Russian emigres in Armenia settle in for the long haul

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((This Oct. 26 story has been refiled to correct name to Mary Khachikyan from Mari Khachikyan in paragraph 8))

By Lev Sergeev

YEREVAN (Reuters) – In the Armenian capital Yerevan, few of the tens of thousands of military-age Russian men who have fled to the former Soviet republic see themselves returning home any time soon.

“Many of my friends left, only a couple of people remain in Russia,” said Nikolai Salnikov, an IT worker who went to Armenia on Sept. 23, two days after President Vladimir Putin declared a “partial mobilisation” to bolster his forces in Ukraine.

With a broad cross-section of Russian society, where most men are obliged to perform a year’s compulsory military service after leaving school, theoretically eligible for the draft, tens of thousands have decided to take their chances abroad, rather than risk being sent to Ukraine as conscripts.

Salnikov, who said he saw no point in returning to Russia now, said: “Some people travelled here, some to Kazakhstan, some to Uzbekistan – all over the CIS. In general, they are all leaving Russia somehow.”

Armenia, which allows Russian citizens to enter without an international passport, and to stay without a visa for up to six months, is among the most popular destinations for the new wave of emigres.

Traditionally a major source of migrant workers in Russia, the country is now adjusting to a new role as a bolt-hole for Russians who oppose the war in Ukraine. The central bank has upgraded its GDP projections due to the influx of Russians, many of whom are young, skilled professionals.

While Armenia has not made public the numbers of Russians arriving, Kazahkstan and Georgia, both of which have become popular destinations, have each put the figures well into the tens of thousands.

“I was born in Armenia, but my parents decided to leave for Russia two years after for a better life,” said Mary Khachikyan, a Russian citizen of Armenian origin who moved to her ancestral homeland shortly after mobilisation was announced.

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“Now they’re convincing me to stay here and not go back to Moscow.”

RESTRICTIONS?

Although Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said this month that the city had met its draft quotas and would not be mobilising any more men, the emigres Reuters spoke to do not take Sobyanin, a close ally of Putin, at his word.

Though the Kremlin has repeatedly said it has no plans to introduce further wartime restrictions – including nationwide martial law and border closures – many of the emigres in Yerevan take it as a given that ever harsher measures are coming.

“I think there’s a certain tendency – when the authorities say something will not happen, it is obvious for everyone that it will happen,” Khachikyan said. “I think there’s a certain pattern that if they say ‘no’ it means ‘yes, but a bit later’.”

As a result, Armenia’s new Russian residents who Reuters spoke to see themselves returning only in the event of a change of government at home. They say that their friends and colleagues also plan to stay put in Armenia for the time being.

“Certainly, there’s a chance (of returning to Russia), just not under the current leadership,” said Georgiy Trubnikov, who left Russia after the start of mobilisation.

“If a new leadership has the will to implement liberal reforms. If that doesn’t happen, then we’re not interested in returning to Russia.”

While Putin has previously talked about Russian society “self-purifying” during the war, the Kremlin has said little about the exodus, saying that while it is a legal matter, each case has its own specifics.

(Writing by Felix Light; Editing by Alison Williams)