- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 December 26 , 2003 

Charges Over Charges: Another week of disputes with Armentel

Minister Manukyan and Armentel acting director Georgios Vassilakis (in an archive photo) may have to wait to shake hands on new phone service changes

Last week, at least four disputes arose simultaneously over Armenia's telecommunication provider, Armentel, confusing customers and sparking lawsuits.

The Greek-owned OTE company, Armentel's main share holder, announced that beginning January 1 the per-minute charge for landline use would double to eight drams (a little more than a penny).

Armenia's Minister of Transport and Communication, Andranik Manukyan, insists that the company cannot apply such a change. (Earlier this week Armentel announced it is suspending the rate increase.)

At the same time last Monday OTE filed a lawsuit in the International Arbitrary Court in London, charging that the Government of Armenia has violated its contract with the communications company.

On Tuesday, the State Committee on Economic Competition Protection fined Armentel five million drams (about $9,000) for showing discrimination towards consumers.

At the same time last week, the National Assembly held discussions of a law on electronic communication that could deprive Armentel its monopoly rights in cellular communication and providing Internet service.

While the court and the Assembly are wrangling over the tumultuous relationship between the Government and the communication company, consumers are bracing for the fallout.

According to Armentel beginning January 1 the 360 minutes of free phone conversation now in force will be cut down to 120, and the monthly prepayment for free of charge communication will not apply after 360 minutes of use.

Armentel says it will no longer accept pre-payments while the dispute is being heard.

Armentel sent a letter about new tariffs to Manukyan's office and in reply, the minister said the new charges will be rejected.

According to Manukyan the company has no right to apply such tariffs since according to a contract signed in 2001 between Armenia's Ministry of Justice and Armentel the abovementioned option can be applied no sooner than December 2004.

Manukyan encourages people to continue making prepayments. (The minister had also strongly opposed Armentel's imposition, in 2001 of the per-minute tax, but his opposition was in vain.)

The time when suits will be heard is not known. According to the head of Democratic Fatherland political party Petros Makeyan the fight between the government and Armentel is only for the sake of getting shares from Armentel.

"There is no fight for the sake of people," says Makeyan, who in 1999 was one of the deputies who applied to Constitutional Court to deprive Armentel of monopoly rights.

"As a result of our research in 2001 we announced that out of $127 million investment of Armentel, $60 million is either addition or misappropriation," Makeyan says. "Afterwards, the government created a committee, which after examining the investment programs announced that there has been a $75 million embezzlement."

According to Makeyan it has already been two years but until now Armentel hasn't revealed the source of the misappropriation nor how much has been returned.

"I am sure that this is a common chain and they're doing everything to confuse people and divide income between themselves. If both parties don't come to an agreement the government will deprive Armentel of some authorities and they will be passed to Rostelecom (Russian company) or to Karabakhtelecom," Makeyan says.

Makeyan says Karabakhtelecom belongs to a clan, and that the Russians already own rights to Armenia's energy source.

"They've already given them the energy system, if they also give them the communication rights, we'll be totally dependant."



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