By Astghik Bedevian
In a largely symbolic setback for the government, Armenia’s Constitutional Court rescinded on Tuesday a legal provision preventing citizens from challenging utility tariffs set by state regulators in lower courts.
Acting on an appeal filed by 30 parliamentarians, the court declared unconstitutional a relevant clause in an Armenian law regulating the work of the Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC).
The state body has the exclusive authority to set the price of electricity, gas and other utilities. Under the existing law, its decisions are not subject to any appeal.
The legal challenge against it was initiated late last month by the opposition Orinats Yerkir party of former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian which says the existing utility fees are disproportionately high. The move was widely construed as the start of Orinats Yerkir’s preparations for this year’s parliamentary elections.
Making the plaintiffs’ case in the court, Hovannes Markarian, an Orinats Yerkir lawmaker, said the PSRC should have revised the utility prices downwards given the dramatic appreciation of the national currency, the dram, in recent years. He said Armenians should be able to stop utility companies making extra profits at their expense.
But lawyers from the Armenian parliament’s staff defended the controversial legal clause. “As an independent state body, the Public Service Regulatory Commission is not accountable to any branch of government,” one of them, Ashot Khachatrian, said. “Therefore, we believe that the impossibility of appealing against tariffs in no way violates the constitution and the principle of the separation of powers.”
The nine judges of the Constitutional Court rejected these arguments after three hours of deliberations. However, their ruling will not necessarily have practical consequences as Armenian courts of first instance will still be unable to set any prices. Lawyers the courts can now only advise the PSRC to reconsider its decisions.