By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The Armenian government and the Greek-owned telecommunications monopoly ArmenTel are close to signing a comprehensive agreement settling their differences on phone tariffs and other issues, a government official announced on Monday.
The unexpected statement came from the spokesman for Justice Minister David Harutiunian, who has represented the government in two-month negotiations with the ArmenTel management. The official, Ara Saghatelian, told RFE/RL that the two sides will sign the final deal by the end of this week.
A spokeswoman for ArmenTel, which is 90 percent owned by the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE), declined to confirm or refute the information, however.
Harutiunian told journalists as recently as last Wednesday that the talks have not yet produced major progress. The remarks were made just days before the expiry of the two-month negotiation period set by the parties on November 19.
The already strained relations between ArmenTel and the government worsened further last October after the latter urged Armenians to defy a major increase in phone charges. The ministry of transport and communications officially banned the telecom operator from enforcing the highly unpopular per-minute billing for local calls, effective from September 1, 2001.
Saghatelian said the two sides have reached agreement not only on the tariff dispute but also other major issues of bilateral concern. He said they have decided to extend the January 19 deadline for “a few more days” to work out the final text of their agreement.
“The basic agreements have already been reached and the negotiations can be considered successful. I am sure that the Armenian side will achieve its objectives,” Harutiunian’s spokesman said.
He refused to disclose any details of the impending deal, including the crucial issue of ArmenTel’s legal monopoly on telecom services. The government has been pushing for its partial abolition.
Meanwhile, an inter-ministerial government commission assessing the total amount of OTE investments in Armenia met behind the closed doors on Monday. No decisions were announced after the meeting.
The commission was set up last year after the Armenian authorities accused the Greeks of failing to meet their investment commitments.
Under the terms of its 1998 purchase of ArmenTel, OTE was to invest at least $100 million in the Armenian telecom sector. The Greek firm says its investments have exceeded that target.