By Atom Markarian
Raising fresh questions about its transparency and integrity, the government unexpectedly announced Thursday the name of Armenia’s second mobile phone operator as a result of what it described as a competitive “tender” that took less than a day.
The purported bidding, which may well be the quickest in world history, appears to have been a mere formality. It was called and administered during a weekly cabinet meeting which lasted for less than two hours.
An ensuing government statement did not specify which telecom firms took part in it or what their proposals were. It said only that the license to provide mobile phone services was given to a company called K-Telecom.
Government sources told RFE/RL that it is a subsidiary of the Lebanese-owned firm Karabakh Telecom which has had exclusive control of Nagorno-Karabakh’s telecommunications sector since for the last three years. The company, managed by Lebanese nationals Pierre Fattouch and Ralph Yirikian, claims to have invested $10 million in the entire Karabakh phone network.
Sources also said that a government commission that handled the selection process was headed by Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian. Manukian and his press service could not be reached for comment throughout the day.
It is therefore not clear how much K-Telecom plans to invest in Armenia. Nor is it known if the new operator purchased the lucrative license or got hold of it free of charge.
The government decision, which is certain to spark controversy, came less than one day after ministers approved a compromise agreement to settle their long-running disputes with ArmenTel, Armenia’s dominant telecom operator. Under the terms of the deal negotiated by Justice Minister David Harutiunian, ArmenTel agreed to abandon its legal monopoly on mobile telephony in exchange for a string of other government concessions. One of them stipulates that Armenia will have only two wireless operators until 2009.
The deal was reportedly strongly opposed by Manukian and other cabinet members with business interests in the telecom sector. The hasty selection of the alternative operator may have thus been a retaliatory blow to Harutiunian who has no partisan affiliation but enjoys the personal support of President Robert Kocharian. Harutiunian aides declined a comment on Thursday.
Mobile phone tariffs in Karabakh are much lower than in Armenia. It remains to be seen whether the partial liberalization of the underdeveloped sector will trigger a price war between ArmenTel and K-Telecom.