By Karine Kalantarian
The Armenian government has asked the ArmenTel telecommunications monopoly to postpone its planned increase of telephone charges, in a move which may be linked to the upcoming presidential elections.
ArmenTel officials told RFE/RL on Tuesday that the request is contained in a letter sent by Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian.
The Greek management of the company plans a nearly 4 percent increase in per-minute charges for local telephone calls starting from January 1. Phone users in Armenia currently pay 4 drams (about 1 U.S. cent) for every minute of conversations beyond a 6-hour limit covered by a fixed monthly fee of 900 drams (about $2).
The telecom monopoly owned by Greece’s OTE giant also charges an optional advance fee of 2,700 drams for unlimited local calls. It will be raised to 3,700 drams under the ArmenTel plans.
Manukian, who is highly critical of OTE’s activities in Armenia, has publicly branded as “illegal” the planned tariff increase, saying that he demanded from ArmenTel to abandon it. But according to ArmenTel spokeswoman Gohar Simonian, the minister only “requested” that the unpopular measure be postponed for the time being.
The government’s representative on the ArmenTel board, Serzh Sarkisian, admitted that the company is allowed to raise the phone charges in accordance with its operating license and a tariff agreement which it signed with the government last January. “Tariff changes can not be avoided because ArmenTel operates in market-based conditions,” he told RFE/RL.
Many Armenians already feel that they pay too much for their phone connection and blame the government for its inability to rein in the telecom prices which have risen dramatically over the past several years. A further increase could deepen their anger and reflect negatively on President Robert Kocharian’s participation in the February 19 presidential elections.
Strained relations between the government and OTE hit a new low recently after a row over the government’s telecom-related legal counseling expenses and its insistence of a third-party audit of ArmenTel’s books.