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By Atom Markarian
The government will press ahead with the promised liberalization of Armenia’s wireless telecommunication market regardless of the outcome of its ongoing negotiations with the Greek owners of the ArmenTel monopoly, Justice Minister David Harutiunian said on Thursday.

The government decided in principle earlier this year to revoke the company’s exclusive grip on mobile phone services and external Internet traffic, accusing it of abusing the legal monopoly. The decision was due to take effect on June 28.

ArmenTel and its parent company, the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE), responded by filing separate lawsuits with the London-based International Court of Economic Arbitration.

The two sides agreed in late June to try to reach an out-of-court settlement, leading the Armenian cabinet to postpone the start of the market liberalization for three months. The most recent meeting of their senior representatives took place in London earlier this month.

According to Harutiunian, the key question for his government is whether to allow one or more companies to complement ArmenTel’s notoriously underdeveloped mobile phone network after September 28. He said the new cell-phone operator will be selected through an international tender and expressed skepticism in this regard about a bid already submitted by a Russian-based telecom start-up.

The company called the Zvezda Unified Communications Systems said last March that it has asked President Robert Kocharian to allow it to enter the market, promising to invest 60 million euros ($74 million) in the sector. Zvezda executives said their wireless network will have lower fees and provide higher quality than ArmenTel’s.

“I am a little worried because that company is making statements that absolutely do not correspondent to the situation,” Harutiunian said. “That leaves a very unserious impression on me.”

The Yerevan daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” claimed on Tuesday that the Greeks have already resigned themselves to the prospect of facing competition and that at issue now is ArmenTel’s freedom to increase fixed-line phone charges contested by the government. Harutiunian would not comment on this, saying only that ArmenTel has withdrawn its suit from the London court.
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