By Armen Zakarian and Atom Markarian
A senior government official said on Wednesday Armenians should refuse to pay extra telephone fees charged by the ArmenTel operator starting this month as he publicly clashed with the telecom monopoly’s Greek executives.
The deputy minister of transport and telecommunications, Vaghinak Kocharian, said the Armenian government does not recognize the so-called “time charging” for domestic phone calls introduced by ArmenTel over its strong objections. The measure has provoked a storm of protests in the country.
ArmenTel boss Nikos Georgulas, left, at odds with Deputy Minister Vaghinak Kocharian
“When you get your new bills and eventually have your phones cut off, we will make an appropriate decision,” Kocharian said, adding that the government will resort to legal action to get its way.
The official, who represents the government in ArmenTel’s board of directors, spoke at a heated roundtable discussion with the company’s chief executive, Nikos Georgulas, and several politicians organized by the National Press Club. Georgulas sought to justify the highly unpopular increase in phone tariffs.
“It is a logical increase, which is in line with the general step we are making today as we enter the 21st century,” he said in first public remarks since the new payment-per-minute system came into effect on September 1. He said the system is in use in more than a hundred countries of the world and its application in Armenia is a “normal measure towards the new century.”
Georgulas also stressed that as well as increasing charges for domestic calls ArmenTel has reduced its international tariffs by an average of 40 percent, enabling Armenians to “reach the rest of the world at a much more logical cost.” He said: “Time charging is a strategic step to regulate a network operation and to balance the gap between international and domestic calls.”
But vice-minister Kocharian reiterated the government allegations that the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE) must not go ahead with the per-minute scheme before it invests $100 million in ArmenTel, a key term of the company’s 1998 takeover. The Greek side insists that it has in fact invested $127 million over the past three years. An Armenian government commission has been investigating the credibility of the figure. Kocharian said the commission will “very soon” release a report showing that OTE’s investment figures are inflated.
The Armenian government has made no official statements yet on the ArmenTel’s decision to go ahead with the tariff increase, prompting accusations of “indecision” by the opposition. Critics say its ambiguous stance has fueled widespread confusion among ArmenTel’s customers.
“Armenia has never faced a situation where its people don’t know how they are to pay for such an important public service and who sets the [telephone] prices,” Hayk Babukhanian, a deputy from the opposition Right and Accord bloc, said at a separate meeting of several dozen parties and civic groups that consider launching a campaign of street protests against the OTE subsidiary. “Where is the country’s president? Why doesn’t he publicly speak out on this?” Babukhanian asked.
Another influential party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), urged the authorities and the ArmenTel management to agree a compromise deal that would stave off possible unrest. Dashnakstutyun leader, who support President Robert Kocharian, said the Greek side should make important concessions.