By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)
After nearly 25 years as a diplomat representing the United States, Alexandria resident Elisabeth Millard began her new job as the country’s 10th ambassador to Tajikistan earlier this year.
She moved out of her Old Town home to the central Asian country, which shares an approximately 800-mile border with Afghanistan. Tajikistan declared its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
With the U.S. government looking to support democratic institutions and economic development in a country that lacks food security, there is plenty to keep Millard occupied in a country that is very different from Alexandria.
“It was a bit of a culture-shock,” she said. “The hardest thing for me personally is because the security situation is a bit dicey, and that’s not just there that’s in a lot of places, and the American ambassador is a high-profile person, I have to have at all times a bodyguard with me. I don’t drive my own car there, and wherever I go I usually have several bodyguards with me.”
Since joining the diplomatic corps, Millard has served in Prague, Copenhagen, India, Nepal, Morocco and Kazakhstan as well as two stints at the White House. When she was nominated in July 2015, Millard was one of three deputy executive secretaries for Secretary of State John Kerry, helping run his trips abroad.
Confirmation by the U.S. Senate followed that November, something Millard described as “nerve-wracking.”
“It’s a process that’s completely out of your control, and you don’t know what’s holding it up,” she said. “The senators have so much on their agenda that they’re dealing with, so this thing about confirming and having hearings and stuff like that is not always a very high priority…So you have to do a lot of yoga and you have to meditate and try to stay calm throughout the whole thing.”
The jet-set life of foreign service was already familiar to Millard, as her late husband had several postings in embassies across the world as a naval advisor to U.S. ambassadors to those countries. With five children, life could have proven difficult if both were posted to separate parts of the world, but Millard explained that they found a work-around.
“That was really an eye- opener, because I got to see how an embassy functioned and I got to see that actually, that would be sort of cool,” she said. “Also, he really encouraged me, he thought it would be a fun thing for me to do, so he was very much the driving force. … What we did was, we took turns. He did the first 15 years of our marriage, and I followed him.”
Day-to-day, the embassy looks to keep the country’s border with Afghanistan secure and maintain its sovereignty. With challenges like radicalism, HIV/AIDs and a desire to see greater democracy and free and fair elections, Millard said it requires a delicate balance.
But with citizens told by President Emomali Rahmon to learn English as well as Russian and native language Tajik, there are points of leverage. And back home, Millard said the sister city relationship between Tajik capital city Dushanbe and Boulder, Colo. is something she wishes to strengthen.
“You have to be diplomatic, that’s part of the game,” she said. “I think a lot of our tough conversations are in private, and we’re not out there broadcasting that. It’s not about us feeling good about ourselves. It’s about trying to get results, and how do you best get results…There are ways that we can do things with the Tajiks that they also want.
“Sometimes that gives us an avenue to have conversations in private about some of the things we think they need to improve.”
Away from the work of the embassy, Millard said there is plenty to keep her occupied as she gets to know the country, which is 93 percent mountainous.
“It’s a stunningly beautiful country,” she said. “It almost looks like Switzerland or something, because it’s got these wonderful mountains. I do a lot of hiking on weekends, there are wildflowers and snow-capped mountains. It’s a country that has a lot of rivers and a lot of glaciers, and there’s glacier melt going on so there’s significant water.”