First of all, let me just say how very pleased I am to be here today with friends, colleagues, and partners. I want to congratulate Freedom House on holding this first Armenian Forum for Democracy. I think it really demonstrates the level of engagement that we are able to have in Armenia and the place where Armenia is on its democratic path.
I want to express my appreciation also to the Prime Minister and to my colleague Ambassador Wiktorin. I thought both sets of remarks were really on point and helped set us up for these panel discussions.
The United States, as are many others in the diplomatic community, is celebrating thirty years of diplomatic relations with Armenia. And certainly since 1992, in terms of assistance, what I can say is that the United States government has provided close to $3 billion in funding to improve the lives of Armenians.
I also want to note that we are not alone in providing assistance. We have many partners and actors – our colleagues from the European Union as well as the member states who act bilaterally, other countries who have been good partners with Armenia. I will focus my remarks on U.S. assistance since I know that best, but I don’t want to forget that there is a lot of good work happening, a lot of complementary work, so that we are not duplicating but we try to be effective by complementing our efforts.
But I think that some of my assessment may hold true for some of the work of others. And I certainly want in this to give enormous credit to the Armenian people because what we are doing in the assistance space is not possible without that kind of a partnership, that will from the people who want to take advantage of the assistance that is being offered.
I will say for the United States that we have found a good partner with this government as a partner on the reform agenda and democratic activities
We are working in many sectors that promote democracy, including building democratic institutions, fighting corruption, developing the economy, and, something that I think is above all important to note, investing in people. That investment in people is absolutely essential. It’s just not possible to be successful in all these other areas if you are not investing in people.
And I really liked what the Prime Minister had to say about preparing citizens to participate in democracy. I think that’s part of what we are doing when we are investing in people, and it is essential for democracy to grow and thrive.
It’s hard to provide a complete report card, given the scope of the efforts that have been taking place over the past thirty years. I will take one quick look at the long-term effectiveness where we can make some assessments and maybe move forward and make some very brief comments on some specific areas in more recent years.
I think that the people investment is a very good place to look from the long term. For me, an example that I find very powerful is that we have a very long-standing partner in the American University of Armenia. That was an institution that, with other partners, was established nearly thirty years ago. The United States through USAID provided seed money and has continued to support the university through various projects.
When I look at one gauge of effectiveness, I look at these kinds of institutions that are educating people, young people, and that continue to be a partner over time that we can go back to, and it’s not just the U.S. government, that those layered benefits of investment in partnerships are really important in noting effectiveness. That it’s not just a drop in the bucket or something very short term but long term.
I also would like to just note we have had many exchange programs, another example of investing in people. And here again, I feel very pleased. These exchange programs range across from young people to technical experts to professionals to civil society. And I think when Armenia was ready and there have certainly been different moments in Armenia’s past since independence, these investments in people have paid off when the right people have been ready to take advantage of Armenia’s development.
If I was to say something then about where we need to continue to look for improvement on human capacity and investment, I think it is in the public sector, in government. We see a continued need for a strong, merit-based system that brings competent people into the service of government for the service of the people.
Over the past four years, I would say I can point to a number of areas that have already been touched on by the Prime Minister and Ambassador Wiktorin. But let me note electoral reform and two free and fair elections. Two free and fair elections, one of which took place in extremely challenging circumstances. And this was the place where I think the work of, certainly, USAID and others in preparing the electoral code, working with civil society, working with those that managed and administered the election system, all of those components came together to produce a very important and powerful result at a very difficult time for Armenia that I think reaffirmed Armenia’s progress on a democratic path and gave them an opportunity to make a decision about leaders – whether they would retain leaders or look for new ones. And that’s what democracy is about.
Media development – here, you know, I think the picture is mixed. I see good things happening. We have certainly been investing in training, in journalists, in trying to help journalists develop a sense for neutrality and integrity in their work. We have supported young journalists, as they work on their skills in investigative journalism, taking advantage of new technologies, such as podcasting, to reach more people. And this is very important.
But on the other side of the ledger, and where I think there is still room for improvement – is in legislation and ensuring that legislation in addressing areas of concern but without suppressing or trampling on critical freedoms – freedom of speech and the ability of journalists to conduct their work.
Anti-corruption is another place where the United States and others have partnered very closely with Armenia. We have had a number of institutions set up – the Corruption Prevention Commission, the Anti-Corruption Court, the Anti-Corruption Investigative Committee – these are institutions that are largely just getting started. I think we have seen good things from the Corruption Prevention Commission that I think they are preparing the way, but obviously there will need to be more work. You cannot set an institution up and then walk away from it. You have to continue to invest in it.
The Prime Minister said it best – the judiciary needs a lot of attention. The challenges there are enormous. And to be fair, I think it is important to note that the idea of simply throwing out all judges would have created its own set of challenges. But it can’t go left unaddressed because this is such an important area of democracy that to not address the need for independence and for integrity in the judiciary is really essential for Armenia continuing to be able move forward.
A last area of reform that I want to touch on is police reform. And this has certainly gotten a lot of attention in recent days. The United States, the EU, and others have partnered on police reform and the Patrol Police which was launched last year. But in watching what’s been happening with the demonstrations, it’s clear that there are concerns through what we have seen in reporting and in videos about excessive use of force. That needs to be investigated. It’s an area where there needs to be accountability. I think we have seen indications that the government is taking heed of the need to investigate.
And particularly in addition to respecting the right of protesters to demonstrate peacefully, there is a need to respect the right of journalists to cover these events without harassment or interference.
And that’s all to say that protesters also have responsibilities to act in a peaceful manner that does not contribute to chaos or disorder or the violations of the rights of others. So, I think that this reform is particularly important, and I want to say how much we appreciate the cooperation of the Ministry of Justice in working together.
And to note, and this is turning back to something that Ambassador Wiktorin said, that democracy is a process that is about making progress. I have had people writing to me about the police reform because they know the United States has been involved and they say to me: ‘So this is your democracy?’ And I say: no, democracy is not a state of perfection. Democracy is a constant state of process, of seeking accountability, ensuring that the rights of people are protected. But it is not one state and I think in the case of the police, as I said, we’ll look for accountability and investigation.
And I would remind those who are making that kind of a criticism – coming from the United States which is a democracy, we have our own challenges, and the police and the conduct of the police is one that we are also constantly having to struggle with, to review, and to seek to improve. So, this is not a situation unique to Armenia. What is important at the end of the day is seeking accountability.
I think the last note that I will make, and here I would say where I think we need to do more, in terms of effectiveness of assistance and finding partnerships with government, and this is on the protection of those who are the most vulnerable and at the margins of society. Women, the elderly, those who are disabled, our LGBTQIA+ community; these are all groups who deserve attention, and I think this is where assistance partnership with the Government of Armenia could do better.
But in closing, let me say that I am very optimistic, despite the challenges that Armenia is facing, because what I see is a society and a government that is committed to a reform agenda, that is focused on improving the lives of the future of Armenia, and as long as we have that kind of willing partnership, I remain optimistic. Thank you.