Government ArmenTel Still Divided Over Fee Rise

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The Armenian government and the management of ArmenTel have again failed to bridge their differences over the Greek-owned telecommunications monopoly’s plans to raise phone charges–officials said on Tuesday. The two sides failed to reach any agreement at a meeting of the ArmenTel board late last week–according to Minister of Transport and Communications Yervand Zakharian.

Zakharian took part in the meeting as a representative of the government–which retains a 10 percent stake in the telecom. 90 percent of its shares belong to the state-controlled Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE).

The ArmenTel management has been pushing for months for the introduction of a new fee-collection system involving payment for every minute of local phone calls–as opposed to the existing flat fee. The change would mean an overall rise in tariffs for most customers.

Zakharian’s ministry is firmly opposed to the measure–arguing that the company is still unable to provide most phone users with adequate quality and billing services. The authorities insist that the per-minute system be introduced only after digital equipment is installed in at least 80 percent of phone stations in Yerevan. Only 45 percent of the stations have been digitized so far.

"ArmenTel is obliged to ensure that," Zakharian told RFE/RL. "Without that they don’t have the right to introduce the per-minute payment." He said the company will not be allowed to go ahead with the tariff hike–which is tentatively set for July 1–2001.

Zakharian also said that an inter-ministerial government commission is now studying OTE’s claims that it has invested $126 million in the Armenian telecom sector since its takeover of ArmenTel three years ago. Yerevan disputes the figure and demanded last month an independent audit of the company. The actual amount of the investmen’s has been another bone of contention in the protracted telecom row.

Zakharian said if the audit finds that the Greeks have failed to meet their investment target of $100 million the government will seek to abolish its 15-year monopoly on all forms of telecommunication in Armenia.

OTE’s position is supported by the government of Greece. Greece’s Ambassador to Armenia–Panayotis Zografos–told RFE/RL in late March that the company has honored its contractual obligations regarding ArmenTel.

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