By Karine Kalantarian
The ArmenTel telecommunications operator has suspended the enforcement of a controversial increase in its phone charges pending a court battle with the Armenian government which is trying to block the measure, officials said on Thursday.
The move followed the government’s threats to bring criminal charges against ArmenTel’s Greek chief executive, Georgios Vassilakis. In a letter to Prosecutor-General Aram Tamazian this week, Deputy Justice Minister Anatoly Avagian demanded criminal proceedings against Vassilakis, saying that he is defying a court injunction to freeze the tariff increase until a verdict on the government lawsuit against ArmenTel. The Armenian Economic Court is scheduled to open hearings on the case on January 8.
Avagian complained that ArmenTel offices are defying bailiffs’ orders to continue to accept optional fixed pre-payments for January phone calls which the company decided to abolish as part of its price changes.
An Armenian prosecutor dealing with the matter told RFE/RL that he was notified by ArmenTel late on Wednesday of Vassilakis’s decision ordering his subordinates not to enforce the new tariffs for the moment.
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 the alternative billing scheme that gives subscribers unlimited time in exchange for a flat fee of 3,600 drams ($6.4) paid in advance.
The government rejected the drastic measure as unjustified and vowed to prevent its implementation. The lawsuit in question was filed by Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian after ArmenTel refused to reconsider its decision.
The subsidiary of Greece’s OTE telecom giant argues that it is allowed to raise the phone fees by its operating license. The government, however, insists that it has final say on the matter.
The price row is part of broader disagreements that have poisoned relations between the two sides ever since OTE took over ArmenTel in a $200 million privatization deal in 1998. The discord intensified in recent months, culminating in the government’s decision in October to unilaterally revoke ArmenTel’s legal monopoly on mobile phone services and Armenia’s Internet connection with the outside world.
OTE denounced the move as violating one of the key terms of the 1998 deal and filed a suit to the International Court of Economic Arbitration in London last week, seeking compensation for what it sees as a substantial damage inflicted on it by the Armenian authorities.
(Photolur photo: Georgios Vassilakis.)