Constitutional Court Hearings On ArmenTel Monopoly Near Close

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Armenia’s Constitutional Court is expected to decide on Wednesday whether or not giving the ArmenTel operator exclusive rights on the country’s telecommunications network was against the basic law.

The Court on Tuesday continued proceedings on the appeal–filed by opposition factions in parliament–with leading opposition parliamentarians and government ministers making their case. The discussions will end on Wednesday morning–after which nine judges of the Court will meet behind the close doors to give their verdict.

At stake is an article of Armenia’s law on telecommunications upholding the ArmenTel monopoly. The company was privatized in late 1997 after Greece’s OTE corporation paid $142 million to buy 80 percent of its stake.

The 15-year exclusive rights were part of the deal. Artak Vartanian–the minister of postal service and telecommunications–said in his testimony: "The article [in question] does not contradict the constitution."

He denied that the controversial clause may hamper Armenia’s efforts to gain membership in the World Trade Organization–saying that "developing countries" can allow monopolist activities in their economies for "10 to 15 years." He said ArmenTel’s monopoly is not opposed by the European Union as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Developmen’s is preparing to buy 10 percent of the company’s stock.

But critics have said the exclusive rights contradict Article 8 of the constitution which states that "the state guarantees free economic competition." The opposition challenge followed ArmenTel’s decision to substantially increase its telephone charges effective as of mid-January.

The increase was scaled down by the OTE management after a wave of strong criticism in Armenia.

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