RFE/RL – Thank you, Mr. Ambassador, for coming to our bureau in Yerevan. I want to start by asking how do you evaluate the current state of Armenian – U.S. relationship.
Mills – I’m very pleased to say that the relationship is very good and very strong. We are partners in a lot of areas diplomatically, militarily, culturally. I think the announcement of our ‘Trade and investment’ framework agreement that was signed last month was a sign of that engagement and how strong the relationship is. I think Assistant Secretary Nuland, from the Department of State, who was here in February — a very high ranking visitor, to have her visit as well, I think is a sign of how engaged we are with the Armenian people and the Armenian government.
RFE/RL – Mr. Ambassador, we know that you are helping the Armenian government in many aspects, but one of them is fighting corruption in Armenia. What is the interest of the United States government in fighting corruption in Armenia. I understand that it is also part of your mission here to support building democracy in the country, reforms. But would you just explain what is your main interest here?
Mills – We are partnering with Armenian government, with Armenian civil society, the Armenian media to help fight corruption, because it stymies the interests we share with the Armenian people, stymies our goals for the Armenian state and for our relationship. Our goals are very simple for Armenia. We would like to see Armenia be free, prosperous and at peace with its neighbors. And corruption at all levels stymies that, corruption sets back economic growth, it hurts human rights development, it undermines democracy. I think even undermines the national security of a country where there’s corruption. Outside forces can control the development of your country. So because we share these goals we want to partner with the Armenian people to help fight corruption here. And I should be clear – corruption is an issue that every government around the world has to fight every day. We have to fight it in the United States – we have instances of corruption. And the question is whether a government has the tools and the political will to fight corruption, whether there’s a civil society that can help partner with government to fight it. So that’s our goal – to help the Armenian government have the tools it needs, help civil society, to help the Armenian people stand up and put a spotlight on issues of corruption and help fight it.
RFE/RL – Previously we had projects, schemes like “Millennium Challenge Account” you were doing through these projects. But it seems to me, this is just one item, a big item that is important for you. Is it the case?
Mills – It is an important item for us. Absolutely. As I said, it can stymie all our goals that we share with the Armenian people. But I should say this idea of building transparency, building accountability into Armenian life and Armenian governance works through all our programs, it’s a part of everything we do. We want to make our programs as open as possible, we want to help make Armenian government as transparent and open as it should be. So it’s a part of everything we do in many ways.
RFE/RL – Mr. Ambassador, do you also talk to civil society members, public? Are you discussing this issue also with them?
Mills – Absolutely. In fact last night I hosted an even to highlight this issue of fighting corruption and I wanted to spotlight the Armenian partners that we have here both in the government, but particularly in civil society that work on this issue. So I brought them to my house last night and we met and we talked and I learned a lot about what they’re doing, what works, what doesn’t work sometimes. And I also gave them a chance to meet with Armenian government officials, people that really can control some levers on this issue. And let me say – it’s a partnership. Civil society has to play a role with government to address this question. One of our programs that we fund through USAID is to empower civil society groups that are focused on corruption and building more transparency, more accountability into Armenian life. We help those organizations talk to the Armenian people and reach out and do their work.
RFE/RL – Mr. Ambassador, there’s also a belief among the civil society members that the very body that has been set up by the prime minister, the Anticorruption council, some of the prominent civil society members believe that these guys are the source of corruption. If not the source, then they are a risk for corruption. How would you convince the public and the civil society members that actually this can work.
Mills – Let me be clear. It is up to the government to convince the Armenian people that the Anticorruption council is real and a real effective tool. That’s not our roll. And I think there is a misconception sometimes that we are funding the Anticorruption council. That’s not really what we’re doing. We are providing some specific aid for specific aspects of the Council’s work. For instance, we’re providing some technical expertise to help them come up with a possible work plan of steps to address corruption in government services, in legal services, police services. We also help fund a very specific program so the council can talk to the Armenian people do public outreach, listen to what the Armenian people are saying about corruption. So two very specific programs. To be honest, we don’t hand money over to the council members themselves.
I understand why people can be, perhaps, skeptical about the Council, about any government effort to fight corruption and let me just say the Embassy, the U.S. Government, we view the Council as a tool, as a commitment by the government to address this issue, which they’ve made publicly.
I’m willing to work with any institution of the Armenian government that is committed to fighting corruption. And so we will work with this Council. But as I’ve said, we expect to see actions, words aren’t enough and we will constantly evaluate our cooperation with the Council and if over time we don’t see the kind of commitment, the kind of actions that the Prime Minister and the Council itself says they want to take, then we will reevaluate our relationship with the council.
RFE/RL – The work of this Council could also affect Armenian – U.S. relations in general? For example, if they fail really badly, they don’t do their mission, the Council is not working, not functional, what will be the consequences.
Mills – I think the consequences of failure, and I don’t want to assume that we’re going to see failure because I don’t. But I think if we can’t address this larger issue of corruption, which I understand is a serous issue here. I know it affects so much of Armenians’ daily life. It will affect a large part of our relationship, specific areas. For instance – investment. I’m really committed to growing the commercial ties, the investment ties between Armenia and the United States. I think now is the time to focus on that. But to attract U.S. investment, investors need to know they’re entering a climate where everyone is treated the same, where there’s no unfair competition, where government services are equally available to everyone. And so if we don’t see the Corruption council address those things I think that will hurt the opportunities for investment here.
You know, we just had a major success with the sale of Vorotan transmission to a U.S. company.
RFE/RL – That was a major deal, right?
Mills – Major investment, it is the largest U.S. investment here. I think it opens the door for more. It’s proof of what happens that we can get investment when a U.S. company believes that they’re being treated fairly, that the government treated them like anyone else, we can see that investment come. So that’s what I’d like to see the corruption council change.
RFE/RL – Do you see the interest in Armenia, by the Armenian government officials to see more U.S. investment here. Do they really want that U.S. money come to Armenia?
Mills – Yes, I think they do. I sincerely believe that there’s a real interest for more U.S. commercial ties, more U.S. investment here. I think there’s and understanding that U.S. investment here, they’re good citizens when they come, U.S. companies, I believe. I think they bring international standards of operation, management, corporate social responsibility. So I think there is real interest.
RFE/RL – And this is not only Armenian Diaspora, right?
Mills – Absolutely. Beyond the Armenian Diaspora. The Armenian Diaspora has done many important and valuable things here. And they’ve been an enormous resource for the people of Armenia over the last 25 years and before. But it’s very important that our relationship be based on solid economic specifics and benefit to both sides. So this is my effort and the effort, I believe, of the Armenian government, to go beyond the Armenian Diaspora as a source of investment, butto business community in America as a whole, who will come here and find a profitable place to invest.
RFE/RL – Mr. Ambassador, Armenia is recipient of foreign aid, loans, grants. Huge amounts are coming and the U.S. is the major donor for Armenia for many-many years. But we don’t see really a progress.Despite all your efforts so far we still don’t see visible signs of improvement. Whatever you’re doing here. And you do very important things here, very important programs. Why are your programs working in neighboring Georgia and not here? What’s the secret?
Mills – Just to clarify, Harry, you’re talking about programs against corruption and more transparency?
RFE/RL – Yes.
Mills – Well, I recognize that corruption is still a serious issue here. I talk to Armenians that I meet, I talk to government officials. There’s a recognition that it’s a real issue here. It is corrosive and as I said, it’s stymying our shared goals. I do think there’s been some progress made. When you look at some outside judges, Transparency International, which is so well respected in this field. Their Corruption Perception Index showed Armenia rising. Slightly, but rising over the last over the last several years. The World Bank assessment of the ease of doing business went up. Armenia’s ranking went up in part because corruption is being tackled here. So I think there’ve been some small improvements. And they’re measurable. I think every country is different. Different culture, different environment. To look at one country and try and pose that model to another or say why did it work there and not here, I don’t think it works. I think we have to look for Armenian solutions, Armenian models partnering with the Armenian government and the civil society. And I think USAID, our main assistance arm here, they have the lead on this. And I think what we’re focused on here in Armenia in terms of corruption is improving the delivery of government services so that the Armenian people receive the services that they’re entitled to in a fair and equitable way. And so that’s what we’ve been focusing on. And again I think we’ve made some progress there.
RFE/RL – Mr. Ambassador, this is just about the small and medium sized businesses. They’re suffering most from this corruption because they don’t have all these connections that big businesses have. What would you tell them? Would you comfort them saying that, you know, don’t worry, the help is coming? What would you say to our small and medium sized businesses? They really want to turn this economy and they want to do their best to improve the economic situation in Armenia, but sometimes they need help.
Mills – I absolutely agree. The burden of corruption falls on the most vulnerable people in Armenia, the smallest businesses, the small, struggling business person, who is trying to start his or her operations. I understand how difficult that can be. I do know there have been some success stories of small businesses here, both Armenian and foreign. My message to anyone, who has an issue with corruption, is – find a way to highlight it, don’t be afraid to speak up. I do believe there are tools at your disposal within the government to address it and to find someone that will help you address it. We’re trying to give you more tools. One, for instance that I just visited last month, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. We worked with them along with the World Bank to automate all the pension information, all the social benefit information. We also helped them with their call center, the 114 call center, so they can handle all the questions about any social benefit. And our idea was, this will make the whole system of social benefits more transparent. It also provides a tool, where if someone knows that some corruption or fraud is happening, they can call and report it. And there’s a mechanism to handle that.
I think it’s been a real success. I visited the call center, I heard them talking to Armenians who were raising on the phone concerns about fraud and abuse.
And the automation helped the Ministry clear out a lot of people who didn’t deserve to be getting pensions or perhaps were long dead but somebody was still receiving their pension. And because of this specific program they were able to save enough money at the ministry that they could raise pensions for people that deserved their pensions by 15 percent over the last two years without any new moneys coming from the government. So I think it was a real success. And it is an example to me that when the Armenian people have a tool to fight corruption, they’ll use it.
RFE/RL – Mr. Ambassador, our Diaspora in the States is closely watching what’s happening in the country. Some of them want to come to invest here. What would you tell them? Do you think that the conditions will get better, are you urging them to come here to invest? When you go back to the United States you usually have a meeting with them, you talk to them. What’s your message?
Mills – My message is Armenia is still an important place to invest. It has some strategic advantages – a very educated workforce, an important location between East and West. But I would tell anyone, whether they were a member of the Armenian Diaspora or just an American businessman from Mississippi, when they come here they need to keep their eyes open. They need to, in Ronald Reygan’s immortal words, “trust, but verify,” and they need to make sure they know who they’re dealing with in terms of their partners here. They should work with us at the embassy. We’re here to help them, we’re here to make sure they get treated on a level playing field. And if they come with that attitude, I think this is a place they can make some profit and develop some strong commercial ties that will benefit both countries.
RFE/RL – You’re an optimist.
Mills – I’m optimistic. Party, Harry, because I’ve seen how far this country’s come. I followed Armenian affairs 25 years ago. And I know what it was like here with no electricity, no heat. I know what the Armenian people are capable of. They’ve really overcome a lot. So yes, I’m optimistic.
I don’t want to discount the challenges. There are serious challenges here. Corruption is one of them, fighting it is one of them. But like last night, I met so many committed Armenian partners in civil society and in government, who are aware of this problem and they want to fight it. And that makes me optimistic.