Russian émigrés find safe haven in Armenia’s second city
In the months since Russia invaded Ukraine, the three South Caucasus countries have become a haven for people fleeing from both sides of the war. While Ukrainians have been widely welcomed, residents in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have wrestled with the impact of the thousands of Russians pouring over their borders. They are driven by many things—some flee persecution, while others seek to escape military service—and their fate is uncertain as they navigate their new reality.
32-year-old IT specialist Artyom Emilyanov dreamed of leaving Russia for years. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, he and his brother knew it was time to go.
“When the war started, I realized that it's now or never, I have to leave,” he says.
“When we flew into Armenia, many people, including my brother and I, went to Tbilisi [in neighboring Georgia]. Starting a business in Georgia was easier, you can stay without a visa for a year, taxes were low and Western payment systems work well. But there was a lot of anti-Russian sentiment in Tbilisi and I couldn't stay.”
The brothers were part of a wave of Russians who fled the country at the start of the war. Armenia, with its regular flights, visa-free regime with Russia and large Russian-speaking population, was one of the top destinations. Approximately, 270,000 Russian citizens arrived in Armenia from January to May, according to the state-run statistics agency. In five months, 75,000 more arrived than in the entire year of 2020. It is impossible to say how many stayed, however.
Russian citizens can stay in Armenia for 180 days without registering; the clock resets if they cross the border and reenter. To date, 1059 Russians and 51 Ukrainians have applied and received residence status--and 240 Ukrainians and three Russians have applied for refugee status.
After their experience in Georgia. Artyom and his brother tried to settle in the Armenian capital Yerevan, but found the rising prices and falling ruble made it impossible. Eventually, they made their way to Gyumri, a city of roughly 100,000 in northwest Armenia.
The city, which is also home to a Russian army base, has become an unlikely haven for emigres looking for an urban environment with good internet and inexpensive housing.
"The number of people who arrived from Russia is estimated at about 100,000. They are mainly from the high-tech sector, but there are also representatives of other sectors, starting from drivers, catering workers, I mean waiters, cooks and so on," notes the head of the ACSES analytical center, Yerevan-based economist Haykaz Fanyan.
He notes that the influx has been positive for some sectors, like IT, where gaps in the local workforce made it difficult for businesses to find highly trained specialists.
Gharib Harutyunyan, the president of Compass, a scientific research, education, and consulting company in Gyumri, agrees that the new Russian arrivals have had an immediate impact on the IT sector in Gyumri. His center’s research shows a notable increase in the number of IT companies created, including new coops with locals.
He adds that locals have not had any issue accepting the Russians so far.
"Since there is a Russian military base in Gyumri, the people of Gyumri are used to the presence of Russians…they have been living as tenants in different districts for years, and I think it was a more common phenomenon than, let’s say, in Vanadzor or other cities,” he notes, adding that the company did not find any new Ukrainian residents during their research.
Lena Piragova, a lawyer and children’s rights advocate from Moscow, did not know about the military base when she decided to move to Gyumri—she was attracted by the housing costs, which are lower than in Yerevan. Lena’s daughter, Agata, is autistic, and she was pleasantly surprised when she found services at local schools for autistic children.
“In Moscow, I fought for children like Agata to study in public schools, but here that system has been in place for a long time. I was very surprised. People here are very warm and caring towards children, it is surprising and nice,” she says. “All this made me fall in love with Gyumri. Now I am calling my friends from Yerevan to Gyumri so that they fall in love with this city, too.”
Lena’s employer, a charity that advocates for the rights of children with autism, allows her to work remotely from Armenia so she has not had to look for work in Gyumri since moving here in March. The limited job market and substantially lower salaries have been a shock to some recent arrivals, however, notes economist Gharib Harutyunyan.
The study he conducted noted there is already a tendency for some people to return to Russia or move elsewhere due to the lack of work and, to an extent, due to rising property costs.
“Finding a job in Gyumri is difficult for residents, and it will be doubly difficult for Russians, because there are language problems, a difference in culture and lifestyle,” notes economist Gharib Harutyunyan. “It will take a long time to enter the labor market, and few are ready for it.”
Tanya Minakova worked as a preschool teacher and psychologist in Moscow. When she arrived in Gyumri, she immediately started to look for work at the local schools. The salaries, however, were a shock.
“If it was easy for remote workers to move, it was very difficult for me. I am a teacher and I could not work remotely. I had some savings and I had to start everything from scratch,” she says.
“I sent my resume to one of the private kindergartens, and they invited me to work. I was very happy, but I did not ask about the salary…I was thinking of finding a job for example with three times less salary, but not ten times less.”
She turned down that job offer before she learned the salary they had offered was actually considered quite good for the local market.
“When you move to another country, it takes a long time to adjust your thinking in terms of prices and lifestyle…If I don't find a job, I will leave… I will try to find a job in another country,” she says, noting she is still hopeful she will find something for the new school year.
“You know what's sad? My country has gone to conquer new territories, but it's losing human resources. It lets them go very easily. Those who are leaving my country are definitely not stupid people. There are countries that can use this human resource as cheap labor.”
‘’There is such an attitude in Russia that if you go, then you are a traitor to the motherland. After these events, different countries started treating Russians very badly. It turns out: they consider you a traitor in your homeland, because you are against the current policy and left, and at the same time, they treat you badly abroad, identifying you with the authorities. The situation in Armenia is not like that, they distinguish between the people and the politics of the government’’ says Artyom Emilyanov.
This feature story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES or Chai Khana.