By Hrach Melkumian and Anush Dashtents
The Armenian authorities on Saturday reaffirmed their intention to prevent ArmenTel from enforcing its earlier decision to raise telephone charges. President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Andranik Markarian said attempts to charge phone users for every minute of domestic calls will be deemed illegal, raising the stakes in their dispute with the Greek-owned telecoms operator.
“The government is against the per-minute payment and is doing everything to make sure that it is not enforced from October 1,” Prime Minister Andranik Markarian said.
President Robert Kocharian likewise told reporters that he “instructed” Minister of Transport and Telecommunications Andranik Manukian to make it impossible for the company to charge extra fees.
“I have officially banned the enforcement of the per-minute billing and they are obliged to comply with the decision,” Manukian confirmed.
ArmenTel’s parent company, OTE, decided to introduce the new payment scheme in January, citing falling revenues in Armenia. The ArmenTel chief executive, Nikos Georgulas, has said he will press ahead with the measure over the government’s objections.
The conflicting statements by government officials and ArmenTel executives have left Armenian phone users wondering whether or not they can get away with ignoring their new phone bills next month. Markarian said the authorities will not allow the telecom monopoly to cut off their phones.
Meanwhile, the possibility of the government taking a legal action against the OTE subsidiary became even more likely on Saturday when Kocharian said that the row “must necessarily be settled in the legal field rather than the Opera [Freedom] Square.” Kocharian referred to Friday’s demonstration in Yerevan against the fee increase which was not sanctioned by the city authorities and turned violent. He accused several small opposition parties that organized the protest of seeking to gain “political dividends” from the issue.
The leader of one of those parties, Democratic Fatherland, was arrested late on Friday and sentenced by a Yerevan court to ten days in jail for refusing to obey police orders and disrupting traffic in the city center. The verdict against Petros Makeyan was handed down after a brief overnight trial.
Riot police used force to prevent several hundred people from gathering at the city’s Liberty Square for what the authorities said was an unsanctioned demonstration. The protesters then attempted to march to Kocharian’s official residence but were confronted by security forces as they approached the presidential palace.
The organizers condemned Makeyan’s arrest and imprisonment. One of them, parliament deputy Arshak Sadoyan, claimed that at least two dozen police officers broke into Makeyan’s Yerevan apartment and took him away without an arrest warrant.
It was the second time that an opposition politician got a short jail sentence for organizing an anti-government street protest without an official permission. A Moscow-based businessman of Armenian origin, Arkady Vartanian, also spent ten days in prison late last year after rallying his supporters outside the presidential palace as part of his campaign for Kocharian’s resignation.