After serving more than three years in Armenia, U.S. Ambassador Richard Mills prepares to leave a country deeply transformed. Speaking about his time in Armenia, Ambassador Mills reflects on some of the sweeping changes that took place with the Velvet Revolution, the challenges of achieving a lasting and peaceful resolution in the Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) conflict and what the Armenian people should be prepared for, complicated relations with Iran and the road ahead.
“This is a different country than the one I arrived in 3.5 years ago,” Ambassador Mills said. “I leave very inspired by that and very hopeful.” While the U.S. diplomat is hopeful, he is also aware that there’s a hard journey ahead to keep the transition of April-May (how he prefers to call the Velvet Revolution) of this year on track, to keep the country moving forward “the right way.” He noted that Armenia can “end up with a Mandela or a Mugabe,” and while he feels the country is headed a Mandela way “you have to watch out and be careful, it’s a time of transition, a time of flux, as the prime minister himself has said.”
Almost five months in power, Nikol Pashinyan and his government are facing the daunting challenges of governance compounded by deep political uncertainty following the Velvet Revolution. In this reality, Ambassador Mills places great importance on the ability of civil society, the media, politicians and political parties to feel free to speak up, to reach out and to criticize and offer constructive ideas to move the political process forward. “I know it’s a very human reaction, so many of the activists and civil society folks that I know and have met out of my 3.5 years here have friends in the government, many of them were working with the government on issues, and it’s a very human thing to go easy on your friends, I understand it,” he said adding that this is exactly the worse time to do that. “You need to be constructive always, but I’m a little worried, I sense a hesitation, I sense that if we say something negative about a specific action….somehow we’re against the April-May events,” he explained. Mills adds that if they do criticize then they are accused of not supporting the events and that’s a dangerous trend.
Mills hopes that Prime Minister Pashinyan himself might speak out about the need for open dialogue from all sectors of society, to ensure that public discourse is welcomed and people feel free to express their opinions. “It’s not an us vs. them situation at all,” he said.
The Role of Civil Society
Ambassador Mills was very clear that what happened in the spring of this year was an Armenian-driven event and that suggestions or conspiracy theories that outside influences brought about the Velvet Revolution are completely unfounded. “It was an Armenian-led event by the people...this was a broad-based movement of the people and I learned a long time ago not to bet against the Armenian people and their perseverance,” he said.
He does believe that assistance by the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. government, the EU and all of Armenia’s friends “who helped support and nurture civil society over the last 20 years did lay the groundwork and create the dialogue and discussion that ultimately led to the events of April-May.” He relayed a story about someone in the Pashinyan government’s inner circle and those leading the revolution, who had studied in the U.S. as a young student: “He told me that during the entire time of the April-May events, he was carrying a copy of Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’ This is a small thing but very powerful symbol of how the role that outside influence might have played in people’s lives.”
How America Views Armenia
Ambassador Mills said that the U.S. government sees Armenia as a friend in the region, a partner with whom they have a strong relationship in many areas and that their “door is always open.” Understanding the special relationship Armenia has with Russia rooted in history, culture, economic ties and the “harsh reality of the military relationship” Mills said that they are not expecting or pressing that Armenia veer away from that relationship. “We just want an open door so that it can have a relationship with whoever it chooses, with the U.S., with the EU, with Russia, China,” he noted.
Complex geopolitics, an unresolved conflict and closed borders doesn’t leave many options, however Mills believes that Armenia has able to skillfully maintain relationships with all of its partners. “I have to give the previous government much credit for this,” he noted. “And so far, I believe that the Prime Minister has done a good job of this as well.” He went on to say that one of the major successes during and immediately following the revolution was the strong message that there was not going to be a change in Armenia’s foreign relations. He stressed once again that the U.S. never said that their criteria for this new transitional Armenia would be that they would have to have a different relationship with Russia and a different one with them, on the contrary, they wanted Armenia to keep its balanced foreign policy approach.
“Ultimately, what we want for Armenia is that it follow its own foreign policy based on a very basic principle; Armenia is a sovereign nation, it should make its own decisions based on its own interests and the interests of the Armenian people,” Mills said acknowledging while this may seem simple, it’s very difficult to implement. “We just want to make sure that Armenia remains a sovereign country, free to make its own decisions, we want to help it to the extent that in issues like security or energy or economic ties it has more options, that certain countries don’t have so much leverage over Armenia. A lot of our programs and efforts are focused on that.”
Mills said that much of their assistance to Armenia has been to ensure that it has a more diverse energy sector, such diversity “that would free it up so that it wouldn’t be perhaps quite as dependent on other nations.” How that will be possible when major regional energy programs have bypassed Armenia, under conditions of closed borders with two of its four neighbors and limited options with Iran, the Ambassador said, “That’s a problem that makes things that much harder.” He believes that Armenia should focus on clean energy options, particularly hydroelectric, wind and solar power. “We’ve looked to help Armenia move and integrate with the Georgian energy grid and to use its electricity resources, sell them to Georgia, become more interconnected that way so it has more options,” he explained. “It’s not a short-term option, it’s a long term play and expensive though there is a real opening for clean alternative energy; Armenia has some options, some tools and assets to bring to the table.”
Mills did note that as long as the Artsakh issue remains unsolved, there will always be a special relationship with Russia, “probably cemented in the early 1990s when the decision was made to engage in a military approach to NK.”
The Artsakh Conflict
Regarding Armenia’s choices to resolving the conflict in Artsakh, the U.S. Ambassador was clear that the Armenian people will have to decide for themselves what they’re prepared for. Although he’s hoping that the transition will generate more discussion on what Armenia’s options are and what Armenia is prepared to accept, he’s been struck by how little discussion there was about what would have been or is an acceptable solution and compromise. “What I did hear was a little disturbing because it appeared to be a step back from where we were,” he said. “I was surprised when I first got here and found out that most Armenians I met were adamantly opposed to the return of the occupied territories as part of a negotiation settlement.” He noted that return of land was one of the core principles of the Madrid Principles. “It has long been my government’s understanding of why the occupied territories were originally seized; they would be land for a peace option,” he said. “So I was very surprised that there was no support for that anymore.”
He says he understands how events like the 2016 April War make this even more difficult for the Armenian people, but “the harsh reality is that any settlement is going to require the return of some portion of the occupied territories.” He went on to note that the status quo is no longer in Armenia’s favor - from closed borders to the strain on the country’s material and human resources to corruption risks associated with the conflict. “Corruption didn’t grow because there are evil people here,” he said. “The ground was pretty fertile for it because you have closed borders and a very small economy, so it’s very easy to control markets.” He also added that when a country is at war, it’s easy to pushback on those that “might be offering criticism on certain aspects of society, when we’re at war, people are dying, you have to be a patriot...”
The U.S. is one of the three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group that is charged with finding a peaceful solution to the Artsakh conflict, and which often comes under criticism from both sides for its ineffectiveness. “I agree with the Prime Minister’s comments; it remains the best game in town, it’s the only game that still has the support of both governments, it has the support of the international community, it has been endorsed by the Security Council, it brings together the key players - the U.S., Russia and France really on behalf of the EU to the table - it’s proven remarkably durable over the years,” he noted but it could be argued that this is also a sign of its weakness. Mills says that the Minsk process was not put into place to be a referee in the conflict. “It was not set up to call balls and strikes, to say you just violated the line of contact, you just said a bad thing, it never was and I know that’s frustrating to many people, they want it to do that, so do the Azeris, but it wasn’t designed to do that; it was designed to conduct negotiations and talks,” he explained. “If you want it to call balls and strikes, you have to give that to the Minsk Group in its charter and authority or you have to give it to something else.” Mills thinks if that were to happen, then the Minsk Group would lose its ability to be a neutral player.
Iran, the Region and Beyond
Under the current global climate, does the U.S. understand and appreciate Armenia’s relationship with Iran? The Ambassador said that the U.S. does understand that Iran is Armenia’s neighbor and noted that during the 2008 Georgian war when the border to Georgia was closed, Iran was Armenia’s only route to the outside world. “We recognize that and we know that neighbors need to get along,” he said. “So there’s no interest or push from Washington for Armenia to end its relationship or turn hostile toward Iran.” However, the U.S. does expect two specific things from their “friend” Armenia.
Mills said that Armenia wants to be taken seriously as a member of the international community, “which is a goal we adamantly support not just out of friendship, but because we believe that Armenia shares our views, our values about how the the world should run.” He said that they want Armenia to have a seat at the table and were pleased when Armenia was invited to attend President Obama’s summit on peacekeeping at the UN, when it attended and worked on the summit on protecting the Christian communities in the Middle East and refugee work at the UN. “We’ve worked with Armenia on genocide prevention and Geneva, these are important global issues and we’re happy and pleased that Armenia is playing a role,” he said. “But if your voice is going to be heard in the international community, you also have to accept some responsibilities.”
According to the diplomat, one those responsibilities includes speaking out when another member of the international community “engages in destructive behavior that violates international law or the norms of behavior.” He said that the U.S. government’s position is that Iran is engaged in supporting terrorism around the world. “From supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon to the terrorist attacks of Assad in Syria - it has troops in Syria - it is a destabilizing influence, its hostility to Israel. These kind of things need to be addressed by the international community,” he said adding that when appropriate, when there’s an act by any international state that violates the norms of the community, that requires responsible states to speak out. “We will be looking to Armenia to join others to speak out,” he went on. “We realize that may be difficult sometimes, but that’s one thing we’ll be looking for.”
Mills said that they are also not asking Armenia to stop its economic relationship or trade with Iran. “Even under the global sanctions that were in place before JPCO [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or Iran Nuclear Deal] agreement was reached, the ones imposed by the Security Council, Armenia had a waiver for some of its energy deals, gas for electricity for instance,” he said. “We welcomed that and approved that, so we’ve always recognized Armenia’s special needs.” He said that now when the U.S. is tightening sanctions on Iran, they’re asking Armenian businesses to simply pay attention to their sanctions so they don’t get caught in them. “These sanctions are very targeted, they’re not broad based on all of Iran,” he noted adding that they’re targeting specific individuals, businesses and entities that encompass two or three sectors including oil and gas, finance. “Again, an Armenian business may decide that they’re willing to risk access to the U.S. market, but we’re just saying that we are going to have these sanctions in place, we think it’s important, so talk to us before you make a deal or engage in business,” he said. “But we’re not pressing for a blanket ban on Armenian economic activity with Iran.”
Ambassador Mills has on several occasions spoken out about the controversy surrounding the Amulsar gold mine that was recently ordered to halt operations by the prime minister after activists and residents demanded its closure. He said that if Armenia decides it doesn’t want mining in the country, that’s their prerogative, but that the mining sector is one of the few resources Armenia has.
He said that he has seen absolutely no evidence of corruption by Lydian, the Anglo-American investment company running the mine. “I’m not aware that they have violated environmental norms,” the Ambassador said. “The financing has come in part from shareholders and investors, the initial financing came through international organizations like the EBRD, the World Bank, which have their own environmental requirements before they would get involved in a mining project like this.” He went on to say that what is disturbing is that the company has not even done any mining at the site. “They’re still in the construction, pre-mining phase, so the mine was shut down, without any real threat to the environment,” he noted. “You could have conducted another environmental assessment, if that’s what the company and the government agreed, while the construction was going on; why it had to be stopped now, I’m not sure.” The diplomat also added that there 27 other mines in Armenia and none of them are being shut down. “I’ll accept face value that there was environmental concern...But the magical thinking here is that you’re going to do that and there will be no repercussions on Armenia’s attractiveness for international investors.”
According to Mills, Amulsar is a state-of-the-art, environmentally sensitive project that has gone through “a lot of steps” with no evidence of corruption as far as he knows and now it has been ordered to cease operations “and not on the basis of any legal decision or government decision.” Protesters have blocked the road to the mine and Mills noted that while he is a big believer in civil disobedience “it’s justified when you’re in an environment, like perhaps we were in April/May where there are no other avenues to express your views. I’m not sure this is the case, that it justifies civil disobedience that has resulted in hundreds of people losing their jobs with this investment closing.”
Mills said that businesspeople and investors in the U.S. are sophisticated enough and would understand if the Armenian government reevaluated the project if there was evidence of something askew. “But there’s none of that and there’s a feeling that this is being done somehow without due process and without the rule of law and that’s very concerning,” he explained. “It does create an investment concern and that’s not a threat, it’s not something that I’m going to be pleased to say. But my first responsibility is to U.S. interests and U.S. citizens and investors and if they ask me I’m going to say, well you need to know that this thing has happened to Lydian and you draw your own conclusions, but I fear the conclusion they’ll draw.”
This is particularly concerning, Mills noted, because following the Velvet Revolution there is heightened attention on Armenia and many people are giving it a second look, therefore how this case is handled is particularly important. “I know the Prime Minister is aware of this, I know his team is aware of this, they’re trying to balance interests and that’s a tough part of being a leader but that’s what it means, you inherit a lot of things,” he added.
Having said that, the U.S. government has increased assistance to Armenia with an additional 14 million USD. In the coming year, the U.S. will provide more than 26 million USD from its 2018 fiscal year foreign assistance funds which is 20 million USD more than was requested for Armenia. According to the U.S. Embassy press service, the funds “will support the implementation of key programs relating to the political processes in the country, civil society and strengthening of free mass media.” Ambassador Mills said that they wanted to send a message that they are supportive of the transition and what’s happened since and they expect “more accountability, transparency, a society where everybody plays by the same rules.”
Before he parted, Ambassador Mills presented Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan a book about John Adams. “As you know, John Adams was one of our founding fathers,” Mills explained. “I’m a big John Adams fan because he believed in the power of people and that they had the dignity and ability to decide what was right for them.” He went on to explain that Adams was also cautious about moving too fast following a revolution. “Adams always thought that it was imperative that there be checks and balances and that all parties agree that the only way to move a revolution forward in a lasting way was on a peaceful basis,” the Mills explained. “He very famously said that the American Revolution wasn’t won on the battlefields and on the streets, it was won by winning the hearts and minds of the Americans and I thought that was an important message right now and one that I think the Prime Minister shares.”
Ambassador Mills is reflective as he leaves for his next diplomatic mission after three and a half years in Armenia. He says that the Velvet Revolution will stay with him for a long time because of how inspiring it was and particularly because it was so peaceful and so unpredicted. “As an American, the lesson I take away from my time here is to try and see if we can balance what Armenia has balanced, which is a strong national identity, this ability to hold on to their culture, their religious faith, their language in the face of enormous tragedy and pressure and outside attacks and a history that’s been bittersweet,” he said. While holding on to their identity and retaining a fierce sense of what it means to be Armenian, the Ambassador noted that they have not shut themselves off to the other cultures. “When I go to Meghri and see St. Hovhannes Church with its beautiful frescoes, it’s Christian iconography but there’s this beautiful Persian artwork and that to me is such a metaphor for how Armenia has been able to survive without closing itself off,” Mills said. “I’ve been to countries where they have hung on to their culture, but they’ve become very insular, and they’ve shut themselves off and they’re not open, and I don’t think that’s where Armenia is right now, but that is a lesson that is more important than ever right now.”