By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Senior government officials voiced on Wednesday their opposition to attempts by the ArmenTel national telecommunications company to drastically raise its tariffs for fixed-line phone connection in Armenia.
The operator, which has a legal monopoly on the service, submitted a relevant request last month to state regulators that have the exclusive authority to set utility tariffs. The surprise move came as its parent company, the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE), pressed ahead with the planned sale of ArmenTel to another foreign investor.
OTE short-listed last June four foreign telecom firms, among them the owners of Russia’s two largest mobile phone operators, in an international tender for its 90 percent stake in the highly profitable Armenian subsidiary. The Greeks were widely expected to pick the buyer by the end of August. But they have yet to announce the tender’s winner. Their highly unpopular decision to try to raise the fixed-line tariffs thus took many observers by surprise.
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian made it clear that he is against the measure, arguing that it would also significantly push up the cost of dial-up Internet connection and thereby hamper the development of information technology in Armenia. “If we listened to ArmenTel during all these years, we would have more problems,” he told RFE/RL. “The government’s job is not to accept every proposal but to try to find reasonable solutions to such issues.”
“I think a price hike is unacceptable,” agreed Trade and Economic Development Minister Karen Chshmaritian.
But it is the Armenian Public Service Regulatory Commission, supposedly independent of the government, that has a final say on the matter. It is due to rule on the ArmenTel application by October 15.
The regulatory body held the first hearing on the proposed price rise on Tuesday, inviting ArmenTel representatives, politicians and consumer rights groups. Its chairman, Robert Nazarian, refused to comment on its likely verdict. “I don’t want to jump into conclusions now,” he told RFE/RL.