One of the tables of participants at the Dvin Music Hall

WATERTOWN — The Future Armenian Convention, a type of a citizens’ assembly (see prior coverage in the Mirror-Spectator) took place in Yerevan on March 10-12. One hundred participants from Armenia and Artsakh and one hundred from the far-flung communities of the Armenian diaspora were selected by lottery, including this author from the Boston area.

A group photo of participants in the Future Armenian Convention

Those who physically were able to make it to Armenia met each day in the large Dvin Music Hall for discussions that concluded in voting on goals for the Armenian nation and proposals for action. Each of the three days focused on a different broad theme which was one of 15 goals previously chosen as significant by the Future Armenian Initiative: historic responsibility, Armenia-diaspora unity, and demography (increasing the population). Written reports had been given to participants on each theme that were prepared previously by committees of experts. In addition, a video summary of each theme was screened in the morning.

Convention discussions taking place at the Dvin Music Hall

Each morning, participants were divided into small groups seated around a table in the large hall to begin discussions, which were led by a facilitator or moderator, and summarized by a second person with a laptop. There were large screens on the walls of the hall on which the summaries were projected and constantly changed. The groups were chosen to bring together different types of people, and changed every day, while during meal and coffee breaks, it was possible to meet many others. There were also observers occasionally joining the various tables. Many of these were activists or experts from the committees that had previously prepared reports. They did not have the right to vote on the proposals.

A view of the Dvin Music Hall with some of the electronic wall displays

The majority of the proposals were prepared previously by the expert committees, but a small number of new ones from the participants were added to the list prior to voting each day. See the summary of the voting here. Here, the views of two of the formulators of the process will be presented.

Initial Self-Evaluation

Artak Apitonian, executive director of the Future Armenian Development Foundation, declared that the step of including the diaspora along with Armenia and Artsakh in the citizens’ assembly in Armenia meant this was going to be a pilot, not only for Armenians, but on a world scale, since this has never been done before for any people. Another aspect which was experimental was the formation of the expert committees. In the classical citizens’ assemblies there might only be a handful of experts. In the Armenian case, there was an open-ended expert group which worked for around five months, Apitonian said, including experts from all possible schools of thought, including from the left, right, nationalists and globalists.

Artak Apitonian, executive director of the Future Armenian Development Foundation, speaking at the convention

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The current polarization in Armenian society is a complicating element, Apitonian continued. With all this considered, he said, “Leaving aside modesty, it exceeded all my expectations, with the level of engagement of people trying to come together, experts, and various Armenian institutions.”

Media coverage of the convention in Armenia was extensive, said Apitonian, despite the fact that the convention took place on a weekend, when Armenian media tend to be less active. According to his office, 84 media outlets, including 10 television stations, reported on it 366 times. There were 94 videos and 259 articles published, while 13 media outlets shared the online live webcasts, which lasted 7 hours per day. It also was covered in the US, France, Canada, Georgia, Russia, Czechia, Netherlands and Lebanon. Only one television channel in Armenia did not cover the convention, Apitonian said.

High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs Zareh Sinanyan addresses the convention participants on March 12

He accepted that there were certain lapses, such as the inability of 7 out of 10 Artsakh Armenians to participate due to the blockade (along with Future Armenian cofounder Ruben Vardanyan, who was only once able to deliver a speech via Internet). He also hoped for more participation from the Armenian government, although there were a lot of staff members from the Office of the High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs of the Republic of Armenia, and High Commissioner Zareh Sinanyan himself came for the closing ceremony. “Nevertheless,” declared Apitonian, “we would have gained even further if various ministries had their say in many things discussed around the table.”

Ruben Vardanyan, Future Armenian cofounder, speaking via Internet from Artsakh to the convention on the opening day

As a participant, this author observed that almost no translation took place at the three tables at which he was seated, and, admittedly anecdotally, he did not see translation taking place elsewhere for participants. That raised a question about the representative nature of the selected diasporans, who in countries like the US and France, often do not speak Armenian. Apitonian responded that perhaps self-selection affected this factor, plus there were not as many registrants from the diaspora as ideal (5,714 people in all had registered their willingness to participate, of which 3,170 were from Armenia, 2,234 from various countries of the diaspora, and 200 from Artsakh). Nevertheless, he said that while initially some 25 or 27 diasporan participants had asked for translation, and there were around 20 translators at the ready during the first day, participants did not feel it necessary to utilize them.

Noubar Afeyan, Future Armenian cofounder, speaking to the convention participants (photo Aram Arkun)

While over 2,000 proposals or comments were made by the participants at the forum, only a small number of the former were voted on at the convention. The comments or arguments, Apitonian said, were not suitable for voting. However, everything will be published as an annex to a final report.

The proposals were first categorized into blocks according to subject by the Future Armenian’s people, and then those that were similar or repetitive were united. Apitonian said that for example, one of the proposals eventually voted on, concerning the organization of regional assemblies in communities, was independently suggested by 12 different tables.

During the convention, Armenians from different cultures were assembled together at tables and were united by Armenian culture, Apitonian said, adding that the atmosphere created showed that “bringing different expertise and experiences and trying to work together is something that we must not be afraid of. This is not our weakness but our strength.”

The next step is the preparation of the final report from Iswe. The Future Armenian assigned Iswe to prepare the report because, Apitonian said, aside from obtaining an outside broader view, “our philosophy is that we are the convenor of the event but are not the leaders of the event, because there should be no leadership. It should be a public initiative and should continue that way.”

Affiliation Networks

After the report comes an even more unique element of the Future Armenian Initiative. Apitonian said that the work of classical citizens’ assemblies stop the moment they produce their outcome or reports. After that, it is up to governments or other organizations to continue the work. However, in the Armenian case, he said, “We want to use this momentum to bring other organizations together so that we continue collectively as well, not only through discussions but also implementation.”

He remarked that the Future Armenian Foundation was already in contact with many organizations, ranging from large, globally well-established ones to new, tiny ones. He said, “The main thing is that we don’t close doors to anybody.” Future Armenian held meetings in Yerevan and various Armenian provinces with the representatives of many NGOs to inform them of the process. It invited organizations to send observers to the convention and promised them that all the rules of engagement and action will be thoroughly discussed with the NGO community before commencing action. Using a food metaphor, Apitonian said, “We are not going to bring something ready to serve and everybody will enjoy but rather we need to cook everything together, even choosing the ingredients.”

He was hesitant to speak more specifically about how the implementation networks would work, but declared that it is first necessary to have specific targets to work on. Therefore, “When we come up with the reports and the final outcome of the voting, and have all these things more thoroughly analyzed, we will produce some four or five directions and we will try to invite organization to work on these programmatic directions in order to move forward. That will be the basis of forming affiliation networks – not to first start on the affiliation and then think about what we are trying to do, but rather, to bring people together on a specific mission and then try to enlarge the mission and the scope of engagement.”

Though the initiative could carry out programs itself, he said he would rather create a big network for each particular program. For some projects there could be three participant organizations, and ten for others. The Future Armenian Foundation may not even participate itself sometimes as an organization, but instead just provide ideas and advice. Certain already existing projects have, for example, requested assistance for acceleration or enlargement.

Edele Hovnanian of the Hrair and Anna Foundation declared in a recent interview that “the hard problems are so large that without working with the government, these problems are not solvable,” and they are not problems that can be solved just with money. When Apitonian was asked whether the Future Armenian Initiative would start solely with civil society programs or also propose to the government some of the largescale projects voted on during the convention, he replied, “It is premature to talk about this, but I don’t want to give up on government. I don’t think there is a centralized approach of the government to not work. It may be easy with certain agencies, and maybe difficult with other ones. We will try to work our way together.”

Artak Apitonian, executive director of the Future Armenian Development Foundation, speaking at the convention (photo Aram Arkun)

He shared Hovnanian’s opinion that certain things require strong government commitment and participation over the longterm. He said, “For that, a longtime commitment of the main political forces are necessary as well.…overall the aim of our discussions is to create a vision of the future. It should not depend on one or two or three parties. It should be a common vision. Then we may be successful, if all the political elites and all society works towards that vision.”

He repeated his optimism for the next phase, stating, “I sense the readiness in society to work together. People are tired of divisions and uncertainty. They want to be part of change and they want to work for change. They understand that nobody will bring anything ready for them to serve, so they will need to create their future by their own hands.”


While working on creating the affiliation networks, planning continues for new conventions. Apitonian said, “We understand that we cannot go on with the development of these 15 goals [through studies, discussions and conventions] for ages, but we also cannot be in a hurry to push in a wrong manner….Our aim is to create a public sense of unity and work together, setting up goals and reaching those goals.”

There were proposals to have the next convention in an Armenian province, but Apitonian said this would be a real challenge because it was difficult even in Yerevan to find a good venue. Others proposed having the next convention done remotely, online, in order to involve even larger numbers of participants. It could be possible to divide into groups of 10-12 people and then come together as an assembly of 400 to 500 participants.

Meanwhile, the participants of this convention have already created sites on social media to keep in touch. Apitonian said that the person who created the first social network asked his staff for help in managing it, and indeed it is already partially doing this. In addition, the Future Armenian Foundation will continue to maintain its online platform to facilitate ongoing discussions, exchange of ideas, and reactions to further steps. As soon as some tangible progress on programs to be implemented is achieved, Apitonian said that a round of Zoom meetings for all participants will allow them to ask questions and remain informed.

Some participants on their own have contacted Apitonian to see if they could organize meetings to share their impressions and experiences in their own communities, and he has told them that it is fine by the Future Armenian Foundation but it is up to them to decide whether to do this. He said that this is again a positive step towards garnering support for the initiatives of the Future Armenian, stressing that “Our ultimate goal is that our collective visions are shared by the majority of Armenians. We definitely need not to concentrate on short-term success. We need to think about the long-term processes and larger issues.” He felt this process may also be healing for the polarized Armenian society.


The Future Initiative had hired Osca, a social impact consultancy based in the United Kingdom, to help plan the convention process. Osca merged with another foundation last year to become a social impact foundation called Iswe. Rich Wilson, originally a director of Osca, became CEO of Iswe. He has been involved for several decades in designing and facilitating democratic participation processes and new organizations both in the UK and globally, including in the US. He was involved in the French citizens’ assembly and the UN assembly devoted to climate change.

Wilson explained that the Future Armenian process is a combination of what in the US is called a 21st century town hall meeting and in Europe, a citizens’ summit, including both online facilitation and aggregation of opinion data on screens and the random selection element of participants.

Wilson noted that the unique combination of diasporan plus homeland participants made the outreach and registration process more difficult, so that in some places the initial pool was not as big as he wanted it to be, but, he exclaimed, “I feel like the fact that they pulled anything off is kind of a miracle because it was so complicated. You can’t underestimate the challenge of what was done. The effort to generate a pool in so many different places is significant.”

Wilson, like Apitonian, pointed to the affiliation network as a unique component. He said, “I think this is very shrewd because often, where citizen assemblies go wrong, is when they have an expectation that power holders such as the politicians will take things further. In the field this is called a mandate.” The affiliation network gives the movement its own power base to get things done.

Ruminating during a late April interview, he said, “I think the way that Artak led the process was very streetwise. You can tell he has been in government and he knows how things happen in Armenia. He very shrewdly, in my opinion, also had the [expert] committee process, which of course generates evidence and learning to inform good quality discussions. It also involved them [the experts] in attending the event, thereby getting into the full process itself, so that when recommendations come out afterwards, it is with a sense of ownership.” In previous instances Wilson was involved in, he said that the committees of experts were less involved as part of the routes to impact.

Concerning the question of the involvement of the Armenian government, Wilson pointed to the Irish citizens’ assembly in which one-third of the participants were politicians. He said the reason that was done was to ensure that there was a really strong relationship with the political class and this worked very well. He said, “The question I have in my mind is, what is the balance that this process needs.”

At the same time, Wilson said that the most important thing really is not government involvement or, in his terms, how the processes dock with the government. He said, “I have had processes, docks endorsed by prime ministers and presidents, and they still had limited impact.” On the other hand, he said, “I have rarely had a process that had a very high profile that has not had an impact. Profile, I think, has a much stronger correlation with impact, government impact specifically, than the kind of official nature of the relationship.”

Therefore, he said that it is more important while continuing to build and maintain a relationship with the Armenian government that the Future Armenian initiative ensure its high profile. The government may not be acting on its priorities this year, but then the media and other actors can choose its recommendations to advocate and they can be reviewed with the government in one or two years’ time.

In other words, he said, “This creates an accountability mechanism with the government. You know how government works – it gets distracted because of events. Things happen, and the government has to respond to them…I haven’t managed to think of a better way of doing it.”

Unlike citizens’ assemblies in Western Europe, the existential threat faced by Armenians in Artsakh and Armenia, Wilson said, “generates a potency and urgency of discourse that I think was incredibly helpful in getting people to participate.” At the same time, he found another distinguishing element from countries like the UK, he said: “The thing that I felt was very striking about Armenia, which really did remind me of work I have done in places like Greece and Turkey, is that there is such a strong intelligentsia…I felt that there was a very deep-rooted culture of political activation, and engagement with the issues.”


When asked about the ideology of the citizens’ assembly process that he is advocating, he said, “Around this there definitely should not be an ideology…but of course, processes in and of themselves do have inherent values. This is reality, and so there is a difference between an authoritarian response and a democratic response.” His view is that not only Armenia but many other countries around the world are facing substantial challenges, not just security issues, such as climate, the next pandemic and costs. He said, “existing governance systems are not sufficiently up to the job of responding to these crises. I think we have models to prove that. I think it has become clear from the pandemic and climate that we are going to need to be activated and build resilience in response to our extremely big challenges in all these countries.”

China offered one model of response, sacrificing freedoms in the process (Wilson was careful not to mention Russia in this context), but his own choice, he said, is a more democratic and empowering one, helping people to connect on the basis of civic issues. However, he appears to have been forced to retreat at least in his choice of words. He said, “We as an organization do not use the word democracy because, unfortunately in many parts of the world, democracy has become a loaded term. We have learned this through experience. We now use the word people power because it is about trying to enable people in response to the challenges…It is people power vs. top down, and we are in favor of people power.”

On the question of how politicians or those interested in obtaining political power may relate in practice to the Future Armenian movement, Wilson said, “There will be many routes to change. Some of them may be through some of the people that have relations with it, current and future politicians. Frankly, because I think we need new governance models and governance innovation, I would always seek to work with – whatever the motivations may be – the key political actors, provided you have a legitimate process whereby you are giving citizens power, whereby you are seeking to be representative, provided you are not allowing those individuals to influence the process. If any politician seeks to use it as a steppingstone to further their career, provided that does not undermine the legitimacy of the process, I haven’t got a problem with that.”

After giving the example of French President Emmanuel Macron using citizen assemblies, he concluded, “This is how politicians support things when it helps them get power. That is how the world works, right?”

The Future of the Future Armenian Initiative

Wilson said that there was a real opportunity in Armenia to prototype new governance systems or frameworks involving far more people and activating them as real partners in nation building. He said there are three reasons why he feels so positive about the Future Armenian approach: “One is that I think the leadership of the Future Armenian team knows how to effect change in their country. Two, it is backed by its founders, who can get things done. Thirdly, it just felt like within the wider network of people who were there [at the convention], be it members of the church, members of the government, and civil society activists, there were senior people who were prepared to support it, so I felt it got good traction.”

In terms of the next steps, he said, “the question for me is really how – as opposed to this being a convention, a conference, whereby we turn up and people make recommendations – how do we turn this into a system of activation and governance, where things are taken forth by that network, in and of itself… At the end of the day, what matters is improving lives and the security of the Armenian people. I do feel that a good start has been made. I am excited about the possibility to do some innovation around this process.”

In perhaps three years’ time, he can see the Future Armenian initiative as a reciprocal global network, he said, with hubs in disparate areas where the Armenian diaspora has particular strengths and power, linking back to helping Armenia but not in any way in competition with the state.

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