By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Several factions of the parliament will on Wednesday mount a concerted effort to abolish the controversial monopoly of the Greek-owned ArmenTel operator on all forms of telecommunication in Armenia. The parliamentary parties will also try to block a major rise in phone tariffs which the company plans to introduce this summer over the objections of the Armenian government.
The main initiator of the move, the centrist Orinats Yerkir party, succeeded in collecting sufficient signatures to force an emergency debate on the issue. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party was the only major parliamentary group that did not join the multi-partisan challenge as of late afternoon.
The debate in the National Assembly is likely to further complicate the already uneasy relations between the government and ArmenTel's owner, the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE). OTE's operations in Armenia have been mired in controversy ever since its 1998 acquisition of ArmenTel for $142.5 million.
Opposition groups tried unsuccessfully to invalidate its 15-year monopoly on telecom services at the time, warning that it will stifle the development of the telecom sector and information technology in Armenia. The government, in a major policy shift, admitted last year that granting OTE the exclusive rights was a mistake and moved to re negotiate terms of ArmenTel's takeover.
OTE has made it clear, however, that it will not give up the monopoly
without a corresponding financial compensation. Talks between the two sides ended in failure late last year.
Orinats Yerkir leader Artur Baghdasarian told reporters that he and other lawmakers unhappy with ArmenTel's track record will try to ban the monopoly by amending an Armenian law regulating the telecom sector. He also said they will seek to outlaw the introduction of a new phone tariff system involving payment for every minute of local calls. The ArmenTel management has long been trying to scrap the existing flat fee for its users.
Baghdasarian said Orinats Yerkir, which is rumored to have close ties with the powerful Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, will also push for the creation of a parliamentary commission tasked with clarifying the real amount of OTE's investments in Armenia -- another subject of the simmering telecom dispute.