By Hrach Melkumian
The Armenian government and the Greek-owned telecommunications monopoly ArmenTel put an end to their protracted dispute over per-minute charging of local phone calls, sealing a new tariff agreement on Thursday.
The compromise deal negotiated by Justice Minister David Harutiunian was formally approved by the cabinet of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian after several hours of discussion. It was the result of two-month talks with the management of ArmenTel and will take effect starting from February 1.
“The negotiations have been definitely successful,” Harutiunian told reporters after the weekly cabinet session. “We have managed to achieve our main objectives.”
Under the terms of the deal, ArmenTel will be allowed to charge phone four drams (less than one US cent) for every minute of local conversations beyond a six-hour monthly limit covered by the current flat fee of 900 drams (about $2) for individual users and 2,700 drams for legal entities.
The company will also offer an alternative option whereby its fixed-line customers could pay 2,400 drams up front for an unlimited number of phone calls each month. The fixed fee will be gradually raised to 4,800 drams by 2004.
ArmenTel set the per-minute threshold at two hours when it tried to introduce the highly unpopular per-minute billing in September. Its already strained relations with the worsened further after they urged Armenians to defy what amounted to a major increase in phone charges. The ministry of transport and communications officially banned the telecom operator from enforcing the payment scheme.
The two sides began two-month negotiations on November 19 in a bid to settle their differences on the phone charges and other issues.
A government spokeswoman said the ministers approved the tariff agreement knowing that it will be “exploited” by their political opponents who strongly object to any changes in the existing phone charges.
They are also bound to attack the government over its decision to compromise on the investment commitments of ArmenTel’s parent company, the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE).
OTE, which paid $142.5 million for 90 percent of ArmenTel’s equity in 1998, pledged to invest $100 million in the Armenian telecom sector within the next two years and another $100 million between 2001 and 2003. The agreement with the government will allow the Greeks to extend the second investment phase for another year.
Harutiunian said the parties will continue their negotiations on other thorny issues, including ArmenTel’s monopoly on telecom services, in the coming months.