Ambassador Richard Mills’ AUA Commencement Speech

AUA commencementVokshuin. I regret that will be my last word of Armenian in my remarks today. I hope the next time I speak at this beautiful campus to be able to say a few more words in Armenian. For now, I appreciate your patience. Your Grace Bishop Gevorg Saroyan, Dr. Armen Der Kiureghian, Dr. Donald Fuller, Father Mesrop Aramyan, distinguished guests, parents, and – last but certainly not least – members of the American University of Armenia’s graduating class of 2015.  I am honored to share this day with you, a day that represents the culmination of an enormous amount of hard work, commitment, and sacrifice –on the part of both the graduates and their families.

Graduations are times of endings, but also of great beginnings.  That is why in the United States, we call these ceremonies “commencements,” for once you receive your degree, you commence the rest of your life.  For me, the idea of commencement – that one phase of life ends as another begins – has made me reflect upon my own Armenian journey.  As some of you may know, I arrived in Yerevan to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Armenia in February, just four months ago.  So I have recently experienced my own commencement, as it were.  But my assignment to Armenia is also the culmination of a journey I started 25 years ago, when I became the first desk officer at the State Department for the independent state of Armenia.  It was incredibly exciting for me to witness the birth of diplomatic relations between our two sovereign nations, and over the years, as I undertook a variety of diplomatic assignments, I continued to follow the progress of your country.  And with that perspective, I hope you’ll allow me to share some reflections on Armenia – some of the enormous achievements I’ve seen since 1991, which give reason for vast optimism, but also the main challenges that remain.

First of all, I would like to emphasize that Armenia has made great strides in many areas since independence. Since I’ve been asked to speak for no more than 10 minutes, I cannot possibly enumerate them all.  But I do want to mention three in particular:  Armenia’s creative and innovative workforce, as exemplified by its strong information technology sector; Armenia’s significant contributions to international peacekeeping operations; and its active civil society.

Since I am addressing recent graduates – including some who have just obtained a Master’s of Science in Computer and Information Science – let me start by highlighting that one of Armenia’s greatest assets is its people, specifically its workforce.  It is a workforce marked by innovation and creativity, especially in the technology sector.  I recently read that of all the former Soviet republics, Armenia has the highest number of registered patents per capita.  This innovative spirit is most evident in the strong success of the IT sector, which is recognized internationally for its talent and creativity.  The success of this sector is a tribute to the importance that Armenian society has always placed on education in general, and on math and science in particular.  The IT sector contributes greatly to economic growth, of course, and is an important engine for attracting international investment.

Armenia’s desire to play a role on the international stage and serve as a strong NATO partner is also impressive and commendable. The international community has deeply appreciated Armenia’s contributions to peacekeeping operations in various countries in recent years, including in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iraq.  In Kosovo, our cooperation is especially close.  Armenian soldiers serve with Americans and under American command.  Armenia’s peacekeeping forces are recognized for their competence, dedication and professionalism.  Although the international press often focuses only on Nagorno-Karabakh when it discusses Armenia and security issues, the more striking fact is that as an active member of peacekeeping operations, Armenia is an exporter of security and helping to bring peace to several troubled regions around the world.

The third positive development that I’d like to highlight is your strong civil society, which distinguishes Armenia from many other neighboring countries and exemplifies its progress in the area of democratic reforms.  Now, the situation is far from perfect and there is still much progress to be made.  For example, the series of attacks on activists late last year was worrying, and we monitor very closely at the Embassy the security of the civil society in Armenia.  Nevertheless, there are many active NGOs effectively working in Armenia on a number of issues.  And I want to emphasize that the term “civil society” has a wider meaning than just organizations like NGOs.  Any group of citizens that organize around a principle make up “civil society.”  Regardless of what your or my opinion is of the rallies organized through Facebook against the transportation price hike in 2013 or the current protests against the proposed electricity price hike, these actions are expressions of an active civil society.

There have also been some promising instances of effective cooperation between civil society and government, and that’s where things get exciting, because it is cooperation between civil society and government that serves as a real agent of change.  For example, just this past week the Trafficking in Persons Inter-Agency Working Group received this year’s Universal Rights Award for Government Reform, in recognition of the work of the many dedicated civil society and government professionals to prevent Trafficking in Persons, provide assistance to victims, and prosecute traffickers.  A second example of civil society – government cooperation is the ongoing dialogue on the draft NGO law.  When the initial version of the draft law was first unveiled, the government listened to the concerns of civil society and revised the law to incorporate that input.  While the draft law has not yet been finalized, it shows how legislation can be improved through dialogue.  These examples of government – NGO dialogue are models of democracy in action.  “Democracy” is not just having elections once every four or five years.  It is a continuing conversation between the government and the people, both sides listening to each other with respect, and coming to agreement.  I think that if the Armenian government and civil society continue to build collaborative partnerships, Armenia has enormous potential to serve as a model for the region.

As I mentioned earlier, despite the many positive developments and true achievements I’ve seen in Armenia over the past 25 years, some significant challenges remain.  I’d like to highlight three in particular: the state of its democratic development and rule of law, its economic development, and its closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan.  As I elaborate on each of these, I would like you to think about what you, as the future leaders of this country, can do to contribute to Armenia’s future.  Because with the privilege of your education and your degree comes the responsibility to make a difference, and make the future better than the present.

The first of Armenia’s challenges, as I see it, is what I would characterize as its unfinished democratic development.  There needs to be more opportunities for ordinary citizens to participate in their country’s political present and future, as well as greater willingness among the citizens to do so.  At the same time, there has to be a stronger commitment at all levels of society to the rule of law and the fight against corruption.  Corruption hurts Armenia, plain and simple.  One of its most ruinous consequences, in terms of Armenia’s economic prosperity and long-term economic prospects, is the chilling effect it has on international investment, and I will speak more about that in a moment.  Let me share with you a basic truth: rule of law is fundamental for any successful, developed society.  Successful, stable, and economically strong countries are governed by laws, rather than subjective decisions by individuals.  Strong rule of law helps stamp out corruption and its corrosive effects.  No country is immune to corruption – believe me, it’s a problem in the United States, too.  Corruption, like disease, can never be fully eliminated.  The key is to fight it, to drive it out into the open, to prosecute corrupt officials and put them in jail.

A second challenge, as I alluded to earlier, concerns Armenia’s economic development.  Armenia has so much to offer the international investor, beginning with a smart, highly educated and innovative workforce.  If the Armenian investment climate were stable and offered a level playing field grounded in regulations that were spelled out and respected by all, I believe Armenia would attract far more international investors.  Our embassy promotes U.S. investment in Armenia, of course, and in doing so, we focus on what we call “transformational investments” in the energy, mining, and IT sectors.  “Transformational” because we believe that these Western companies are large enough that they can bring about change by insisting on rule of law.  In addition, they bring with them a business culture that values and invests in employees, providing better wages, working conditions, and professional development opportunities.  This in turn contributes to the creation of an independent middle class that is freer to challenge the government.

The last challenge I’d like to mention is Armenia’s closed borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan. I realize that in each of these cases, it takes two to reconcile.  But I would encourage you to consider the enormous benefits that diplomatic and economic relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan would bring to Armenia.  For many years, the U.S. Embassy has actively supported a variety of people-to-people initiatives that promote dialogue between ordinary citizens and the normalization of relations between Armenia and its neighbors.  The borders may not open overnight, but I believe it is important for the people and governments of Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan to open and maintain a respectful dialogue – the essence of the Western educational model that you have been exposed to at AUA.  Challenging the status quo is not an easy path, but I think I’m addressing a group of individuals that deliberately chose not to take an easy path when you selected AUA as your institution of higher learning.

I asked you earlier to consider what each of you could do to make Armenia, this beautiful country that has so much to offer, a better place.  I won’t ask you to raise your hands, but I’m guessing that many of you were thinking, as I mentioned some of the challenges that remain, “How can I help change things? What can I do, with my degree in engineering or teaching or law or business or computer science? rdquo;   My response is this:  never forget that your education at AUA has been an exceptional one.  AUA is like no other university in Armenia.  At no other school are you challenged to think critically like you are here.  As an extension of our well-regarded University of California system, AUA has planted and nurtured informed, critical thinking skills that will stand you in good stead throughout the rest of your lives.  Whatever path you take, whether you choose to pursue a career in the public or private sector, whether you work in an office or in a hospital, in a school or in a courtroom, you must always believe in the power of each individual to make a difference.  Don’t wait for the government or the international community or “someone” to act.   There is a quote, whose author is anonymous, that I would like to share with you: “I wondered why somebody didn’t do something.  Then I realized, I am somebody.”

The United States remains strongly committed to our friendship with Armenia and our hope is for a free and prosperous Armenia, at peace with its neighbors. When I gaze upon you, the future leaders of Armenia, and think of all the skills and knowledge you have at your fingertips, I feel enormous optimism that that goal can be achieved. And we are ready and eager to partner with you.

Let me wrap up by offering once again my warmest congratulations to the AUA graduating class of 2015.  I wish you the best in your future careers and endeavors.  And if I may leave you with one last quote, this one from Minor Myers, a former president of Illinois Wesleyan University: “Go into the world and do well. But more importantly, go into the world and do good.”

Thank you and all the best.