Relocated Russian Democracy - A View from Armenia

The war, the repressed civil society, the retaliatory sanctions applied by the Western countries, the fear of general military mobilization were all factors that forced several hundred thousand Russians into migration. Why did some of the relocates choose Armenia as a destination and how can this migration affect the democratization processes in the country?

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Yerevan, 2022

With the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Russian citizens, opposing the military invasion, are at serious risk due to the sharply tightened laws, now restricting freedom of speech. Within a few weeks, the Russian authorities applied repressions against those non-governmental organizations that still operated in the country, surviving the waves of repressions and whose work was based on the ideas of democracy and humanism. The war, the repressed civil society, the retaliatory sanctions applied by the Western countries, the fear of general military mobilization were all factors that forced several hundred thousand Russians into migration. Armenia turned out to be one of the most popular destinations for the new migration wave, which has been given the euphemistic name of “relocation”. While the Armenian authorities tried not to articulate the political reasons for the resettlement and were not ready to provide institutionalized assistance to the large flow of immigrants arriving in the country, the representatives of the Armenian civil society began to look for ways to address the new migration situation, helping their Russian colleagues who had suffered from the new realities in war-waging Russia.

The recognition of the “LPR” and “DPR” and the subsequent Russian military invasion into Ukraine on February 24, 2022, marked the beginning of a full-scale war that led to a real humanitarian catastrophe in Eastern Europe, leaving behind destroyed Ukrainian cities, millions of refugees, killed and wounded civilians, and prisoners of war on both sides. In parallel with the start of the military aggression against Ukraine, the internal political situation in Russia led to a sharp tightening of legislation and large-scale propaganda of militarism, which served as a reason for the mass “relocation” of Russians to other countries.

Where “Peace” works

The total pressure on the Russian civil society, which has been going on for the past few years, increased significantly after the start of the war, and after February 24, literally in a matter of a few days, almost all institutions supporting the values ​​of democracy and protecting human rights, and despite extremely difficult conditions providing free media platforms were totally destroyed. All independent media outlets[1] were closed down, a number of non-governmental organizations[2] and foreign foundations, such as Heinrich Böll Foundation, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others were liquidated. One after another, bloggers, analysts and researchers were recognized as foreign agents only for publicly disagreeing with the Kremlin's foreign policy decisions. All anti-war statements were immediately suppressed by the punitive authorities or became the subject of public persecution.[3] By a decree of President Putin, the Criminal Code was amended and the so-called “law on fake outlets”[4] was introduced, stipulating 15 years of imprisonment for disseminating false information about the actions of the Russian army, the National Guard, the prosecutor’s office, and so on. The Russian authorities called the military aggression against neighboring Ukraine “a special military operation” and the very use of the words “war” or “invasion” thereby became a violation of the law.

Already in the first days of the war, shock, fear of general military mobilization, as well as pressure on civil society, forced many Russian people[5]  to leave the country. The Russian authorities and state media in every possible way showed that not only NGOs and independent media outlets, but also individual citizens, choosing to criticize the decisions of the government and the President in general, as well as the military invasion into Ukraine in particular, were considered personas non grata in Russia. The representatives of the civil society, who for many years tried to support democratic values ​​and promote  liberalism in those extremely difficult conditions within an autocratic state, had found themselves in a very disadvantaged situation lately. Besides, the response of Western countries in the form of economic sanctions against Russia forced many business sectors to leave the market in a matter of days, including large airlines that had with international flights, serving the Russian market. For departing Russians, a corridor was “opened” in a limited number of directions, namely to Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Israel. Only a few distant countries, such as Sri Lanka or the United Arab Emirates, had been accessible since the end of February. Despite the absence of direct flights from Russia to Georgia, Tbilisi remained one of the most popular destinations.

In fact, Armenia has become the most popular destination for the new wave of migration. This choice was explained by two main factors: firstly, Russians could leave with national passports only for Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, annexed from Georgia. For those who did not have a foreign passport at the time of departure, Yerevan (and much seldom Bishkek) was the only way out of the situation; besides, many could easily move to neighboring Georgia from Armenia, where it was much safer to speak publicly in support of Ukraine and talk about Russia's war crimes. The number of flights from Russian cities to Zvartnots airport increased dramatically. Official statements quoted a broad range of numbers from 80 to 100+ thousand migrants in a few weeks.[6]

Long before the war in Ukraine, Tbilisi had already become a popular destination for the representatives of the Belarusian and Russian civil society, therefore, despite the fact that the Georgian capital was most articulate in support of Ukraine (explaining its solidarity both by the trauma of the Russian occupation in 2008 and the anticipated risk of a new invasion), many “dissenting” Russians found it easier to find temporary shelter in Yerevan. Armenia turned out to be more popular for resettlement both due to the absence of a language barrier (the majority of the population here speaks Russian to some degree or can understand it), a positive attitude towards Russians (explained, among other things, by the mass labor migration of Armenians to Russian cities over the past three decades), and the possibility of using Russian bank cards, a factor that is no less important.[7]

Building New "Spaces"

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, official Yerevan has never directly expressed its attitude to it and has tried to remain neutral. Neither the Prime Minister, nor the Government did in any way comment on the upsurging migration flows. Only the Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Armenia expressed a positive attitude and readiness to assist the immigrants, but not all of them, rather focusing exclusively on the representatives of the IT sector and various technology-related business sectors.[8] However, if we try to draw up the typology of the citizens moving from Russia to Armenia, it should be noted that despite its economic stability, the IT sector was not the only one moving in. Employees of liquidated Russian NGOs moved to Armenia, too, since their operations had become hardly possible due to the new “cannibalistic” laws.

Representatives of Russian academic and scientific research community were among the immigrants, too. As early as at the beginning of April, Yerevan-based universities and research institutes started to organize meetings, symposiums and round tables with the participation of Russian intellectuals in exile. Issues such as the war, authoritarian regimes and ideologies, the need for transformation of humanitarian knowledge, and so on were addressed during these seminars. Several research projects have already been launched to conduct anthropological and sociological research on the situation with the “relocation” of the civil society representatives from Russia to Armenia.

Journalists and bloggers constituted another group of spontaneous immigrants to Yerevan and Tbilisi. Already during the first days of the war in Ukraine, the Russian Current Time TV staff would go on air against the backdrop of downtown Yerevan. Looking for ways to integrate, artists and activists began to develop their new place of residence immediately after moving in. They started to design new initiatives, create alternative platforms and increasingly talked about the need for “new spaces” in the city. Such a post-traumatic accumulation of initiatives, undertaken by the artistic and activist community was a way to help them survive, on the one hand, yet on the other hand, it colonized the new space, trying to quickly reshape the existing realia (cultural, economic, and so on), since the existing infrastructure was not perceived as “suitable”, “relevant”, “developed”, “comfortable”, and so on. In addition, such an attempt to quickly create “one’s own” platforms can be considered the launch of shaping an encapsulated diaspora culture. In any case, the new reality of “relocation” for the artistic, scientific as well as journalistic communities, obviously testified to the beginning of a completely new type of mutual influence of the Armenian and Russian democracies and the civil societies thereof.

At the end of March, local initiative groups, together with migrants from Ukraine and Russia, organized a “NO TO WAR” march, the official agenda of which was presented as an attempt to balance or introduce a generalized anti-militarist message without highlighting any specific military conflict. The Facebook page of the “No to War” march consisted of a list of a number of military conflicts the organizers were acting against (from the first Karabakh War of 1988-1994 to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022), but in reality the march turned into a large procession with Ukrainian flags. The march carried posters with slogans such as "No to war!" in the Russian and Armenian languages, “Putin must be trialed in the Hague!”, “Glory to Ukraine!” and so on. This march turned out to be the only large-scale public event in support of Ukraine on the streets of Yerevan. It was hard not to notice that most of the participants were representatives of the Russian civil society and the Russian youth. The anti-war march was, in a certain sense, a way for political emigrants in Yerevan to unite, but also a response to the march in support of the special operation, previously actively promoted by the employees of Rossotrudnichestvo in Armenia. This pro-Russian rally was immediately cited in the official Russian media and caused a wave of discontent in the Ukrainian and Georgian segments of social media. However, neither the general public in Armenia, nor the representatives of civil society supported this pro-Russian action. Small groups of people also regularly gathered at the monument to Taras Shevchenko in the city center, and at the end of April, on the eve of the day of remembrance of the victims of the Armenian Genocide, a group of new migrants came out with posters “No to Genocides” in front of the building of the Russian embassy. However, soon the Police had to form a dividing line between picketers with Ukrainian and Armenian flags and those who came to the embassy building with Armenian and Russian tricolour flags.

In addition to the large number of IT sector and a much smaller community of NGO employees, as well as representatives of the academia and journalists, conscripts began to move to Armenia, too. The latter were pushed to temporary migration by constantly renewed rumors about a possible general mobilization in Russia. Ethnic Ukrainians living in the Russian Federation were among the immigrants, too. The place of birth indicated in their passports against the backdrop of total anti-Ukrainian propaganda forced this part of the population to leave Russian cities and look for a new home in Armenia or neighboring Georgia.

Transit Country Turbulence

Not only was the migrant population diverse, the causes for the spontaneous and urgent move-out were diverse, too. While for some the main motivation was the inability to continue working due to company closures or relocations or problems with money transfers, for others the main motivation was the increased level of personal risk, namely the prospect of arrest or military mobilization. However, for a certain part of the migrants, the most important factor was not a real threat to life, but the psychological state and aggravated moral and psychological state, experienced in the current situation.

Depending on the circumstances, migrants interpret their stay in Armenia in different ways. Many consider it as a temporary place of residence, a transit point on the way to a new place of residence. Some are planning to move to Europe soon, some others intend to move to Israel. Some are forced by economic circumstances to return to Russia. However, a significant part plans to stay and gain a foothold in Armenia. This is evidenced by queues at registration offices, banks, as well as the increased demand for commercial real estate rental. Although the representatives of the IT sector are mainly planning to stay, moving their entire offices to Armenia and, accordingly, finding themselves in a higher degree of stability, there are representatives of NGOs, too, who plan to stay and continue their humanitarian mission in Armenia.

Such a significant number of highly educated and professionally successful migrants could not but bring about reaction and response in the Armenian society. The infrastructural and institutional unpreparedness of Armenia to accept so many migrants[9] has created noticeable tensions in the society. Among the most obvious consequences is the sharp (doubling or even tripling) increase in rental prices, which affects not only and not so much newcomers as the already renting Armenian tenants, who were forced to start looking for new housing and already at prices higher than before. At the same time, the authorities are not trying to facilitate either the integration of political immigrants who have arrived in the country, or the search for mechanisms to protect local businesses and specialists in the current situation, noticing only the migration of well-off Russians who are mainly from IT sector companies.

At the same time, the representatives of the Russian and Armenian civil society are actively building relationships and looking for various ways to comprehensively support other migrants that do not bring obvious economic benefits. We believe that it is this cooperation, based on a humanitarian mission, that can have a significant impact on the development of democracy in Armenia in the future. The representatives of NGOs and civil society in Russia and Armenia, who met in Yerevan, have had  different journeys and have had significantly different experiences.

On the one hand, a common colonial past, as well as close social and economic ties make it easy for Armenians and newly arrived Russians to find common ground. On the other hand, Armenia and the representatives of the Armenian civil society have been actively integrated into the countries of the Eastern Partnership in recent years, while the Russian civil society developed in isolation and concentrated on domestic, rather than regional issues. At the same time, the representatives of the civil society from Russia have a successful experience of surviving in an aggressive environment, which is not familiar to Armenian counterparts.

At the same time, most Russians that are currently in Armenia are not striving for integration and communication with the local community, but are rather trying to possibly preserve their usual way of life to the extent possible. The groups claiming relocation are an obvious proof of this. This is not emigration (a term that has historically been used in Russian for such processes and individual decisions), but “relocation”, that is, simply moving to another place, maintaining the usual routine. Such an approach implies the need for familiar practices and services, and not adaptation and integration into the local environment. Naturally, this causes some tension. So, recurrently posts were published on the social media, expressing bewilderment with both the absence of the usual “Moscow-type” comfort and the inadequacy of the demands posed. This tension, which reflects the traditional center vs. periphery relations between those living in Central Russia and Armenia does not serve as a fertile ground for interaction.

The war in Ukraine, after the second Karabakh War in the fall of 2020, was one of the two full-scale wars in the region, which led to the militarization of public and media discourse in Armenia. In addition, the second Karabakh War in 2020 ended with even more Russian military forces deployed in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. In addition to this new deployment of peacekeepers, the Russian military, Military Base 102 in Gyumri, and others continue their deployment in Armenia. The domestic political instability in Armenia[10] and such a comprehensive control by the Russian military[11] call into question the security of newly arrived democrats and liberals expelled from Russia.

Against the background of two devastating wars and political instability, there is a noticeable decline in the image of democracy and democratic values, which were popular topics after the 2018 Velvet Revolution. Both the representatives of the Armenian civil society and Russian political emigrants who are seeking a new home are faced with new challenges and the need to reconceptualize the immediate past and current developments and their own work before the military conflict. They are forced to look for new methods and strategies for future activity.

The content of the publication is the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Heinrich Boell Stiftung Tbilisi Office – South Caucasus Region.


[1] Dozhd TV channel  had to close down, Ekho Moskviy was liquidated, DW and Novaya Gazeta and so on suspended their operations in the Russian Federation. Besides, the propaganda-related nature of these liquidations consisted in the “replacement” tactics. Thus, for example, since March 9, 2022, Radio Sputnik that is part of the state-owned corporation of “Russia Today” Media and Information Agency and headed by editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan has been occupying the radio frequency, previously used by Ekho Moskvy for its broadcasts.

[2] We should remind that they had been viewed and labelled as “foreign agents” for years. Pressure on the largest human rights center Memorial and the homonymous historical and enlightening community was over by the final ruling of the Supreme Court on its liquidation on February 28, 2022, i.e. on the fourth day of the war.

[3] Famous bloggers and journalists were repeatedly assaulted almost on a daily basis. Pro-governmental activists painted “the new swastika” symbol in the shape of the Latin letter Z on the doors of the private houses of media staff members, and an assassination attempt was organized against the Nobel Prize winner, editor-in-chief of the Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov.  

[5] According to various sources, approximately 200,000 people had left Russia by mid-March in connection with the outbreak of the war, although these figures are difficult to verify, since the wave of resettlement continues to this day. See, for example:с-начала-войны-россию-покинули-до-200-тысяч-человект

[7]One of the sanctions applied by the Western countries was the exclusion of Russia from the SWIFT system, which led to the suspension of service for the Mastercards and Visa cards issued in the Russian Federation. At the same time, Armenian banks and payment systems continued to service cards linked to the Russian Mir system.

[9] For decades the only form of mass migration known to Armenia has been labour migration from the country. The country has almost never encountered such an influx of immigrants (with the exception of Syrian Armenians, who integrated rather quickly, due to the lack of a language or other barriers), therefore, neither public entities nor local NGOs were ready for such a flow of “relocated persons” and were forced to urgently change their work strategies, develop new work methodologies, aimed at both the social adaptation and the cultural integration of the new migrants.

[10] It should be noted that the ex-President Robert Kocharyan has repeatedly announced that they would embark on reprisal against local NGOs once they come to power.

[11] Against the background of the ongoing war in Ukraine, a meeting between Nikol Pashinyan and Vladimir Putin was held in the Kremlin which resulted in the signature of a document, consisting of 30 points on the enhancement of cooperation  between the two states. That fact also creates obvious risks for the presence of “dissident” Russians in the territory of Armenia.