By Karine Kalantarian
The two-month period set by the Armenian government and the ArmenTel telecommunications monopoly for settling their bitter dispute through negotiation expires on Saturday with little sign of progress made so far.
The two sides have been at odds over several contentious issues ever since ArmenTel’s purchase by the Greek telecom giant OTE nearly four years ago. Simmering tensions between them flared up into an open confrontation last September when ArmenTel began to charge telephone users for every minute of local calls despite strong objections from the government.
The ministry of transport and communications branded the move illegal and urged Armenians to defy what amounted to a major increase in phone tariffs. The company has since been unable to enforce the per-minute system of billing.
On November 19, the government and ArmenTel’s Greek management began talks in an effort to break the deadlock. They set a two-month deadline for reaching a comprehensive agreement on phone charges and other sticking points.
The government’s chief negotiator, Justice Minister David Harutiunian, indicated on Wednesday that no deal has been agreed yet. “It is not possible to speak of any results until the negotiations are over,” he told reporters. “So far we have not drawn common conclusions, but the negotiations continue.”
Harutiunian added that the January 19 deadline may well be extended by the parties, which he said still have “big expectations” from the talks. He refused to unveil any of their details.
ArmenTel executives have declined a comment over the past two months.
Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian told state television last week that the tariff row is not the most important issue on the talks’ agenda. He said the parties are discussing the future of ArmenTel’s controversial legal monopoly on all forms of telecommunication in Armenia, a key condition of its $142.5 million takeover by OTE.
The authorities in Yerevan are thought to be pushing for a partial abolition of the monopoly. But the Greeks have made clear that they will not give up their exclusive rights to fixed-line and mobile phone communication without a corresponding financial compensation.