By Ruzanna Stepanian
Details emerged on Tuesday of a compromise agreement to end some of the ArmenTel operator’s exclusive rights to telecommunication services in Armenia which Justice Minister David Harutiunian submitted to the government the previous night.
The Armenian cabinet discussed the deal, negotiated by Harutiunian and Greek owners of the unpopular telecom monopoly, at a rare emergency session late on Monday. Ministers refrained from approving or rejecting it, suggesting that some of them have serious misgivings. A statement by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s office said they were given one week to take a closer look at the proposed settlement and formulate a position.
Media reports said the cabinet meeting was marred by angry verbal exchanges between Harutiunian and Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian. The two men are known to harbor strong mutual antipathy.
Manukian declined a comment on Tuesday, saying that he will speak out after looking into the document. He appears furious at being effectively sidelined from the government’s negotiations with ArmenTel that cover his area of responsibility. Harutiunian was authorized to begin the negotiations in June after the government and ArmenTel agreed to try to reach an out-of-court settlement of their long-running dispute.
The subsidiary of Greece’s OTE telecom giant had earlier taken the government to the International Court of Economic Arbitration in London after its unilateral decision to break up ArmenTel’s lucrative monopoly on mobile phone services and Armenia’s Internet connection with the outside world. The enforcement of that decision was postponed pending the outcome of the settlement talks.
Details of the resulting agreement were divulged to RFE/RL. It envisages that ArmenTel will give up its grip on mobile telephony which is widely believed to have held back the development of Armenia’s wireless network seen as the worst in the region. However, only one alternative mobile firm would be allowed to operate in the country until 2009.
ArmenTel would also retain its exclusive control of external Internet traffic which Armenian Internet service providers say is extremely expensive, unreliable and of poor quality. Representatives of Armenia’s brother information technology sector have also been calling for the abolition of the monopoly.
In addition, the Armenian government would allow a further increase in the tariffs of ArmenTel’s fixed-line phone network. Its users currently pay 4 drams (about 1 U.S. cent) for every minute of local phone calls beyond a 6-hour limit covered by a fixed monthly fee of 900 drams.
The proposed deal would set a 60-minute limit for the per-minute charge of 4 drams. Network subscribers that exceed it would have to pay 8 drams. ArmenTel has agreed in return to lower its fees for international phone calls.
(Photolur photo: Harutiunian, right, attending Monday's cabinet meeting.)