Artak Apitonian

Future Armenian Initiative Prepares First Pan-Armenian Citizens’ Assembly

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WATERTOWN — During times of crisis, Armenians frequently call for unity as a people and a nation, and during the current era of Armenian independence a number of different fora had been created by various organizations and bodies, including the Armenian government, to bring together Armenian representatives of organizations or regions throughout the world. What has never been attempted is a citizens’ assembly, a body composed of randomly selected Armenians to study and reach recommendations on important but potentially divisive issues. They often are convened by governments, but in this case, it is the Future Armenian Initiative, cofounded by Noubar Afeyan, Artur Alaverdyan, Richard Azarnia, Aram Bekchian, David Tavadian and Ruben Vardanyan in 2021, which is preparing one for Armenians throughout the world to be held this November in Yerevan.

The official launch ceremony on July 7 for the November convention

Background

Artak Apitonian, until June 2021 a deputy foreign minister of the Republic of Armenia, and a career diplomat for some thirty years who has served previously in various countries, became the first executive director of the Future Armenian Development Foundation in February 2022. The foundation was created to further the Future Armenian Initiative, he explained, which was launched in 2021.  

Apitonian said that after leaving the Armenian diplomatic service, “Frankly, the most important thing for me was to make a difference, to do something to overcome the polarization in society and try to bring people together, especially those who want to bring forth change in Armenia. In that sense, it [Future Armenian] was quite harmonious with my values, the values that I have been preaching for almost all my diplomatic career.” 

The idea came forth as a result of prior efforts undertaken by a number of the cofounders. Vardanyan and Afeyan launched a program called Armenia 2020 in 2002-2003, which presented various scenarios for Armenia’s development until the year 2020 to the Armenian government as well as to Armenian society and attempted to bring together accomplished Armenians from around the world. 

Future Armenian cofounder Noubar Afeyan at the official launch ceremony on July 7 for the convention

“Unfortunately,” Apitonian explained, “this exercise, although it was very, very rich in content and verified by various experts, not only Armenians but famous international experts, and brought up from the experiences of various countries, just stayed there. It was not taken up by the then government. It was not widespread in public [discussions] and it stayed on paper.” 

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In January 2017, Vardanyan and Nuné Alekyan began working on the manuscript of a similar discussion of developmental models and issues facing Armenia in what was called the Armenia at the Crossroads project. They made an effort to obtain comments and discussion from hundreds of Armenians around the world through focus groups and online means. 

Cofounder Ruben Vardanyan, second from left, at the Artsakh Forum

This in turn led in 2020 to the renewal of the Armenia 2020 project as Armenia 2041. Vardanyan and Afeyan established it as a foundation which works “to strengthen Armenia and [the] Armenian Global Nation” (https://armenia2041.org/about-us/), and Armenia “into a prosperous and progressive state,” according to its website. Arman Jilavian served as its director. The Covid pandemic and the Artsakh war in the autumn of 2020 interfered with its progress, and the cofounders changed their approach, Apitonian said, turning it into the Future Armenian initiative. The post-war environment in Armenia made them feel the need for a common dialogue and agenda for the Armenian people had become even more acute, he emphasized. “Healing and thinking about the future should go hand in hand, as there can be no healing without clear vision,” he said.

Cofounder Artur Alaverdyan, center, at the Artsakh Forum

Apitonian pointed out, “There is a lot of mistrust in our society, both in Armenia and the diaspora. There is a lot of isolation. A lot of people are self-isolated. We need to bring back the activity and involvement of the people and reactivate the citizens. This can only be built on trust…We want to do this through action, not just by claiming it but by showing it…It would be very naïve to think that by one convention we can change the culture, but we need to start somewhere. It might be a long journey, but we need to go that way and stay consistent.”

Goals, Cofounders and Staff

Many of the ideas of the Crossroads project were used last spring and summer to fashion a set of 15 pan-national goals for Armenians, Apitonian continued. The 15 goals are, in brief, Vision Setting, Assured Sovereignty, Historic Responsibility, Free Artsakh, Armenia-Diaspora Unity, Strong Diaspora, Strong Alliances, Exponential Growth, Growing Population, Excellence in Education, Preeminence of Science, Technology and Creativity, Good Governance, Just Society and Reduced Inequalities, Preserved Heritage and Evidence-Based Decision-Making.

In addition to Vardanyan and Afeyan, the four other cofounders contributed their input, along with five additional active participants. The six cofounders, who are businessmen and philanthropists, are the ones who today continue to finance the ongoing project. The cofounders are from various countries and cultures. Apitonian said, “These various cultures bring richness to our options. Seeing the same issue from various angles provides the grounds for bringing the best possible solutions to problems. Actually this richness is one of the main assets of our nation, including the possibility to talk to various countries and their leaders.”

Vardanyan and Afeyan have many other ongoing business and philanthropic ventures in Armenia, such as the IdeA Foundation (Initiatives for the Development of Armenia), Aurora Humanitarian InitiativeUnited World Colleges Dilijan College, Revival of Tatev Project, Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology, and AmeriaBank.  Apitonian said, “They are all part of a big ecosystem. We work closely together and we harmonize our activities, but we are separate programs led by different people. We are all very much in harmony with each other because we are doing the same job: It is about developing Armenia and the Armenian world, bringing the best expertise and experience to Armenia, and then creating more opportunities for the local population to develop and grow and stay in Armenia.”

He said that just as the Dilijan School brought the best standards to Armenia for education and local area development, Tatev created a new standard and revived its region through tourism, and Ameria brought new technologies and banking culture to Armenia, “the Future Armenian is also a new standard, a standard which was developed mostly in developed democratic countries. It is a model of participatory democracy, successfully used in France, Canada, Germany, Scotland and Ireland, and also on a global scale at the UN on climate issues. So this is the best model for the activation of citizens, overcoming their polarization in society, and creating a roundtable for discussion on various ideas, and reaching conclusions.”

Apitonian noted that no matter the country of their upbringings, the Future Armenian board members are all devoted to the democratic process and a belief in democracy. He said, “We need to develop our democratic system because I don’t think Armenians can live in any other system.” This is the only way to choose the best people for the best positions in government and reach the best solutions, he continued. 

The board members created a staff for the Future Armenian Development Foundation, starting with Apitonian. Apitonian said that currently he has 9 full-time and 3 part-time staff working with him. A number of them are also previous colleagues of Apitonian with diplomacy or UN background. 

The organizational budget and program budget will be published eventually, but at present Apitonian said he didn’t want to state any figures because they might still change or grow along with the structure. As a foundation, in any case, the Future Armenian will have to provide reports annually. 

How It Works: Expert Committees and Convention

The citizen’s assembly which the Future Armenian Initiative wishes to institute is not an organization but a type of public forum and process. The participants are not elected and there are no political parties. Every Armenian, whether from Armenia, Artsakh or the diaspora, has the right to register. Minorities living in Armenia can also register. 

As part of the initial stage of this process, some 110,000 Armenians throughout the world have become signatories online, agreeing theoretically to focus on 15 pan-national goals. Apitonian said that this number is enough to continue to the next stage. He said, “The main thing is not only to have a large number of supporters or signatories but to have change on the societal level. Signing the initiative itself doesn’t mean we necessarily will have change on the societal level. We need to work together, comment and discuss things and come up with solutions together. This is a very important culture which unfortunately we are missing as a nation.”

This number incidentally already probably is one of the largest for such online lists. Apitonian thought perhaps there were more only for some actions concerning the centennial of the Armenian Genocide in 2015. 

The next stage is for the signatories, or anyone else, to register for possible participation in the citizens’ assembly, which in this case is called the Convention of the Future Armenian, which is planned for November 11-13 of this year in Yerevan. The larger the registration base, the more effective will be the social selection process and the legitimacy of the assembly. In other countries, such as in France, governments were involved and it was possible to use census data to do the random selection. In the Armenian case, the Future Armenian initiative is not a government and might not be allowed use of this data, Apitonian said. Secondly, this data does not even exist for the Armenian diaspora. This is why registration is necessary for the Armenian process, he concluded.

Several thousand people have already registered. There is no specific target numerically for the registration process, Apitonian said, but there needs to be sufficient numbers of every category. For example, if there are 10,000 registered and 7,000 are all from Yerevan, that would not be suitable. 

Participants in the assembly will be selected through a public computerized draw from those who have registered utilizing various quotas which take into account factors such as the countries people live in and their rural or urban settings, age, gender and education. Basically, Apitonian said, “It is a kind of miniature of the nation in one room.” For example, if one third of Armenians live in Yerevan, one third of the participants chosen must come from there. If 1/10 of Armenians are from Shirak Province, 1/10 of the participants must be from there. The participants do not represent any constituency per se, but only represent themselves. If chosen properly, however, it can be claimed that they represent Armenians as a whole.  

Apitonian said that a group of IT companies has already been set up to work on this process, which will be done with transparency, and 200 people will be chosen, half from Armenia and half from the diaspora, to physically participate in the convention. When asked if this was a sufficient number, he gave the example of the assembly in France to overcome societal polarization after the Yellow Vest movement. Only 150 French were chosen to represent the entire French population of over 65 million, so Apitonian said that 200 should be quite enough. In addition, there will be experts present, and observers from various organizations.

In order to allow participation by Armenians from varied economic backgrounds and geographic locations, Apitonian said that travel and lodging expenses for all 200 participants would be borne by the Future Armenian Foundation. This would allow ordinary Armenians from distant locations like Buenos Aires to buy a ticket, fly halfway around the world, find lodging in Armenia and participate in a three day convention, and then fly back home. Sponsors will be found both inside and outside the foundation, he said. Those who have sufficient funds and do not need this support could donate the money back for various projects and programs. 

Those who register and are not chosen for the physical convention, will still have the opportunity to follow live transmissions from Yerevan. They also could participate in an online format, Apitonian said, through which documents would be shared and discussions moderated. 

Of the 15 goals, only three will be discussed at the November convention: Armenia-diaspora unity, historic responsibility and population growth. These three were selected by the online signatories to the 15 goals in an opinion poll, Apitonian said, and three corresponding committees of experts to prepare background papers with potential scenarios and recommendations for the conventioneers have been created. The Future Armenian staff (and presumably cofounders) first cast around for the names that are most widely known on these topics, and then asked these people for their own recommendations of experts. 

Aram Abrahamyan, left, with Artak Apitonian, at a meeting of the Armenia-Diaspora expert committee

The first committee, on Armenia-diaspora unity, began its deliberations on August 31, led by journalist and editor of Aravot daily Aram Abrahamyan. The committee on historical responsibility started the next day, led by Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Pontifical Legate of the Armenian Church in Western Europe and Representative of the Armenian Church to the Holy See, while the committee on population growth, led by Armine Hovannisian, executive director of Junior Achievement of Armenia and founder and chair of the board of Orran, began on September 7. 

Artak Apitonian, rear left, at a meeting of the committee of experts on population growth

At the convention, Apitonian said, “The citizens will test this expertise through public discussion” and give their own opinions. Apitonian said that most likely other in person and online conventions will take place later to address the remaining goals. 

Implementation Phase

After the convention and public discussions comes a third phase of the process. Apitonian said in this phase, the Future Armenian group “would start our efforts to bring together all the organizations which want to be part of the implementation [of the recommendations of the convention] and start talking with the government, since the government has an important say in the implementation part. We need to harmonize our activities, share information, and see all possible lacuna which we can identify, and then we need to act to fill those lacuna.” 

What the Future Armenian calls affiliation networks will be created in this stage (in Armenian hamakordzagtsutean tsantser) with various organizations. Apitonian said, “These are very loose but large alliances of various organizations and individuals. We might even bring in some foreign partners or organizations for certain goals, such as international organizations working in Armenia. From one goal to another the participants will change and the structure might change.” 

Apitonian noted that Aurora or other bodies in the Afeyan-Vardanyan ecosystem might participate in their own names in these networks. 

Discussions have not begun yet with the Armenian government, he said, but there was some government participation in the expert committees already, in a pilot forum in Artsakh over the summer, and in the July 7, 2022 public announcement of the Future Armenian process at the Matenadaran (the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts) in Yerevan. He said, “It is a good sign that they are ready to go forward.” 

When asked what would happen if the government did not in fact participate, he said that there were still a number of projects that could be implemented without government involvement, such as educational or economic ones, public movements, and various ideas for the diaspora. Government participation would however lead to more results and strong performance, he said. 

Apitonian stressed that “When we establish this network, we are not going to be the leader. We set the table for everybody to come around. It would be led by the participants themselves. We are going to organize and bring people together but then these people will choose this or that leader among themselves.” 

Furthermore, while the Future Armenian initiative welcomes taking others’ experiences, “Everything produced within the Future Armenian stays in the public domain. Everybody can use it. We have no intellectual ownership of it. All our documents, recommendations, scenarios and outcomes are public domain.”

Political Implications 

Apitonian declared, “We are not trying to politicize this process. We want to depoliticize the process of public discussion, public decision making and public implementation of the process.” When asked whether the current regime might fear that Future Armenian Initiative could turn into a vehicle for attaining political power eventually, especially given the repeated reports in the Armenian press that cofounder Ruben Vardanyan wants to become prime minister, which Vardanyan later refuted, Apitonian said he shared the same concern that there could be such assumptions. 

However, he said, “One thing this movement wants is to overcome this mistrust – and there is clearly great mistrust. These suspicions and mistrust are like worms eating away at all possible things.”  

He said that sometimes the pie is so small that there is not even anything to share, yet Armenians still accept mistrust and trying to blame one another. Armenians instead need to make their pie, their country, economy and opportunities bigger, so that there is room for error. It requires generational change, he said, and the answer is openness, transparency and inclusiveness. 

Artsakh Pilot Project

The Future Armenian Initiative has already attempted a pilot project in Artsakh. It convened a citizens’ assembly or forum on May 22 in Stepanakert to focus on the topic of population growth in Artsakh. Committees of experts had prepared their recommendations which more than 60 participants, Artsakh citizens of varied backgrounds who were signatories of the Future Armenian initiative’s goals, discussed. The citizens then provided their ratings of proposed projects. 

The highest-rated one, according to a summary of the forum provided by the Future Armenian Initiative, is called “We Stay in Artsakh.” Its main ideas are to assure a decent living for the existing Artsakh population, housing and work for everyone, definite social guarantees for large families, and a strong system of education and advocacy.

Apitonian noted that the forum participants were chosen because they were all stakeholders in the issues discussed, but in addition, due to security concerns, it would have been difficult to have any participation from diasporans. Four demography experts did come from Yerevan to provide their expertise.

The third step of the process in Artsakh is the realization of the projects that were adopted as the top rated at the forum. The Future Armenian Initiative will present them to relevant state bodies, Armenian organizations and institutions, and Armenian business circles both in Armenia and abroad. Apitonian said that in Artsakh the forum had the full support of the government, the opposition and the public. That meant, he concluded, that there would be support from the government in implementation as well as by other institutions, including those led by the opposition. 

For the We Stay in Artsakh project, for example, the Artsakh government will play the central role, though there will be a public-private partnership, Apitonian explained. As noted above in general, all ongoing programs of potential partners appropriate for the We Stay in Artsakh project goals will be inventoried and gaps identified, after which specific programs to implement will be identified. The affiliation network would carry this out this process, Apitonian said, not the Future Armenian staff. The affiliates who agreed to join this particular network would determine the modalities of action.

While some projects thus primarily involve the government, Apitonian noted that other programs, like the construction of housing, is also already being carried out by various organizations, such as the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, the Tufenkian Foundation and the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU). Part of what the Future Armenian will do is to bring together all these actors and try to harmonize their actions so they do not duplicate each other’s activities, nor miss anything important which they could be doing, he said. In other words, he continued, “We do not want to impose regulations. It should be a collectively driven process, but we are ready to help with expertise.”

Apitonian has started discussions with the AGBU and was going to contact the Tufenkian Foundation next. 

He declared that the Artsakh Forum was very successful and might even be continued on an annual basis in order to bring people to Artsakh and galvanize them to work further on their problems. 

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