Interview with the U.S. Ambassador in Armenia Richard Mills. The interview was held on April 1. Mr. Ambassador, thank you for accepting our invitation for an interview. You have recently returned from the United States where, as is known, you met with the organizations of the Armenian community. I would like you to tell us the purpose of the meeting, the purpose of your initiative.
Thank you, Hakob, for coming in today to give me this chance to talk.
I really had three goals for my trip back to America to meet with the Armenian-American community. The first goal, to be honest, was to learn from them and to hear from them about what their concerns are, about the U.S.-Armenian relationship, what is on their mind as Armenian-Americans who care about both Armenia and the Armenia-America relationship. My second reason was to share with them what my priorities are as ambassador, what the embassy will be focusing on while I am the head of the mission and to see if we could find ways that they could amplify our message and how they reacted to what my priorities are. And lastly, thirdly, wanted to go to see if within the Armenian-American community I could meet and see if there’re some individuals, some groups within the community that would be interested in partnering with the embassy in some of our specific programs, our specific projects, as well as if there were some individuals who might be interested in making serious business investments or trade deals, relationship building on the commercial side here in Armenia.If we look at the result and conclusions, what concerns have been conveyed to you, what concrete result can we talk about?
First, I was very pleased as I talked to the community to sense that there’s real support for what are my priorities, for the mission over the next two years. You may know because I’ve announced and discussed it here but, really quickly, I’ve four priorities: increasing business ties, commercial ties between our two countries, helping those in Armenia that want to counter corruption, third, promoting human rights and rule of law here. And then fourth, doing a better job of talking about the U.S. foreign policy globally here in Armenia so people in Armenia have a better understanding of what the U.S. goals are for the world as a member of the international community. And I’ve found in the United States, within the Armenian-American community a great support for these priorities.Mr. Ambassador, how effective do you think your cooperation with the Armenian government is, and do you think the signals coming from Armenia match with the priorities that you mentioned?
Yes, they do, and let me say that’s been something that I’ve been very happy to hear from the government: they’re very interested in working with us, for instance, in promoting investments and trade. You may know last year the U.S. and Armenian governments signed something called the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement – or a TIFA in diplomatic speak*. And under this agreement both governments have agreed that they will meet once a year at a fairly senior level after talking to their private sectors and asking the private sector, private business people what are the problems, what are the barriers that make it hard for you to ship your apples to the United States and makes it hard for the Americans to ship their software to Armenia. And then the governments bring their answers to these meetings and then both governments say here are the barriers, here are the obstacles, let’s work to break them down. And I was very impressed, I think both sides, the Armenian government and the U.S. government, we really addressed some serious issues in the first meeting of the TIFA last fall. I was impressed how serious Armenian government took it. The deputy minister… Excuse me… we had several ministers take part and it was a very valuable form and it’s going to continue. And you may know, Hakob, just this week as we’re speaking, president Sargsyan is in the U.S. visiting Washington DC. He will be having a meeting with the Vice President, a meeting with the Secretary of State and with the Secretary of Energy of the United States. And I know that in each of the meetings one of topics that will be on the agenda is investment and how to increase trade and investment between our two countries. And that’s very positive and I think we do have a partner in the Armenian government in our effort to develop trade and investment.Mr. Ambassador, the high level of the U.S.-Armenian relationship is often mentioned, it is even mentioned that this relationship has historically been at a high level but the impression about the reality is that these relations basically progress very slowly, at least in economic terms, there are few big economic examples. Do you have such an impression and what are the obstacles for us to see a better dynamics in this relationship?
Well, first, I think, I might disagree with you a little bit on whether there has been some progress or whether we have something important to point here in terms of the economic relationship. As you know, last year we had the largest amount of U.S. foreign investment in Armenia when the U.S. firm Contour Global bought the Armenian Vorotan Hydrocascade Plant. You may know that Contour Global’s total deal was 250 million dollars of money into Armenia, 180 million to buy the plant and then 70 million dollars to upgrade and train the staff. And as I mentioned, we had this trade and investment framework council meeting last fall which, I think, has the potential to open some doors for trade between the two countries. But I don’t disagree with you. There should be more trade, more commercial interaction between our two countries. Given our historic ties, given the large Armenian-American community there, given the real opportunities for business here in Armenia with an educated work force, very cutting edge IT sector, very good agricultural products, there should be more trade. I think part of the reason there isn’t the amount of trade there should be is the closed borders, of course, Turkey’s border with Armenia being closed, the Azerbaijani border being closed. But I think I have to be honest, as I am honest with my friends here in Armenia, and I’m honest with the government, another obstacle to trade is a perception in the States, I think, that sometimes the American businesses will not get a fair deal here, the playing field as we say in the United States isn’t level because of things like corruption and government bureaucracy. And I have to say that was an issue that the Armenian-American community raised with me at every stop I went to, whether it was in New York City or Boston or Los Angeles they raised concerns about corruption whether it was possible to do business in Armenia and not to run into problems like corruption.Did you have some good news for them that the situation is changing for the better?
I told them yes that they could do business here if they came in with their eyes open, they talk to the embassy when they first arrive, and they understand that they need to have a trustworthy Armenian partner if they are going to do business here. But I came back from the States with a message for the government too to be quite honest, Hakob. And I will tell the government that there are barriers to trade that can’t be controlled, the Turkish border is closed, the Azerbaijani border is closed, but creating an impression, creating a reality that anyone who comes here, whether they are an American business, a European business or a Russian business, will be treated fairly, and they can rely on the tax system, they can rely on the courts, that is in the control of the Armenian government and the Armenian government needs to do all it can to make sure that the playing field is fair and so people will want to invest into trade here.And in your opinion, are any convincing steps taken in this direction? Because the society sticks to the opinion that the government cannot fight something the risks of which are within its territory, within its realm. And also, there was a lot of skepticism about the activities of the anti-corruption council set up with the support of the United States. What should this council do for you to assess the fight against corruption as convincing?
First, let me say, I know that there are real voices in Armenia, in civil society, in the public, in the media and in government who want to fight this problem of corruption. And that actually gives me the hope that it will be fought here in Armenia because what I don’t hear here in Armenia that I often heard in some other countries I have worked in is when you talk about corruption in those other countries, that’s how we do business, that’s part of our culture, nobody says that here in Armenia, nobody thinks here that corruption is an Armenian value. And I do believe there are not only in civil society but voices in government that know that this issue has to be addressed and Embassy has worked with those people in government. For instance, we work with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs to have cleaned up the rolls of those who were getting public benefits and pensions. And by doing that we were able to get out of the rolls many people who were dead still receiving pensions and we were able to clean that up so much that in two years in a row the Ministry was able to increase pensions for people that really deserved them by 15% each year without increase in their budget. And this is just a step, a small step, perhaps, but I think that working with the government you can make things better. There has to be political will to fight corruption. You mentioned the anti-corruption council. And you are right. USAID, which is part of the mission, part of the Embassy, is giving a grant to help the council to carry out some of its work. Let me be very clear. The money that we are providing to the council is focused on not to go to the council members but to help the council create a strategy in four different areas where there is corruption. We’ll quickly introduce them: those four are the health sector, the education area, police services and the tax administration. And our funding to the council is to help the council work with international experts who will come in with ideas on how do you fight corruption in the health sector for instance, how do you make it so that there is less need to pay a bribe or to pay someone to get into hospital or to see a doctor. And the funds will be used so that the council has some funding to go out to talk to the people, to civil society groups, on what are their ideas on how to eliminate corruption in each of these four sectors. And as we’ve said, we will see what happens, we will see whether the council will deliver some effective good ideas. And whether these ideas get implemented. We’ve been very clear with the members of the council, with the prime minister that we need to see concrete achievements and if we don’t see them, we will not keep giving money to the council. Let me just add one more thing on the council. The PM is chairing the council which I think is important because it shows that the top level government is working at this issue and will be behind that. But it also means that if the council does not work, does not come up with some good ideas, USAID will be disappointed but the real embarrassment, the real burden will fall on the government. The government has been very much publicly identified with this so I think that the government has a real interest and responsibility to see the success. What is the timeframe and criteria you are going to use to measure whether the council is effective or not? What is the timeframe and measure?
The council is just getting up and running, as you know it just got on the way last fall, we have been working with the council, set some guidelines for when we expect them to put forth some ideas in each of these four sectors and we will make a decision about our funding once those ideas have been put forth. Mr. Ambassador, the development of economic relations, as is believed especially in the case of Armenia, is contingent upon the security issues. And there is also a point of view that it is impossible to develop an economic relationship with another party if Armenia has closely linked its security issues almost solely with Russia. In your opinion, is there a possibility for a deeper economic relationship without new solutions and a new level of relations in the security area?
Well, absolutely. First let me say my message since I arrived here a year ago is that Armenia’s relations with all its neighbors, with Europe, with us, with Russia is not a zero-sum game. Armenia can have strong economic relations with Russia through the Eurasian Economic Union but it does not shut the door, I think, to good economic relations with the United States. Our only concern is that Armenia not shut the door to the West, to Europe, to us, to China, whoever it wants to trade with. I think, the Armenian government has done a good job of balancing all this economic and security
relations. And it shows how sophisticated the Armenian foreign policy is, the Armenian security policy is, Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization but it is also the only member of that organization that also participates in military exercises with NATO. And I think you’re seeing some of that this week in Washington where President Sargsyan is meeting with the Vice President, meeting with the Secretary, and we are having open discussions on many issues, economic, human rights, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, what’s happening in Syria, we’re having a full relationship despite the fact that Armenia also has a relationship with Russia. To be honest with you, the concern we had in Ukraine and with Russia’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine was that its message to the Ukrainian people seemed to be you can only have an economic relationship, you can only have a security relationship with Russia and it seemed to us wrong. Ukraine is an independent nation that should be able to have relationships with whoever it wants. And I’m very glad that for now we cannot see it happening here, Armenia has the freedom to choose whatever path it likes.And the last question, Mr. Ambassador. The developments relating to Iran open up new economic opportunities for Armenia. I wonder if the United States can see any economic initiative, idea or program in the Iran-Armenia direction. And if yes, what are they?
Oh, first let me say this question came up a lot when I was in the United States, the Diaspora, the Armenian-American Diaspora is very interested in possibilities of Iran-Armenian trade. And I can assure you the United States Government’s view is that Armenia can have good relations with its neighbors, with all its neighbors, including Iran. So we would certainly like to see commercial business ties grow between Armenia and Iran. I have to say I’m not sure how fast those ties will develop. The Iranian economy is still very bureaucratic, there are still a number of obstacles to doing business in Iran from what I understand. But there are also opportunities there. American firms still have a number of obstacles to doing business in Iran in the sense that the U.S. government has kept sanctions on Iran and other areas related to Iran’s support for terrorism, Iran’s problems with human rights, and some of its ballistic missile activities. So American companies cannot as easily move to Iranian marketplace as say some European companies can. But I am saying that Armenian companies and I am saying European companies are interested in doing business in Iran some of whom actually come to the Embassy to ask for our thoughts about business in Iran. And you ask me what the opportunities are. I think, for Armenia the real opportunity is that it can be a platform for businesses who can do business in Iran but are still reluctant to open an office in Iran, so they could open an office in Armenia and maybe travel back and forth. So and I see some interest in that, I think it will be very important to capture that opportunity is for there to be better airline connections into Yerevan and out of Yerevan in particular because many of these firms they want their business people to be able to fly to Europe and to other places easily.Mr. Ambassador, thank you for answering our questions.
Thank you, it was very, very interesting.
*“speak” in this sense means “language”