By Ruzanna Stepanian
The government declined on Friday to provide a clear explanation of its controversial decision to choose Armenia’s second mobile phone operator without a transparent and competitive bidding.
Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian, normally accessible for reporters, refused to comment, referring all inquiries to the press service of his ministry. The ministry spokeswoman, Tamar Ghalechian, told RFE/RL that the hitherto unknown firm K-Telecom was granted the lucrative license because of its Lebanese owners’ “positive” track record in Nagorno-Karabakh. They have run the Armenian-controlled region’s telephone network for the last three years.
Ghalechian confirmed that K-Telecom was the only bidder in a “tender” formally called and administered by the government at its weekly session on Thursday. He could not say why it was arranged so hastily and why the government did not hold a genuine bidding that might have resulted in more attractive bids.
The decision 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 will abandon its legal monopoly on mobile telephony in exchange for a string of other government concessions. One of them stipulates that only one alternative wireless operator will be allowed to operate in Armenia until 2009.
The Communications Ministry spokeswoman said K-Telecom has pledged to put in place a wireless network covering Yerevan and surrounding areas by the end of 2005 and extend it to the rest of Armenia within the next two years. She said the company hopes to attract 50,000 subscribers during the first year of its operations.
As of mid-August there were only 140,000 cellular phone users in Armenia. The figure pales in comparison with similar statistics in the two other South Caucasus states. Azerbaijan boasted 870,000 such users in 2002, while Georgia had 522,300 of them as of last year.