14 Jun 2022
Experiences of War: Ukraine
Panelists: Mariam Pesvianidze (based in Tbilisi, Georgia),
Anna Leontyeva (based in Yerevan),
Sofia Voytiv (based in Sweden)
Moderators of the panel: Philip Gamaghelyan,
Sevil Huseynova (editors of Caucasus Edition)
The impact of the war in Ukraine has reached far beyond its borders. Caucasus Edition’s recent webinars have focused on the war’s implications for the South Caucasus and its conflicts. Beyond geopolitical changes, the war has also had an immense human cost. Millions of Ukrainians have been displaced by the violence. Simultaneously, hundreds of thousands left Russia, many of them as political refugees. Many settled in the South Caucasus. The latest webinar was devoted to those who experienced the war and displacement as well as the impact of host societies.
Anna Leontyeva left her life in Russia. She is half-Armenian. As the war in Ukraine started, she moved to Yerevan. “Being Russian in 2022 is quite a specific situation both emotionally and ethically”, says Leontyeva. She acknowledges, however, that what Russians experience now is far from the level of suffering experienced by Ukrainian refugees.
Leontyeva says the war has further limited political and academic freedoms in Russia, and many people had no choice but to leave.
“People chose Armenia and Georgia as they don’t require visas, so they were able to move here spontaneously”, says Leontyeva. She adds that it is not only political migrants who moved to the South Caucasus but also economic migrants in the IT sector, whose average incomes in the hosting societies are higher than the average of the general population there. She addresses the Russian initiative called “After 24th” that conducted several surveys about Russian migrants in Armenia and Georgia. The surveys show that 2\3rds of Russian migrants had never been to Armenia or Georgia before the war, and 8% of migrants left Russia spontaneously, driven by their political position or fear of closed borders.
Leontyeva discussed how Russian political activists have been looking for areas to express themselves in this region — one that is new for them — including “ecological activism.” An example of this is a “trash collection initiative” in Yerevan.
The difference between Armenia and Georgia is the political climate, says Leontyeva, as Armenia has different relations with Russia, “In Yerevan, there had been rallies both in support of war and anti-war….The anti-war rallies united the Ukrainian and Russian Diasporas. The situation here is indeed unstable and complicated in this regard”.
Leontyeva talked about the mixed feelings in Armenia, within the society and also the NGOs that are working with migrants and refugees. She reminded the audience that there are other groups of refugees and migrants now in Armenia, people from the Middle East and Nagorno Karabakh. During the recent months, since the war in Ukraine started, there were also escalations in Nagorno Karabakh, and there are NGOs in Armenia suggesting that resources should focus primarily on those displaced from Nagorno Karabakh, instead of Russian migrants. “It feels like a bad competition between refugees that are now in Armenia,” says Leontyeva. And while not many refugees from Ukraine move to Armenia, among the migrants from Russia there are many who are ethnic Ukrainians.
Mariam Pesvianidze is a film director and an eco-activist raised in Russia and now based in Georgia, who has been collaborating with Imagine Center, the parent organization of Caucasus Edition, for the past 3 years. “I have turned a deeper look into South Caucasian conflicts since then. It is very important to me because my personal life was affected by these conflicts very closely”. Mariam left Russia back in 2014 because of the initial phase of Russia’s war in Ukraine. “When this new phase started I was absolutely out of my mind. Past 4 years I have lived with my boyfriend who is from Ukraine, which makes all that is happening super sensitive for me. At the same time I am from Russia, I was born in Moscow and I am half Georgian. All of it is very personal for me”.
From the very first days of the war, Pesvianidze has been one of the people actively engaged with those moving from Ukraine and Russia to Georgia. She says that most of the Russian citizens who live in Georgia cannot feel the way they felt before the 24th of February. “When someone asks them where they are from, they are making this pause before the answer, because they understand that when they say they are from Russia, people can refuse to talk to them…but the situation is absolutely understandable”, says Pesvianidze. She added that besides psychological problems there are also everyday problems for Russian citizens, such as not being able to withdraw money from their cards, and having difficulties finding apartments for rent, as some Georgians can refuse to rent their apartments to Russians.
Yet despite all these difficulties, Georgia is still one of the most attractive destinations for Russians. Pesvianidze thinks that one reason is that it is very easy to start a business or entrepreneurship in Georgia. Another fact, she says, is the language, as a big part of the population can speak Russian.
Mariam talked about the organization “Library about Georgia”, which wrote a memo about Georgia for people arriving from Russia. The organization tried to explain the situation in Georgia to the newcomers, the history of the country and the sensitive topics, such as the Russian language. “I also helped them to distribute these memos in a couple of places where Russian citizens gather”.
Mariam also mentioned several organizations and humanitarian aid centers that help Ukrainian refugees. One of them is “Helping to Leave”, an organization that — according to the latest data — has helped more than 10 thousand Ukrainians leave dangerous places in Ukraine. Another is the “Nino Katamadze Foundation” which is helping Ukrainians with connections and specific skills. The foundation has helped find people to work with children, for example. “The help can be not only money”.
Pesvianidze talked about her own experience volunteering in one of the humanitarian aid centers, “It was a strange and interesting feeling… people from Ukraine, from Russia, from Belarus, from Georgia, they were working together…” She remembers crying after only 20 minutes of work, seeing the work that was being done, people from different nations helping each other, and the aid that was being collected for the children.
Sofia Voytiv is a Ukrainian sociologist currently based in Sweden. She has been studying how the war has impacted the relations between the Russian and Ukrainian Diasporas from its very first stages, starting with the annexation of Crimea. She says when the invasion started in February, 2022, it became very difficult for her as a Ukrainian to continue working in the same way. “It felt almost unethical to talk to people who are fleeing Ukraine about their experiences…and retraumatizing them”, says Voytiv.
Voytiv mentioned statistics published by the migration office in Sweden, which show that about 35 thousand people applied for the temporary protection directive program in Sweden, and 25 thousand have already received the permit. The prognosis is that there might be up to 80 thousand Ukrainian refugees in Sweden until the end of the year. “If you compare this number to the numbers in Poland (3 million people), it’s a quite small number” adds Voytiv.
Voytiv says the numbers are quite interesting as Sweden has made historical moves, such as granting Ukraine defensive weapons or applying for NATO membership, and there is quite a lot of effort from the state to make the movement and integration easier for Ukrainians “The general mood of Swedish elites and the society is quite pro-Ukrainian”.
Voytiv also mentioned the active diaspora in Sweden. “Every Sunday since the war began there is a huge demonstration in the city center”, she says, adding that Swedish politicians have also attended the demonstrations.
“The biggest difficulty for Ukrainians here is the language. Not everyone from Ukraine speaks English, and I am not even talking about Swedish”.
Talking about the donations and aid from Sweden and the EU in general, she says there are lots of collaborations across and within countries. Voytiv says that there was a strong push from Ukrainians to donate to local Ukrainian organizations instead of big international organizations, such as the Red Cross.
“It’s important to listen to the people on the ground”, says Sofia, advising the donors to find organizations who are on the ground in Ukraine, to listen to their needs, and build on top of that.
Discussing the engagement of Russian political migrants, Voytiv said that there are some Russians who join the protests organized by Ukrainians, with Russian flags or the flags (without the red line in it) used more in the recent protests, with “Stop Putin’s war” or “I am embarrassed to be Russian” written on top of them. “Russians are joining in solidarity with Ukraine. I don’t know what it will lead to but they are there, they are supporting and nobody is comforting them. I think that’s a step”.
Voytiv says there are people living with the idea that the war will be over next month. “In the beginning, everyone was saying that it will be over by June, now it will be over by September. Both the refugees and the host societies think about it as a temporary thing. That’s why there is not much discussion about long-term effects of this large-scale migration and refugee movements”, says Voytiv, adding that even the schemes the EU has developed to help the refugees are temporary as well.
At the end of the panel, the moderator, Philip Gamaghelyan, reminded the group that the consequences of a war last much longer than the war itself. “Even if it were to end tomorrow, the destruction that’s already done, the damage to the relationships, the war crimes that have been committed, the displacement, cities no longer existing… the consequences of this war will be with us for decades.”