By Aram Arkun
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Richard M. Mills, Jr., the US ambassador to the Republic of Armenia, has been on a tour of Armenian American communities. After New York (see the article by Hagop Vartivarian in this issue), he came to Boston on March 3, and went on afterwards to Detroit, Fresno and Los Angeles. In each place, he made a presentation and answered audience questions about US government policies concerning Armenia and the activities of his embassy. The presentation for the Boston region took place at Holy Trinity Armenian Church of Cambridge, with pastor Rev. Vasken Kouzouian serving as host.
Kouzouian pointed out that Marie Yovanovitch was the most recent previous US ambassador to Armenia to visit Boston in 2009. Janice Dorian recited a brief biography of the ambassador before inviting him to speak. Mills is an experienced career diplomat who has served in Beirut, Malta, Baghdad (“Senior Democracy Advisor”), London, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and many other countries, including St. Petersburg. He speaks French and conversational Russian, and has a B.A. from Georgtown, a J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law, and a master’s in National Security Strategy from the National Defense University (a Washington DC institution funded by the US Department of Defense).
Mills began by praising positive values of Armenian traditions and culture, and said that he had been the first desk officer for Armenia for the State Department some 20 years ago after Armenian independence. He therefore had a basis for making a comparison. He remembered the challenges and privations of the dark years. He said, “present-day life in Armenia bears little resemblance to life 20 or even 10 years ago.” Vast improvements have occurred, with a government working to improve the delivery of services, and a robust civil society. Armenia has moved away from the Soviet approach, he said, and the rule of law has been improved. Furthermore, Armenia plays a role in the international community that is much larger than its small geographical size would lead one to expect.
In sum, he said, it should give everybody in the room great pride. He also praised the diaspora, which has helped in this process greatly.
Mills said that the US government’s overarching goal for Armenia is to have a democratic and prosperous country, secure in its relations with its neighbors. Two foreign policy issues, he said, were a focus for the embassy and the US government: the Nagorno Karabagh conflict, and Turkish-Armenian relations. Concerning the latter, Mills said, the US government is still trying to encourage “frank dialogue” between Turks and Armenians, and in particular encourages business to business, and individual relations. It still presses Turkey “at the highest levels” to implement the abortive 2009 Turkish-Armenian protocols. Mills said that the Turks walked away from the protocols, so the ball is with them.
Mills, without using the word genocide, stated that he joined the Armenian people in remembrance of the 1.5 million Armenians massacred or marched to their deaths at the end of the Ottoman Empire one hundred years ago. He was part of the US delegation which went to Tsitsernakaberd last year, and said he was deeply moved by it and by the Washington DC ecumenical service.
On Karabagh, he said the US remains committed to a negotiated settlement through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group process, not through military action. He added that despite some souring of relations between Russia and the US, the collaboration between the two countries is still strong in this particular context. The US wanted dialogue between Armenians and Azerbaijanis on a civil society level, but this process was less successful than US efforts to promote Turkish-Armenian dialogue.
Mills explained that he set four priorities for the work of the embassy after his first six months in office. The first was to improve and deepen trade relations between the US and Armenia. Last year a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement was signed between the two countries. It requires bilateral governmental meetings once or twice a year after a canvassing of the private sector to assess what problems exist that need attention.
The embassy is trying to get more US investment into Armenia. One important achievement last year was in the energy sector (primarily dominated by Russia). The New York-based firm ContourGlobal purchased the Vorotan hydroelectric facility, and Mills hopes that this will be a model for other potential investors. This spring the embassy will organize a private equity conference. One sector of the economy the embassy focuses on is information technology, since software can be easily international transported despite the problems of closed borders that Armenia still faces. Armenia enjoys a very strong competitive advantage in this field, Mills said, and was the Silicon Valley of the former Soviet Union.
The embassy primarily works to create an equitable and transparent business environment with predictability, fairly applied taxes, and reliably working courts, according to Mills.
The second priority of the embassy was to counter corruption. He said that it takes a very big toll on Armenia domestically, and has a “chilling effect” on foreign investment. He said it undermines democracy and the rule of law, causing cynicism and mistrust. He declared that it could also threaten national security by giving a way for outside powers to influence the country, and it hastens emigration, including of the most talented and productive elements of the population. Pressure from the US and others led, Mills continued, to the Armenian government’s creation of the Anti-Corruption Council.
One specific example of US help is in the field of automating pension and social benefits systems, which the World Bank and USAID supported. This allowed the government to update its pension recipient list and eliminate thousands of names of people long dead but still receiving pensions. The savings allowed raising pension benefits two years in a row.
The third priority of the embassy is to strengthen human rights and civil society. Mills said that there is a vibrant civil society in Armenia, but a lot of progress is necessary.
The fourth priority is to better communicate US foreign policy goals. Mills said that many Armenians do not seem to understand these goals, and what the US is doing in places like Syria and Ukraine, because of the dominance of Russian media in Armenia. Instead, Mills and his colleagues seek venues where they can explain the official US line on various issues.
Mills encouraged the diaspora to play a bigger role in Armenia. He encouraged audience members to contact the embassy if they wanted to help, and stressed that what the Armenian community abroad thinks about issues like corruption has a great impact in Armenia. For example, Mills said, the prime minister of Armenia gets a summary of the international Armenian media.
After his formal talk, Mills showed some slides of the work of the embassy and made some “informal” comments. He pointed out that the Armenian Church was a big partner of the US, especially in the human rights field. The US also had a strong relationship with the Armenian military, and helping reforms and peacekeeping functions. He showed pictures of “American corners” in Armenia – spaces in schools and elsewhere with information on the US. Among other tools, the embassy is using a book on Clara Barton.
One slide depicted a mural restored in Gumri through American funds. Another showed the opening of a farm extension center based on the model of similar centers in the US. Small farmers who cannot afford sophisticated equipment can rent it for a few hours or get expert advice.
One interesting program Mills mentioned was an attempt to increase tourism in the countryside, which would improve the economy there and hopefully prevent emigration.
Mills also took questions from the audience. Three questions dealt with the Armenian Genocide, and were critical of the US State Department’s failure to formally acknowledge it and use the generally accepted terminology. The first questioner asserted that the US was afraid to stand up to Turkey, which supports ISIS. Mills defended the Turkish government as part of the anti ISIS coalition, and declared there was no proof of ISIS selling oil to the Turkish government, but added that the US criticizes Turkey publically like when intellectuals criticizing the Turkish government on the Kurdish situation were arrested.
In answering two later questions, Mills referred listeners to President Barack Obama’s April statement, and carefully avoided using the word genocide in connection with the Armenians.
Other questions dealt with Karabagh, the budget of the US embassy, State Department sponsorship of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation efforts, the effects improved US-Iranian relations will have on Armenia, and American support for resettlement of Syrian refugees in Armenia.