerland and Scandinavian countries. As more countries integrate into the EU and their economies improve, this trend will expand."
"Think about what this means for social security," he added. "This has an impact on the welfare of these elderly. There are old people from Holland living here who live in respectable old age homes with their Dutch pensions."
But the problem of social security is less severe for Israel's elderly olim from Western Europe, since they tend to be better off financially and supported by well-to-do families and highly developed welfare states in their countries of origin. Eastern Europe and the FSU, whose expatriate olim tend to be poor, are the focus of the NII.
Agreements are now in the works with several eastern European and FSU states, but the negotiations are not simple. Last week, Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who chairs the ministerial committee dealing with the issue, told the Knesset discussions over pension agreements in Eastern Europe were advancing apace.
"Eight out of 15 FSU states have expressed willingness to reach agreements over pension payments for their citizens living in Israel," he said.
Yet this optimism at the political level is offset by the difficulties faced by Israeli negotiators dealing with the issue. For example, it is not easy to know the precise number of pensioners from each country, since many olim from the FSU had their countries of origin listed upon aliya as the generic "FSU." The NII hopes that better data being gleaned from Immigrant Absorption Ministry records will allow the negotiations to advance.
Also, some difficulties are specific to individual countries. As Lieberman told the Knesset, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said on a recent state visit that a pension agreement would have to be part of a broader agreement giving visas and work permits to Ukrainian illegal workers in Israel.
For its part, Russia will only pay pensions to Russian citizens, even though many Russian olim who came immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union were told to give up their Russian citizenship in order to leave for Israel.
Israel is doing and will continue to do its part, Sasporte said. "Remember that since Israel is an aliya-receiving country, it pays a special elderly pension to the poor olim as though they had been working citizens all their lives, so the elderly from the FSU already get an Israeli elderly pension," he said.
These very small pensions won't be affected by the agreements, Sasporte said. But, he added, importing pensions for deserving olim - "from countries in which they worked for decades - will seriously improve their living conditions."
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