Home More News Despite historic mistrust, Armenia welcomes Ukrainian war refugees

Despite historic mistrust, Armenia welcomes Ukrainian war refugees

0
Despite historic mistrust, Armenia welcomes Ukrainian war refugees
Olena Shevchuk, president of the nonprofit charity Dopomoga, displays a handmade tote bag for sale, as part of fundraising efforts to help Ukrainian war refugees in Armenia. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

YEREVAN, Armenia—Throughout the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the blue-and-yellow flag of Ukraine flutters in solidarity everywhere, from balconies, bridges and rooftops.

But in neighboring Armenia, this symbol of resistance to Russian occupation is rarely seen. Long viewed as a staunch ally of Moscow, Armenia has been reluctant to openly criticize Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine.

Yet with frustration growing over the Kremlin’s recent failure to protect Armenia from its archenemy, Azerbaijan, anger toward Russia is on the rise here, along with public sympathy for the plight of Ukrainians devastated by Putin’s widely condemned onslaught.

Olena Shevchuk. 40, is president of Dopomoga, a Yerevan-based charity dedicated to helping Ukrainians who have taken refuge in Armenia in the nearly two years since Russian troops attacked their country.

Operating from the third floor of an aging apartment building on Khanjyan Street, Dopomoga’s office is decorated with Ukrainian flags and banners, including one bearing the portraits of Armenian national hero Garegin Nzhdeh and far-right patriot Stepan Bandera (a controversial figure both praised as a liberator of Ukraine and vilified as a Jew-hating Nazi sympathizer).

One room serves as a mini-warehouse filled with donated clothes, toys, books and blankets for families that need such items. And another has been converted into a classroom, with teachers instructing newly arrived Ukrainians in English, Armenian and even Czech language skills.

Donated clothes and toys for Ukrainian families living in Armenia are stored at the Yerevan headquarters of Dopomoga. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

In 2023, according to Dopomoga’s website, the charity provided 15,295 kilograms (33,719 pounds) of humanitarian aid to 5,967 people in Armenia. It also organized 693 events that were attended by 5,743 people. In the last two years, Dopomoga has generated close to $200,000 through fundraising events as well as the sale of tote bags, T-shirts and other merchandise.

“For Armenia, this is big money,” said Shevchuk, a mother of two who works a minimum 70 hours per week here. Originally from Odesa, the private business consultant has been living in Yerevan since 2011 with her Armenian husband.

“A month after the war started, we began to collect and distribute humanitarian aid for refugees from Ukraine,” she said, noting that in March 2022—when Russia’s first military mobilization began—the price of a one-way airline ticket from Moscow to Yerevan soared to $10,000. And after the first wave of Russian immigration, the cost of renting a typical flat jumped from $300 a month to $1,000.

Armenia puts aside grievances to aid Ukrainians in need

The influx of both Russians and Ukrainians to Armenia helped boost the country’s GDP growth by 12% in 2022, and by 8% last year.

“Armenia is the only country in the region which gives full-scale refugee status to Ukrainians,” she said. “Georgia also gives this status, but the procedure there is much more bureaucratic and complex. Here, Ukrainians come to our immigration office with their document, and the next day they receive asylum status for three months.”

Ukrainian war refugees in Armenia take English classes at the Yerevan offices of Dopomoga, a humanitarian organization. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

She said it helped that this system was already in place for refugees coming from Artsakh, the de facto entity that from 1994 to 2023 governed the long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. But late last year, Azerbaijani forces launched a lightning military offensive that forced some 120,000 ethnic Armenians—the territory’s entire population—to flee back into Armenia proper.

The fact that Russian peacekeepers allowed this to happen—despite their pledge to enforce a Nov. 9, 2020, accord that ended the Second Karabakh War— has soured many people here on their one-time ally. Furthermore, domestic political repression under Putin does not sit well with fiercely democratic Armenia.

Shevchuk estimates that 20,000 or so Ukrainians fled to Armenia since the war’s beginning, of which about 5,000 have remained. Many are ethnic Armenians, and some are the product of mixed marriages in which one parent is Ukrainian, the other Armenian. That in itself isn’t unusual, given that at the time of Putin’s invasion, Ukraine hosted the world’s fifth-largest Armenian diaspora community after Russia, the United States, France and Georgia.

Even so, relations between the two former Soviet republics have been marred by mutual mistrust. From 2014 to 2021, Armenia consistently supported Russia in voting against Ukraine at the United Nations—in particularly UN Resolution 68/262 on Ukraine’s territorial integrity—while Kyiv voted for UN Resolution 62/243 demanding an “immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all the occupied territories of Azerbaijan.”

Since then, the situation has changed. Last September, Anna Hakobyan, the wife of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife, Olena, in Kyiv and personally handed over more than 1,000 smartphones, tablets and laptops for Ukrainian schoolchildren.

Literature in English, Russian and Armenian on display at the Yerevan headquarters of Dopomoga, a Ukrainian humanitarian organization. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Today, Dopomoga has 70 volunteers. Most are Ukrainians, though some are Russians opposed to their country’s war—and they participate at great risk to themselves and their families.

“Our volunteer who teaches Armenian is a Russian citizen,” said Shevcuk. “When he went back to Russia, they interrogated him for five hours about what he does in our organization.”

Among Dopomoga’s unpaid staffers is Anton Ronis, 22. A Russian Jew from St. Petersburg, he relocated to Armenia in August 2022 and has been working at the charity for nearly a year.

For Armenia, Karabakh war ‘a trauma of historic dimensions’

“When the war started, I began talking to my friends at RANEPA [Russian Academy of National Economics and Public Administration]. But it was like talking to a wall,” said Ronis. “I realized that I could not influence the situation. I wanted to be useful, and I understood that in Yerevan, I could do more than in Russia. Those who support this war are people with very scary ideas, and they consider me their ideological enemy.”

That’s when Ronis decided to leave Russia—his departure cemented after a particularly violent attack by local neo-Nazis at a Moscow subway station that left the young man with a black eye.

“The main difference between Georgia and Armenia is when you’re walking through the streets of Yerevan dressed in Ukrainian colors, two or three people will definitely say ‘slava ukraini’ [Glory to Ukraine]. In Tbilisi, of course, there are many more Ukrainian flags everywhere,” he said—a consequence of widespread Georgian hatred for Russia, which attacked their country in 2008 and continues to occupy 20% of it by force.

Anton Ronis, 22, is a Russian Jew and anti-Putin activist from St. Petersburg who now lives in Armenia and volunteers for the Ukrainian nonprofit organization Dopomoga in Yerevan. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Karen Harutyunyan, editor-in-chief of the Yerevan-based CivilNet news agency, said Armenia to a large extent is paying the price for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Our war in Karabakh, which resulted in the exile of its entire population, was calamitous, a trauma of historic dimensions. This was an indirect consequence of the Ukraine war, because Russia was supposed to be the main guarantor of peace after the Nov. 9 agreement,” Harutyunyan said.

Added Stella Mehrabekyan, a senior editor at CivilNet: “For decades, the Ukrainians voted for Azerbaijan and against Armenia at the United Nations. We were perceived, and are still perceived, as a Russian satellite. This is why many people in Ukraine don’t see the complexity in our politics and society.”

Nevertheless, she said, Armenia has deep sympathy for those displaced by Putin’s aggression.

“Many people see this is as an unfair war started by Russia. We experienced the same in 2020, and we know what war is,” Mehrabekyan said. “Whether it’s Gaza or Ukraine or Russia, when we see these pictures, they revive what we have already gone through. We cannot be indifferent towards their pain.”

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.