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Friday, September 28, 2007

George Soros Meets With Armenian Non-Profits in New York

On Wednesday, September 19, 2007, world-renowned philanthropist and financier George Soros met with six leading Armenian American non-profit organizations to exchange opinions on new innovative ways to build civil society in Armenia. The roundtable luncheon and discussion was organized by the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) and was hosted by AGBU President Berge Setrakian. The event took place at Manhattan's University Club and included representatives from the Armenian American Wellness Center, Armenia Fund USA, Children of Armenia Fund, Fund for Armenian Relief, the Izmirlian Fund, and philanthropist Jeffrey Acopian.

After brief introductions, George Soros spoke candidly about his hope that the roundtable would aid in the free exchange of ideas about what can be done in Armenia to strengthen civil society, an overarching goal for Soros' non-profit organization, the Open Society Institute (OSI). Soros underlined his belief that establishing good cooperation with diasporan Armenian organizations was important for OSI to accomplish its work in Armenia. "Our constituency is Armenia's society in general, and I know the diaspora has influence in this regard," he said.

OSI and the Soros foundations network--which began in 1984--spent more than $400 million worldwide in 2006 on improving policy and helping people to live in open, democratic societies. OSI works on issues ranging from human rights, to access to education, to freedom of information. Since 1997, OSI Assistance Foundation-Armenia, the Armenia-based Soros foundation, has spent $20 million in developing grassroots programs for Armenians.

Soros introduced the Executive Director of OSI Armenia, Larisa Minasyan, who elaborated on the media, arts, education and justice programs that the organization has been able to successfully implement. She explained that the organization received funding from the British and Dutch governments, in addition to annual funds from Soros' Armenian foundation. "Our goal is to establish democracy in a diverse way," Minasian said. "We are trying to bring systematic change in the various fields and we are achieving success in different ways."

OSI Armenia board member, Lucig Danielian outlined some of the objectives of the organization and their approach to the problems facing Armenia, "We feel it is about empowering people and giving them the skills and the jumpstart, and the funding when required, encouraging change from below."

Vigen Sargsyan, Board member of OSI Armenia and the World Bank Yerevan, explained the barriers to democratic reform in Armenia via the media, "The media [in Armenia] today, suffers from homogeneity and it is state-dominated, which doesn't allow for alternatives."

Various individuals spoke about the interconnection of democracy and economic development, and how the role of each could contribute to a sustainable and strong Armenia.

The frank discussion touched upon the problems of migration from Armenia, the sensitivity of Armenia's relationships with its neighbors, the continuing economic blockade of Armenia's borders, and the question of corruption in Armenia's public and private sectors.

Soros acknowledged that the Armenian scenario is unique, since a strong, diverse diaspora can contribute to reform in Armenia, which is not the case in other Eurasian nations. He concluded on a hopeful note, sharing a personal anecdote about his own native country of Hungary, which experienced a short period of freedom in the 1950's only to be quickly suppressed by Soviet forces. "I will tell you that the 1956 Hungarian Revolution came into fruition in 1989. No one could have imagined that," Soros said.

AGBU President Berge Setrakian thanked Soros for his participation in the exchange and shared some of his personal thoughts. "This process is only beginning and we will certainly continue this dialogue. Hearing about the successes of the Soros foundation in its efforts to build civil society in Armenia, we are encouraged to explore new possibilities. As the world's leading Armenian non-profit organization, it is AGBU's responsibility to seek out effective ways to help Armenians and Armenia become a strong and stable nation," Setrakian said.