What Is Unique About the Influx of Russians Fleeing to Azerbaijan?

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The amount of Russians fleeing to Azerbaijan seems insignificant compared to the influx in other countries in the region since the outbreak of armed conflict in Ukraine. However, this migration is also happening within the particularities of the national context and includes moderate quantities of people with sufficient economic means who have organized into a large supportive community.

BY KELLY CHAIB DE MARES

AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER

How many Russians have moved to Azerbaijan?

The possibility of using the Russian language as a lingua franca and the open migration policies for Russian citizens make the South Caucasus a significant destination for those fleeing political consequences, economic sanctions, and general military mobilization accompanying the armed conflict in Ukraine. As a result, Georgia and Armenia have recorded a vast influx, considering their population sizes. For example, between March and November of 2022, 1,274,006 Russian citizens entered Georgia; from January to August, 654,648 Russians entered Armenia.

In Azerbaijan, the numbers are more modest and have not yet recovered to their pre-pandemic levels, which is explained by the land borders that have remained closed since the outbreak of COVID-19. According to figures from the State Tourism Agency of Azerbaijan, from February to December, the influx to Azerbaijan, the biggest country in the South Caucasus, included 420,700 people with Russian passports; however, it must be considered that this data includes the arrival of tourists during the summer season.

At the start of the hostilities, between February and March of 2022, around 42,000 tourists with Russian passports arrived in Azerbaijan – 57% more than in the same period of the previous year. But the most prominent unusual peak for the season occurred after President Putin announced general military mobilization; between September and October of 2022, 100,306 people arrived in Baku – 115% more than in the same months of 2021.

The statistics on how many Russians have settled in the capital are to be determined. Many returned to their homes when the situation became more stable, and some got visas to travel to a third country. Even though there was a noticeable increase in requests to obtain temporary and permanent residence permits for Azerbaijan, it was only in October 2022 that the state Migration Service received 44% more applications than duringthe same period the previous year.

What are the similarities to this phenomenon in the South Caucasus?

Regardless of the figures, the phenomenon is similar in the South Caucasus. On the one hand, the newcomers like to call their process “relocation” since the plans of the majority include moving and establishing their homes and businesses in a new place. On the other side, the governmental authorities are welcoming the migrants who work in technology-related business sectors. In December 2022, Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, signed several decrees establishing new rules to include the country in the list of those whose ICT sectors enjoy the most extensive benefits, including the possibility of getting a residence permit due to their profession.

Although the real economic boom in Azerbaijan is due to the increase in oil prices resulting from the armed conflict in Ukraine, Russian migrants also contribute to the economy’s growth, as in the other two countries of the South Caucasus. At the same time, their citizens are suffering high inflation rates. According to the CESD’s independent calculation, the inflation rate was 23.1% for the first nine months of last year.

Who is coming?

Natalya is a Russian journalist and chief editor who lived in Moscow and St. Petersburg, “I love both cities. Moscow is rhythm, movement, creativity, and St. Petersburg is history, beauty, architecture. In Baku, both of these cities mixed up for me.”

Natalya has been running the Russian Diary Telegram channel.

When hostilities broke out in Ukraine, Natalya emigrated to her husband’s homeland with her family. When asked about her motivations, she replied: “Russia has been changing and becoming less free for a long time but, in February, did something irreversible. We all loved our cities and did interesting projects in them, but now this is impossible.”

For a year, she has been running the Russian Diary Telegram channel (t.me/antropologram), which is about how she and other sudden emigrants with Russian passports live and how they feel about the process. She describes the project thusly: “I explore the mixture of East and West in Baku, the antiquity and futurism of the city, the customs of people. I was surprised by the care and support of Baku’s residents; everyone here is ready to give advice, treat, and help. I got used to independence, to other personal boundaries.”

Besides the Diary, she has written a guide for those relocating to Azerbaijan. She talked about her plans and the possibility of returning to Russia: “I would like to live in different countries and, of course, continue to write and speak Russian. Country and government are two different things. I do not cut ties with the country.”

Mainly, the newcomers are ethnic Azerbaijanis returning to their homeland. But there are also young, talented Russian professionals, software engineers, bankers, scientists, designers, journalists, artists, entrepreneurs and middle managers, either with the possibility of working remotely, developing their start-up ideas, or creating Russian-populated business hubs in their hosting cities.

Two main factors are preventing Russians with limited means from arriving in Baku. First, with the land borders closed, the only way for Russians to get to Azerbaijan is through expensive flights, with ticket prices doubling and even tripling depending on the travelling season. Additionally, migration legislation in the country is more restrictive than in neighboring Georgia and Armenia. Russians can enter Azerbaijan without a visa but only can stay for 90 days, meaning that people willing to relocate should apply immediately for a residence permit.

How is their life in Azerbaijan?

At the new locations, Russians are creating alternative platforms and building new spaces in the city to support each other and satisfy their personal, cultural, professional, and economic needs. In Baku, the organized New Zeon community stands out. The architect of the idea, Ilya Flaks, a Russian businessman born in Kazan, began his career as a teenager developing video games. He has invested in several successful projects, including the Fibrum company, which specializes in virtual and augmented reality, and the e-gree app, which allows people to build legal contracts on their own terms, doing away with expensive lawyers.

Very soon after Putin announced the special military operation in Ukraine, Ilya decided to move his company to Baku. The relocation was necessary due to the company’s ties with the global market, and Azerbaijan was the natural destination because of the ethnicity of his business partner, Araz Mamet. Once in his new place, he created a Russian-speaking community of entrepreneurs, start-ups, and specialists in various fields to support each other during the transition.

Neo Zeon coworking space

The co-living and coworking space is named after the last surviving human city in the Matrix movies, New Zion. With the support of the Azerbaijani government, especially the Ministry of Digital Development and Transport and the Ministry of Economy, the “relocation start-up” launched at the end of March 2020 in the Olympic Village, a facility that housed thousands of competitors in the 2015 European Games and the Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017 and currently hosts the Formula One prominent guests during the race.

Since then, the community has grown to include an average of 500 registered members monthly. The pick of 1,000,000 residents happened after Putin’s call for a general mobilization, including 100 highly educated compatriots evacuated on two private flights that Ilya Flaks himself arranged with the excuse of bringing them to a business conference in Baku, as reported in the Financial Review.

The heroine in charge of adapting and furnishing the dozens of apartments and responding to the needs of the migrants who come and go is its CMO and COO, Iana Fesik. From the main New Zeon conference room, she explains how New Zeon has developed in Baku:

Question: Who are New Zeon’s residents?

Answer: Our primary target is IT professionals, but our community is very diverse; we have teachers, designers, and representatives of our culture, and we support all of them in developing their skills or relocating their business here. They all have something in common: inspirational stories. You can hear them told by their protagonists on our YouTube channel: https://youtube.com/@new_zeon.

One of our first residents used to work at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and is now working at the Azerbaijan State Theatre of Opera and Ballet. We helped some guys relocate a whole recording company here, and now they are working in voice acting and dubbing for local television. With us live a robotic specialist and an editor who also moved their teams here to continue their businesses. We are now helping a doctor open his neurosurgery clinic with all the modern equipment he had back home. We are also helping people find jobs or open small enterprises inside our community.

Neo Zeon Community

Q.: What is the percentage of ethnic diversity in New Zeon?

A.: Mostly guys from Russia, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, and Yekaterinburg. There are families from Ukraine and Belarus. We also have ethnic Azerbaijanis who were living in Russia for so long that they’ve lost all connection with their homeland. But it is difficult to determine numbers because most are migrating with Russian passports. The coworking space is also used for some Americans working for Russia and other countries.

Q.: How is the coexistence between Russians and Ukrainians?

A.: Azerbaijan has few migrants from Ukraine since there are no flights taking the Baku-Kyiv air route. Besides, it is unlikely that Ukrainians will migrate to any of the Commonwealth of Independent States when they can be accepted as refugees in the EU or the USA. In any case, many Ukrainians lived in Azerbaijan before, and some came due to the special military operation; we can see it in the number of flowers lying near the Ukrainian embassy, especially after attacks perpetrated by the Russian army.

Our community welcomes everyone and supports whoever requests it, and our events are free to attend. In the city are many Russians who just arrived alone; they are neither co-living nor coworking with us and come to our events. We want to provide a safe space to share.

Q.: What kind of services does New Zeon provide?

A.: We provide housing for rent at affordable prices. Coworking is very comfortable, with fast internet. We have a large conference room and two coworking rooms decorated with picturesque paintings of well-known Azerbaijani artist Huseyn Hagverdi. Recently, we supported the opening of a Russified coffee shop. We also have a Telegram chat to address questions pertaining to a variety of topics, from paperwork to tourist advice. Through our partners, we provided legal services and consulting on the company’s registration, tax consultancy, support in obtaining a residence permit, and the opening of a fitness club.

Q.: How is co-living in New Zeon?

A.: Co-living is a great experience. We help each other; the children grow up together. We organize permanent, cultural, social, and professional events. To relieve the stress of the situation, we hold apartment parties once a month. Not long ago, we hosted a workshop mainly aimed at developing IT skills, with lectures, coding challenges, and videogame testing of two projects developed here – one dance game and one educational game for children.

On the other hand, we don’t want to live in a capsule. So, every week, we have Azerbaijani and English language lessons, and we regularly arrange a series of meetings with Azerbaijani experts to learn about the country and their projects and share experiences. We organize excursions to travel around the regions as well.

Q.: Is the community concerned about a future outbreak of hostilities in Nagorno Karabakh?

A.: Many of the migrants do not even know about this conflict. We understand that is a territory dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, with the presence of Russian peacekeeping troops. We hope for a peaceful resolution, but we do not want to be involved in the discussion much.

Why are they choosing Azerbaijan?

It is widely known that Georgians are making life for Russians uncomfortable. Almost the entire city is decorated with spray-painted messages cursing Russian President Vladimir Putin and telling migrants to “go home.” In addition, many businesses required a declaration supporting Ukraine before providing services. Azerbaijanis, instead, do not articulate political reasons for the resettlement and, on the contrary, are eager to help.

As is the case of Frangiz Agalarova, an Azerbaijani who sympathizes with migrants – Russians or Ukrainians – having herself suffered forced displacement during the first war on Nagorno Karabakh. She is an Azerbaijani journalist educated in Russia, currently the editor of the Russian version of www.oxu.az. In addition, she is the author of the podcast about art (odinokimdoma.art), feeds the Instagram account @sofiyafrank with a monthly CultGuide, and runs a Telegram channel – all social media in the Russian language where newcomers can check out reviews and cultural events happening in their host city.

In addition, Azerbaijan’s mild climate and modern capital attract them. Half an hour by car from the sea, Baku is very charming, with clean boulevards, parks, fountains, skyscrapers, museums, and historical places. The city also meets the needs of every taste, with international restaurants, branded stores, fitness, baths, and entertainment for children.

The possibility of free communication in the Russian language has been crucial. After 32 years of independence, public schools and universities still provide instruction in their Russian sector. It is the first language of more than 150,000 Azerbaijani citizens and the second language for 38% of the population. Although the divided language sectors have been a cause of tensions in society, the economic and political partnership between the two countries encourages Azerbaijanis to treat the migrants with sympathy.