By Karine Kalantarian
State-run post offices across Armenia have started enforcing a sharp rise in fixed-line telephone charges despite repeated government pledges to block the extremely unpopular measure announced by the ArmenTel operator two months ago.
The board of directors of the Greek-owned telecommunications monopoly decided on October 21 to double its per-minute fee for local phone calls to 8 drams (1.5 U.S. cents) starting from January. The ArmenTel directors lowered from 360 minutes to 120 minutes the monthly time threshold for charging phone users for every minute of conversation. They also scrapped altogether an alternative optional scheme that gives subscribers unlimited time in exchange for a flat fee of 3,600 drams ($6.4) paid in advance.
Yerevan offices of the Haypost postal service, which collects the bulk of ArmenTel revenues, were on Friday refusing to accept advance payments for January, citing instructions from the company’s chief executive, Vruyr Arakelian.
“You can’t do that now because we got an order not to levy fixed payments for January,” said a cashier at one of them. She produced an appropriate written directive that was dated December 3 and carried Arakelian’s signature.
The document was signed a few days after Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian, whose agency controls Haypost, again branded the ArmenTel move “illegal” and vowed to take the telecom firm to court.
Manukian reaffirmed the pledge on Friday but could not explain why Haypost is now implementing ArmenTel’s decision. “If they don’t accept [pre-payments], I’ll come back and fire the Haypost chief,” he told RFE/RL from Geneva where he was attending an international conference together with President Robert Kocharian. They were due to return to Yerevan later in the day.
“I did instruct him to continue to accept the pre-payments. I will clear up things once I get back,” the minister added.
The Armenian government insists that ArmenTel can not raise its phone prices without the approval of the Transport and Communications Ministry. Manukian said the government will sue the subsidiary of the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE) later this month for its refusal to reverse the October 21 decision.
Meanwhile, ArmenTel spokeswoman Gohar Simonian indicated that the company’s board has no intention to bow to the pressure and will go ahead with its plans.
The price increase came after the government’s decision in late September to unilaterally revoke ArmenTel’s exclusive rights to mobile phone services and external Internet traffic in Armenia on the grounds that it has been abusing its legal monopoly. Manukian and Justice Minister David Harutiunian said at the time that the government will make corresponding changes to ArmenTel’s operating license by the beginning of November. However, the anticipated decision has been delay for unknown reasons.
ArmenTel says a unilateral punitive action would breach the terms of its 1998 takeover by OTE and would be challenged in an international court.