Deep Dive: Russian Cultural Actors in the Southern Caucasus

Podcast mit Tigran Amiryan

Nach der russischen Invasion in der Ukraine hat sich ein vielschichtiges Migrationsmuster herausgebildet. Armenien und Georgien, im Herzen des Südkaukasus gelegen, sind zu Zufluchtsorten für russische und ukrainische Migranten geworden. Der Zustrom vieler kultureller Akteure hat in der gesamten Region eine seismische Welle ausgelöst.

Wer sind diese Kulturtätigen? Welche Geschichten bringen sie mit? Wie haben ihre künstlerischen Fußspuren die lokale Kulturlandschaft verändert? Tigran Amiryan, Gründer und Präsident des Cultural and Social Narratives Laboratory, geht in dieser Die Kulturmittler:innen – Deep Dive Folge darauf ein. Als Semiologe und Forscher im Bereich der zeitgenössischen Kultur spinnt er die Fäden der Transformationsprozesse in Armenien und Georgien weiter. (Englische Folge)

 

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Transkript der Folge

Deep Dive: Russian Cultural Actors in the Southern Caucasus. Mit Tigran Amiryan.

Tobias Rohe: Hello and welcome back to Die Kulturmittler:inen Deep Dive - experts on international cultural relations. My name is Tobias Rohe, nice to have you with us again. In this episode we take a look at the South Caucasus. After the Russian invasion in Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia have become some of the destination countries for Russian and Ukrainian immigrants. Consequently, the cultural, economic and political spheres in those South Caucasian countries have undergone changes. But which cultural actors migrated to the South Caucasus? How did this change the local cultural scene? And what challenges and opportunities did this create? With our guest today, Tigran Amiryan, we want to talk about the transformational processes which have been taking place in the cultural scene in Armenia and Georgia.

He's the founder and president of the Cultural and Social Narratives Laboratory in Yerevan, Armenia. He's a semiologist and a contemporary culture researcher. Mr. Amiryan, it's a pleasure to have you here with me.

Tigran Amiryan: Thank you for having me. Thanks for this opportunity. It's a great pleasure for me to share the results of my research for info with you.

Tobias Rohe: Thank you. We are looking forward to your answers, Dr. Amirian. Getting straight to the point. Together with the ifa research program, Culture and Foreign Policy, you're publishing a study titled: “Relocating the Russian Cultural Scene, the Case of Russian Migrants in the South Caucasus”. Now, since the beginning of the Russian war against Ukraine, and especially since the partial mobilization, increased migration of Russian cultural workers to other countries has been observed. In your study, you focus on Armenia and Georgia. Why did you choose these two countries?

Tigran Amiryan: So if we are talking about the reasons of the analysis of Russian migration to Armenia and to Georgia, then first of all, I am from Armenia and my organization, CSN Lab, is based in Armenia. So, and we have been engaged in the topic of cultural rights and cultural policies for many years. And we are very focused on the situation with cultural transformations in the region, specifically in the South Caucasus countries. Also CSN Lab is a multidisciplinary initiative and we are in between culture and human rights. That's why this topic is very important for us and for me. And this large flow of Russian migrants to the region is a very new and very unusual case for Georgia and Armenia and after February 2022, we started the documentation of the changes and the changes in the cultural environment. And we also began collecting interviews with both migrants from one side and local cultural actors, cultural institutions from another side. I mean, institutions that hosted migrants, so hosted them or somehow were involved in the process of integration or facilitation. So as a first reason, this is our professional interest and need of local expertise.

But the analysis of the situation in these two countries is not only because I'm physically here in Armenia, but also because of the biggest number of Russian migrants in the region and some background of this case. And the migration of Russian artists, but it's not only artists, academics and cultural practitioners as well. Their migration to Armenia and to Georgia is not a displacement or refugee to just another country as it happened, for example, with Russian migration to other distant countries. And now, two years after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the map of migration of Russians are very diverse. Germany, Baltic country, France, Spain, Argentina, Turkey, Kazakhstan, many, many countries. But both Armenia and Georgia have a complex historic relationship with Russia and Russian culture. Here I refer to the colonial past of Georgia and Armenia as a part of Russian empire and later as a part of the big Soviet country and complex political and cultural relations after the collapse of the Soviet regime.

So the second reason I can mention it is historical background of this process. And these two countries, Georgia and Armenia, these are countries more or less familiar to Russians. And despite complex political relations, the memory of cultural exchange from Soviet time still remains for many people in the region. So another reason why Armenia and Georgia is very technical maybe, and you know about the difficulties on entry to European countries for the citizens of the Russian Federation, even for those Russians who had a passport with Schengen visa. You know maybe some countries have completely banned entry for Russians. It's Finland, Latvia and other countries. And almost all international airlines to and from Russia were cancelled right after the first day of the war. And only a few destinations from Russian airports were possible. But Georgia has a land border with Russia. During the first weeks of the announcement of mobilization in Russia, near this Russian-Georgian border was formed the main, the peak flow of migrants who choose land border crossing because of air tickets have very high prices. As for Armenia, it is a visa-free regime for Russians and possibility of crossing the border with an ordinary passport is some kind of Soviet legacy because in Russia, Russians, they have two passports always. It's inner passport, ordinary passport, and passport for traveling. So, and that was a possible to cross Armenian borders with inner passport, with ordinary passport.

And the last thing, if we are talking about reasons and why Armenia and Georgia, I have to say that my research is about South Caucasus region. But only Georgia and Armenia, not including Azerbaijan. This is because the land borders of Azerbaijan were closed, referring to the COVID pandemic. And as I know, it's still closed even now. But most important in the context of my research is the level of democratic freedoms in Georgia and Armenia. And based on my interviews with different artists and cultural practitioners, I can say that Azerbaijan is still not of interest to Russian migrants because they are simply afraid to move from one dictatorship country to another. So it's briefly about the reasons why Armenia and Georgia.

Tobias Rohe: Complex, very different reasons, but very interesting. Thank you. Now in your study, you differentiate between emigrants and relocants, referring to the Ukrainian and Russian migrants. What is the difference between emigrants and relocants?

Tigran Amiryan: Yes, these words, this terminology, it's very sensitive topic. And these words, they are very important from the perspectives of both Russians and host countries and host communities. The most popular term for self-identification among Russians, among Russian migrants is the context where relocants and relocation, these two words very popular. And Russians justified this kind of avoidance of the term refugee or migrant by highlighting that during the war, Ukrainians are refugees in different countries, not Russians. But the words relocant or relocation are quite imperial. There are very colonial connotations which humiliate the host countries. If this is a relocation, then the host country is not perceived as another state and their relocation is not considered as immigration. In the minds of Russian migrants, very often this is just change of location within the space of the former empire. So it's the problem. And I have to say for Armenia and for Georgia, it is a really big number of migrants, about 100,000 or 200,000 people. Unfortunately, we don't have some exact data and Russia is perceived as a dominion of the former empire.

And in the case of Georgia as an occupant country, and for the society of these two countries, it's important to recognize that these migrants are not representatives of Russian power or official politics of Russia.

Tobias Rohe: I see. One other thing, Mr. Amiryan, Armenia and Georgia, they are dealing with the wave of immigration from Russia very differently. Can you elaborate on that?

Tigran Amiryan: Yes, in this context, the difference between these countries in the political situation, first of all, after the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, when Russia occupied 20% of Georgian territories, the perception of Russia is strictly negative in Georgia. For Georgia, Russia is a big dangerous neighbor. It's the image of enemy, to be honest. Georgia also shares EU candidate status with Ukraine. And from the very beginning of the war in Ukraine, Georgia supports Ukraine. And you can see the support in both among society and the political level also. So now Armenia strives to integrate into this Eastern European block, especially after the Velvet Revolution of 2018. And Armenia is the part of Eastern Partnership countries. But due to the conflict with Azerbaijan, Armenia is constantly depending on Russia, since Russia is the moderator and manipulator of the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict. This is kind of political background of the situation. And this affects cultural migration during the war in Ukraine.

Unlike Georgia, Armenia is more open to Russian cultural migration and cultural actors. And here they speak Russian more openly in Armenia and different activities of Russians initiatives and cultural events are more visible. But I should also mention that this difference in visibility contrasts with the numbers. In fact, there are more Russian cultural initiatives, cultural spaces, and migrated institutions in Georgia than in Armenia, but they may not be as openly visible as in Armenia.

Tobias Rohe: Are there more Russian migrants in Georgia in total numbers than in Armenia?

Tigran Amiryan: So we have some just regional number statistics. It's about 200,000 people moved from Russia to the region. And it's very complicated. It's complicated to understand how many people in Armenia or in Georgia, because they can freely move from one country to another.

Tobias Rohe: Coming back to your study, Mr. Amiryan, you conclude in your study that migrated Russian cultural workers show a lack of interest in integrating in their new homeland and culture. We already were talking a bit about that. This can be observed in the fact that Russian narratives, language or work strategies are being transferred to the new everyday life in order to recreate the lost space, as you put it. What difficulties or opportunities maybe does this pose for Armenia and Georgia? And what recommendations do you propose?

Tigran Amiryan: First of all, I can say all the difficulties come from the origin country of the migrants and their destination. So because hosting countries were not prepared for such a wave of migrants, neither Armenia nor Georgia has integration strategies or policies. Which often leave people, Russians, uncertain about how to navigate life in a new place, new country. So the first recommendation it's the policies, very strong policies about integration. Also, it's important we are facing with migration from Russia. It's very specific thing. Russia, which is rich country and many cultural institutions were well developed before the war. But people from this country, from Russia, they don't have experience of the normal dialogue with other cultures. Because during this last decade, Georgia and Armenia in this Eastern Partnership countries network. So these countries and civil society and cultural actors, we have a big experience of some kind of collaborations, connections and dialogue programs, but not Russia. And Russians don't want to integrate because they feel their superiority in a new place.

All new countries they consider as a place for appropriation. And all this formed a kind of isolated diasporic culture, Russian diasporic culture in Georgia and in Armenia. And in some cases, we can see the violation of cultural rights of local communities from the side of Russian migrants.

So another recommendation can be some kind of development of cultural rights and promotion of cultural rights, advocacy of cultural rights of both migrants and local communities.

Tobias Rohe: Thank you very much for this. Coming to our last question, how can the changes that you observed in Georgia and Armenia, and you were just talking about, be translated into an overall global picture?

Tigran Amiryan: Over the past two years, I've been traveling a lot to countries where are a large number of Russian and Ukrainian migrants. And I must say that many of the problems come from the fact that Russian migrants are, is the migrants from a rich dictatorial country with an imperial vision of reality and imperial vision of other cultures. But there is a difference in the strategies of the host countries into strategies and policies for integration. First of all, if migrants don't see clearly articulated rules for integration on the part of the authorities of the host country, they will not integrate, but will simply appropriate or ignore local culture, etc.

Tobias Rohe: Thank you very much, Mr. Amiryan. Thank you for these deep insights in this topic. It's been a real pleasure talking to you.

Tigran Amiryan: Thank you so much. Thanks for inviting me.

Tobias Rohe: If you would like to learn more about Ukraine and the influence of the Russian war of aggression, I recommend our last episode of Die Kulturmittler:innen. Our presenter Amira El Al talks to Nadia Volkova. Mrs. Volkova is part of the 5AM Ukraine coalition. This coalition of various NGOs is documenting war crimes in Ukraine and received the IFA award this year. With the IFA award, The Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen recognizes the contribution of individuals and institutions to the promotion of transcultural relations through their social, sociotal, political or artistic work. If you enjoyed listening to this episode, don't hesitate to share it with your friends. And to make sure that you don't miss out on future episodes, subscribe to Die Kulturmittler:innen right away. You can do that wherever you listen to the shows of your choice, whether it's on Amazon Music, Apple or Spotify.

For all other information on the Forum for International Cultural Relations, visit our website at culturalrelations.ifa.de. That's all from my side. I say thank you for listening. My name is Tobias Rohe. See you next time.

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