By Florence Avakian
More than 150 people heard U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Richard Mills lay out U.S. policy and goals that will be pursued in Armenia during his term. New York was his first stop in a two-week speaking tour that included the Armenian communities of Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Fresno, and Los Angeles, and concluded on March 11.
The event which took place at the New York headquarters of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), on Tuesday evening, March 1, 2016, was sponsored by the Eastern Diocese with the participation of the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), Armenian Assembly of America, Armenia Fund USA, Knights of Vartan, Children of Armenia Fund (COAF), Armenian Students Association, Tekeyan Cultural Association, Armenian American Health Professionals Organization (AAHPO), Armenian Engineers and Scientists of America (AESA), Constantinople Armenian Relief Society (CARS), Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society, and Justice Armenia.
After thanking Diocesan Primate Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Dr. Tavit O. Najarian introduced Ambassador Mills, calling him a seasoned diplomat who has won several honors from the U.S. State Department, and had been in Armenia years ago when he served on the State Department’s Soviet Desk, and was present at the birth of independent Armenia.
Mills who is has been a Senior Foreign Service Office for more than 25 years, has served in Europe, Asia and the Middle East in different capacities. He has already been the U.S. representative in Armenia for a year, and called the Armenian people “hospitable, fiercely independent, with a willingness to speak the truth, and possessing great humor.”
He outlined four priorities as U.S. goals in Armenia which he had announced in November of 2015 at the Chamber of Commerce. He emphasized that these goals would foster “democracy, peace, prosperity, and how best to spend the money that the U.S. Congress allocates to Armenia.”
First, he stressed the “deepening of business and trade relations-trade not aid, because the economy has now reached a certain level.” The U.S. has made investments in Armenia, in particular in the energy sector, he related, and praised the strong technology sector, calling it one of the few startups in Eastern Europe. However, he emphasized that promoting these investments was “up to Armenial.”
Secondly, Mills pointed out the fight against corruption which he noted “weakens stability, hurts small business, threatens national security, and causes the disastrous brain drain.” Does the nation have the political will to battle corruption in the courts, the media, with the predatory use of power by people on the top of the economic ladder?” he asked. Hundreds of thousands of dead people are receiving pensions, he revealed, and noted that the U.S. has worked for two years to reduce fraud, and added that the USAID program will work with the government. “If not, we’ll walk away.”
Thirdly, “we will push for democratic institutions, for a robust civil society to voice criticism and propose solutions, and advance human rights,” he explained.
Lastly, the Ambassador said the “Embassy must do a better job of explaining U.S. foreign policy to the Armenian people.” He singled out Russia for special criticism, saying he “wants to rebut Russian news, and instead promote the news of the U.S.”
Concerning “two important regional policies,” he said the U.S. is “committed to reaching a peaceful solution, not a military one, in Karabagh,” and voiced his support of the American OSCE Minsk Group co-chair Warlick. He stressed that U.S.-Russian relations are not interfering in the matter of Karabagh.
He called Turkey’s closed border and relations with Armenia “frustrating and disheartening,” then surprisingly added that “our Turkish friends are committed to dialogue.” However, “the ball is in the Turkish court,” he said with emphasis.
Never using the word Genocide, the American diplomat said it was “emotional” to be in Armenia on April 24 of last year with the presidential delegation. “I traveled to Yerevan representing President Obama to acknowledge and remember, and was deeply impressed by the ceremonies of the Armenian government.” He also remembered the Washington D.C. ceremony last year with Vice President Biden present.
Closing his prepared remarks, he expressed optimism at the “many positive changes in Armenia, but voiced the diaspora concern concerning the corruption issue. “I hope there will be a way to link Armenia with the expertise of the West.”
During the Q-and-A period, questions from the audience revolved around the issues of electoral fraud, U.S. aid to Armenia being given to transparent sources in the government. He answered by again referring back to his prepared remarks.
To a question which garnered loud applause, on the impotence of the Minsk Group to stop the deaths on the border, he replied that the Karabagh issue “is central to so many issues,” including border, markets, and corruption. Snipers on both sides, he declared, should be pulled back from the border.”
“Though we are all very concerned about the violence and the threatening rhetoric, neither side wants war or violence.” (Azerbaijan has threatened Armenia and Karabagh with war numerous times.)
During the ensuing reception, many in the audience crowded around Ambassador Mills, and continued their dialogue with him.