Refugee activist Arshak Makichya: The lone fighter

The Russian-Armenian activist Arshak Makichyan has lived in Berlin since fleeing Moscow. But his protest is hardly noticed there.

Arshak Makichchyan stands in front of the Federal Chancellery in Berlin with a sign:

Demands solidarity with the Artsakh region: Arshak Makichyan at the Federal Chancellery Photo: Sarah Vojta

Arshak Makichyan hasn’t finished writing his protest poster when he pauses at the black vehicles flanked by police cars pulling up opposite the Chancellery. “Let’s go,” says the Russian-Armenian activist. He puts his marker away and walks towards the iron fence that shields the building with the A3-sized piece of paper. In addition to the flags of Germany and the EU, another blue, red and green striped flag with a white crescent in the middle flies above it – the flag of Azerbaijan.

The ruler of the Central Asian country, Ilham Aliyev, came to Berlin on that dreary Tuesday in mid-March. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Olaf Scholz invited him to talks about the Azerbaijani-German energy partnership.

Because the federal government, like other European countries, wants to buy more oil and gas from Azerbaijan in the future. The reason is the energy embargo against Russia, which they decided on as a result of the war of aggression in Ukraine.

Because of this war, Makichyan is also in Berlin now. February 24, 2022 should have been a nice day for him, the wedding date with his current wife was scheduled in a Moscow registry office. But when he heard about the Russian invasion that morning, he was shocked. The now 28-year-old wrote “Fuck the War” in red on his shirt, his wife combined her blue dress with a bouquet of yellow flowers.

Life in Russia became unbearable

A photo that they then posted on social media immediately went viral. Less than a month later, the couple traveled to Germany on tourist visas. They both knew that they would be staying longer than for a holiday – the increasing repression in Russia had made life increasingly unbearable.

“Western politicians have made a lot of mistakes in their dealings with Russia,” says the slender, curly-black activist. “And now they are doing exactly the same thing with Azerbaijan. They look the other way, let the people in Artsakh starve.” That Tuesday he came to the Chancellery to protest against the German-Azerbaijani energy deal.

Artsakh – that’s what many of the 120,000 inhabitants call the Nagorno-Karabakh region. It has been disputed for decades because Azerbaijan has historical territorial claims to it, while the majority of the population feels they belong to Armenia.

The conflict escalated again and again, and Azerbaijani forces have been blocking the only access road since December. Therefore, neither medicines nor food can be delivered to the region. When the convoy of vehicles has disappeared from view in Berlin, Makichyan kneels in front of the iron fence to continue writing his poster.

Born in Armenia

The words “Stand with Artsakh. Not Dictators” take form in blood red letters. “Support Artsakh. Not dictators.” The organization Freedom House rates Azerbaijan as “not free” with a rating of 9 out of 100 in its “Freedom in the World” index. Aliyev has ruled there since 2003, taking over from his father at the time.

Makichyan was born in Armenia but moved to Russia with his family when he was still a child. He was studying violin at the Moscow Conservatory when he first heard about Fridays for Future in 2019. From then on he went to Pushkin Square every week with a poster to demonstrate against the destruction of the climate. He often stood there alone.

“Before that, there were activists in Russia who protested for animal rights or against individual building projects,” he says. “But I wanted to link the climate protest with political commitment.” His approach was successful, and a small movement developed. 2020 nominated the magazine ForbesRussia him for her “30 under 30” list.

However, as Makichyan’s fame grew, he was arrested more and more often. In Germany, too, he is still feeling the consequences – this February, a Russian court stripped the activist of his only citizenship after months of negotiations. Officially because of an alleged formal error.

“I think they want to discourage other members of minorities from protesting,” suspects Makichyan, who is now stateless. He accuses the Russian authorities of violating the law with the move.

Not only is Makichyan blocked from returning to Russia – the authorities also expelled his father and brothers to Armenia. “I worry about them there because of the proximity to Russia and the conflict with Azerbaijan. That’s why I’ve done everything in the past few weeks to bring my brother to Germany,” says Makichyan.

Don’t be fooled

In two weeks he is supposed to apply for the necessary papers for his emigration to Germany at an appointment at the German embassy in Yerevan. As soon as he has more time himself, Makichyan wants to apply for asylum. “But it’s a long, strenuous process.” He has had a visa for freelancers since January.

In Berlin he continues to campaign against the war in Ukraine and for more climate justice. Most recently, he has also protested more frequently for Nagorno-Karabakh, such as that Tuesday in front of the chancellery. Makichyan is still kneeling on the ground when heavy pairs of black boots appear around him. In the meantime, eight police officers have gathered around the activist and are asking him to leave. This is an unannounced rally, they claim.

Arshak is undeterred by this. The demonstration was not registered until thirty minutes later, but he is not breaking the law, he calmly replies again and again in English. He is alone.

“It’s funny, when my friends organize protests, thousands of people come,” he says a little later. “When I organized something for Artsakh in the past few months, maybe 50 people came – all of them had roots in Armenia.” Nevertheless, he shows understanding. In recent years there has been a lot for activists to do because of the corona pandemic and the war against Ukraine “and then there is another small war somewhere”. In the end, four of them will protest against Aliyev that day.

In the chancellery, however, Aliyev and Scholz appear before the press. The Chancellor praised him for the rapid expansion of Azerbaijani deliveries of oil and gas to Germany last year. Not a word was said that afternoon about the fact that the Central Asian state itself has been getting more gas from Russia since then. The SPD politician says a few clichéd sentences about Nagorno-Karabakh.

About an hour after arriving at the Chancellery, the convoy of vehicles started moving again, this time in the opposite direction. Only Makichyan shouts after them: “Aliyev is a murderer.”

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