By Ruzanna Stepanian
The Armenian government’s controversial compromise settlement with the ArmenTel operator has come into effect after being signed by its Greek owner, Justice Minister David Harutiunian announced on Tuesday.
The agreement partly liberalizing Armenia’s telecommunications market was negotiated by Harutiunian and formally approved by the government on November 3. ArmenTel’s parent company, OTE, unexpectedly delayed its signing, calling into question its implementation.
But Harutiunian said the Greeks have finally removed all the question marks. He again defended the deal, presenting it as the most realistic alternative to a potentially costly battle at the International Court of Economic Arbitration.
OTE filed a lawsuit with the London-based court earlier this year after the government unilaterally stripped ArmenTel of its legal monopoly on wireless phone services and Internet traffic. The Greek telecom giant agreed to relinquish its grip on mobile telephony in return for retaining its exclusive rights to other telecom services in Armenia. The government will also allow an increase in ArmenTel’s fixed-line phone tariffs and ban scores of local companies providing cheap phone connection with the outside world through the Internet.
Owners and employees of those firms have already staged protests outside government buildings in Yerevan, condemning the deal as a sell-out. Harutiunian has also faced corruption allegations from an outspoken opposition parliamentarian who claims that he was paid millions of dollars by OTE. The minister has firmly denied them.
Harutiunian argued that apart from agreeing to compete with a second mobile phone operator, OTE will also voluntarily give up its all other exclusive rights in 2009 and restore phone access to every Armenian village by 2007. He also promised a major reduction in fees that are levied by ArmenTel from local Internet service provides dependent on its monopoly on external Internet traffic.