Suren Avanesyan is Senior Advisor, Rule of Law, Governance and Anti-Corruption, Bureau of Europe and Eurasia, USAID, where he has served since 2008. At USAID, Mr. Avanesyan provides technical guidance and policy advice to the Bureau of Europe and Eurasia, field missions, and the U.S. Government on justice sector and governance reform issues, with a focus on countries of the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. He also teaches graduate-level courses on governance and rule of law issues at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. During his time at USAID, he was seconded as a Senior Advisor to the Office of Russian Affairs, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State, where he prepared policy materials for the Bureau and Department leadership. Prior to his work at USAID, he was a Technical Director at Management Systems International, a Project Director at the National Center for State Courts, a Legislative Fellow at the American Bar Association, and a Consultant for the World Bank. He has worked in an impressive array of countries and regions, including Armenia, Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Ukraine, and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Growing up in the Soviet Union with a number of lawyers in his family, Mr. Avanesyan always had an interest in practicing law; while he says he had no understanding of what the “rule of law” meant at the time, he remembers the reforms under Gorbachev grabbing his imagination. He describes his understanding of rule of law as evolving—from his undergraduate legal education in Russia through the development of his career in the United States—from mere technical assistance to a deeper understanding. As he puts it, “as a rule of law specialist, you need to be very comprehensive and understand how different interests and individuals are connected, as well as understand the nexus with national security and foreign policy issues.”
During his time at USAID, Mr. Avanesyan has focused largely on democratic development in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, an issue that he describes as particularly complex in those regions. He notes that the practitioner community still has much to learn about the relationship between democracy and rule of law, and while he would describe nearly every country in which he has worked as a “success” in a narrow, technical sense, it is difficult to think of a true success story in terms of comprehensive democratic development. One example from his experience that stands out in his mind, however, is his work in Kosovo. He began working there in 2003, and shortly thereafter the United Nations began to phase out its presence, leaving the U.S. Government as the major justice sector assistance provider. Within a five-year timeframe and a budget of less than $14 million, USG justice sector practitioners were able to help Kosovo create a set of core institutions, e.g., a centralized court system, a Judicial Council, a Ministry of Justice, a prosecutor’s office, and others, from scratch. By 2008, when Kosovo declared independence, while it still faced challenges within the justice sector, it had a functioning set of basic institutions.
Mr. Avanesyan works primarily in countries that practice the Civil Law tradition, and he will be speaking at the upcoming JUSTRAC Interagency Civil Law Training Program. He notes that, while the U.S. practitioner community now has a much greater understanding of Civil Law systems as compared to 20 or 30 years ago, there may at times be a temptation to replicate features of the U.S. legal system when working in Civil Law countries. For some basic aspects of the judiciary, such as filing cases or keeping records in a particular way, this approach might work, but when dealing with features that are unique to one system or the other, there is potential for complications.
Mr. Avanesyan notes that, to address justice sector reform challenges effectively, it is necessary to take a comprehensive, interagency approach that focuses on multiple aspects of the justice sector. In that regard, he describes JUSTRAC as “adding value by creating a venue for interagency actors to get together and talk to one another, which does not happen often.” In a single JUSTRAC forum, such as a training course or a symposium, those different actors can discuss an issue from multiple perspectives together. JUSTRAC appreciates having seasoned practitioners like Mr. Avanesyan, who can add to the depth of discussion, and looks forward to his participation in the upcoming Civil Law training course.