Armenians are no stranger to conflict. Amid the war in Ukraine and economic turmoil in Russia, the Armenian government has been quick to open its doors to Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian citizens and companies who want to relocate to Armenia or find temporary refuge. “It seems that Armenia and probably Serbia are the two last countries, where we are not hated en masse,” says one recent arrival from Russia.
During the first week of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Armenian Ministry of Economy established a working group tasked with helping foreign entrepreneurs relocate to Armenia and even create new businesses in the Armenian market. Enterprise Armenia (the official government investment promotion authority) and the National Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Ministry of Economy, established in 2009, will be providing assistance to interested entrepreneurs.
Minister of Economy Vahan Kerobyan mentioned “a dozen Russian companies already moving to Armenia” to avoid the disastrous effects of Western sanctions on the Russian economy and ruble currency. Even though little data is available so far about specific companies who have already decided to relocate to Armenia, early indications suggest that most of them come from the IT sector. According to some reports, companies such as Veeam, EPAM Systems, NVIDIA and Revolut are fully or partially moving their Russian teams to Yerevan. However, more striking news was the massive exodus of individual Russian citizens, mainly toward ex-Soviet republics, including Armenia.
Citizens of the Russian Federation, Belarus and Ukraine can enter Armenia without a visa and stay in the territory of Armenia for a maximum of 180 days a year without any additional residency permits. Citizens of the Russian Federation can enter the Republic of Armenia with their domestic passport/ID card. On January 1, 2022, the online work permit platform had just recently been launched to digitize the process of granting work permits and residence status to foreigners in Armenia (and avoiding long lines at the OVIR visa office).
The ability to enter Armenia with a domestic Russian ID is one of the main reasons Armenia is receiving a significant share of newcomers from this exodus. Todar Baktemir, an activist from Astrakhan, Russia, claims that “Many regard Armenia as a transitional point where they’ll apply for passports at the Embassy and then proceed to Georgia or Western countries. Some part of the emigres hope to return to Russia soon enough, and others, although a minority, don’t mind settling down in Yerevan.”
BBC journalist Grigor Atanesian opined on Twitter that “Yerevan is rapidly turning into a new Istanbul of the White Russians in 1918” a reference to when supporters of the Tsar fled the Bolshevik Revolution. Yerevan is comparatively cheaper than Istanbul and friendlier to Russians than Tbilisi, even though both Georgia and Turkey, alongside Central Asian countries, are among the most preferred destinations for the Russian emigres.
Two Telegram groups called “2022 Relocation / Armenia“ and “Relocation to Armenia | Mutual aid“ count more than 27,000 members, a number that continues to grow daily. Conversations vary from topics such as “Are Russians welcome in Armenia?” to “How can I find accommodation and a job in the IT sector?” Armenians are not only encouraging and inviting Russians to relocate to Yerevan but also happily sharing with them potential job opportunities, websites and where to find things.
The Situation on the Ground
I had a few conversations with some members of these chats to understand why exactly they are fleeing Russia and what they hope to find in Armenia. Their real names have been changed due to the sensitive political environment.
Sergey , a 29-year-old resident of Moscow, moved to Yerevan without his parents a few days after the war started. He works remotely as a Senior Java Developer for a large Moscow-based IT company. “At some point, I was scared that my efforts to stop this madness by organizing humanitarian help and petitions would be regarded in a very negative light. I wanted to shelter my life and my savings. After moving to Yerevan, I finally managed to sleep for the first time in a week. Already on my second day here, I’ve met a few people in the streets who just asked me how I was doing and tried to be helpful. You can feel the incredible friendliness and openness of the locals. The absence of a language barrier is very welcoming. At the moment, I feel safe and hope to rent an apartment in the city.”
Olga, 29, from Saint Petersburg, whose grandfather is an Armenian from Gandzak/Ganja, is planning to move to Yerevan with friends as soon as possible. She confessed that she was terrified and was experiencing panic attacks.
Igor, a 35-year-old Machine Learning Team Lead from one of the most prominent Russian universities also moved to Yerevan, leaving his family and his 5-year-old son behind in Moscow for now. Being sure that Russia was on the brink of a huge collapse, economic turmoil and dictatorship, he decided to take responsibility for his family’s future. “Last week was very nerve-wracking and exhausting. First, I was worrying about the Ukrainian people, but then I started to worry about ourselves. Leaving was a tough decision. The current plan is to find a remote job, rent a flat, find a kindergarten and move my family here. My parents don’t want to leave, at least not yet.” Everyone that I spoke to agreed that they felt very welcome in Yerevan. “It seems that Armenia and probably Serbia are the two last countries, where we are not hated en masse,” says Igor.
The enthusiasm and readiness of Armenian companies and recruiters, especially in the IT sector, to hire Russians and Ukrainians are also very high. David Bequette, Co-founder of blockchain startup rBlox, said, “We aren’t actively recruiting either Russians or Ukrainians, but we have been introduced to several Ukrainian developers and would most likely take them on, not only for their skill sets that we can’t find in Armenia, but also because it’s the right thing to do.” In the Telegram channel “IT positions in Armenia”, dozens of IT companies are ready to recruit a wide range of specialists, at competitive salary ranges. It highlights the extreme demand for qualified IT specialists in the Armenian market, but that is a topic for another time.
Alongside many civilians and businesses, journalists are also fleeing Russia as the Kremlin cracks down on independent and foreign media outlets in the country, even imposing a maximum 15-year jail term for spreading “fake news about the military.” Todar Baktemir, a journalist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, had to move from Russia to Yerevan with his ethnically Armenian wife long before the war, in the summer of 2021. Now, he’s helping newly-arrived Russians at Yerevan’s Zvartnots (EVN) airport and following the developments closely: “Ukrainians and Belarusians aren’t a major part of the current exodus, but the longer-established Ukrainian community in Armenia is helping the newly-arrived Russians because most of the Russians who come here are anti-Putin and pro-Ukraine.”
With the sudden influx of thousands of people, “rent is skyrocketing, short-term accommodation is already scarce and often more expensive than in many European cities,” says Baktemir. Unable to find or afford accommodation in the downtown core, many are looking to Yerevan’s suburbs and nearby commuter towns.
How Big Can Immigration Be?
According to the Zvartnots airport online registry, more than 70 flights from different Russian cities landed in Yerevan between March 4 and 6, 2022 alone. One-way ticket prices have skyrocketed. Another 80 flights are scheduled to land in Yerevan from Russia this week. This number doesn’t count people who arrive in Armenia via multiple transfers (for example, via Dubai, Minsk or Actau).
The Armenian Migration Service has not reported numbers of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians arriving in Armenia yet. The war is still ongoing and there are increasingly terrifying rumors about the Kremlin’s plans to impose martial law in Russia, which would restrict male citizens from leaving the country. Even though martial law has not been officially imposed, there are numerous ways through which the Russian government is trying to prevent the mass exodus. The Russian Federal Air Transport Agency recommended that airlines (particularly S7, Aeroflot, Rossiya and Aurora) stop flights of foreign-owned aircraft (leased by Russian airlines) abroad. Aeroflot has announced that it will halt all international flights (except to Minsk) starting on March 8. While the lack of flights to European Union countries can be explained by the fact that their airspace has been closed to Russian aircraft, that doesn’t explain the cancellation of flights to Yerevan, Baku or Central Asian countries. With Azerbaijan’s land border with Russia still closed due to COVID-19, Azerbaijan Airlines and Buta Airways also suspended all flights to Russia as of March 6 “due to the risks arising from international flights.”
It was not too long ago when the “Iron Curtain” prevented Russians from traveling beyond the borders of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. Fears that those conditions could be imposed once more is fueling much of the exodus; people want to get out while they still can.
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