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The War in Ukraine Changed This Mobility Professional’s Business and Life

Annie Erling Gofus - Nov 28 2022
Published in: Mobility
Irina Yakimenko talks about fleeing Russia with her family and continuing to expand her business.

On 24 February, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine. It was a mass invasion, with more troops deployed than in any event since World War II. The war has led to a humanitarian crisis, with thousands of casualties, and the conflict has forced millions of people to abandon their homes in Ukraine, sparking what the United Nations has called the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II.

For some Russians, the invasion of Ukraine made life in their country untenable overnight. There was a “first wave” of those who were openly against Putin’s government and felt they had to flee the country, but as the war wages on, more Russians are deciding to leave. Since the war started, an unknown number of Russians have fled the country. However, one Russian economist estimated that 200,000 had left by mid-March.

Among the Russians who fled their homes are Irina Yakimenko and her family. Irina is the managing partner of Intermark Relocation, a relocation agency that operates in Russia and across Eastern Europe.

Irina and I sat down at GWS2022 in Las Vegas to discuss the state of mobility in Europe, how her business is adjusting to new challenges, and how her personal experiences fleeing Russia have changed the way she views relocation.

(Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.)

Do you still have Intermark colleagues living and working in Russia?

Yes, because Russia has been our biggest market. We used to have around 150 people there. Now we’ve relocated a lot of them out of Russia. Once the war started, we told everyone who wanted to leave that we would support them. We relocated them to Armenia, Georgia, or other places.

We still have a hundred people or so in Russia, who hate what’s going on, who live in constant fear, but this is their home, right? For me and my family, the situation has been a bit different.

What was the situation like for your family?

I come from a Jewish Ukrainian family. As a Jewish kid, you learn about the Holocaust, and you visit concentration camps. I remember having this anger in me at the time wondering why Jews in Germany didn’t leave. It was so obvious back in 1936 that it wasn’t going well for them, yet they stayed. So, on February 24 when I woke up and my partner told me, “Russia’s bombing Ukraine,” I thought, “You know what, that’s it. We’re not staying.” We packed three suitcases, and we left.

Do you still have family in Russia?

We all left. We went to Israel because we have a lot of family there, but it was super tough. The ruble crashed, so suddenly everything became three times more expensive on top of Israel generally being crazy expensive. So, it was hard to stay there. My sister really struggled, and she has teenage boys, so they stayed for three or four months before going back to Moscow. My mom stayed in Israel, and she lives in Israel now permanently. We are still looking for our home.

How has Intermark been operating day-to-day in the midst of all this chaos?

We continue running our business. In the beginning, we did a lot of evacuations out of both Russia and Ukraine. By the time the war started, expats had already left. So, we were really evacuating a lot of the local population for corporates.

At the same time, we were thinking of our team as well. We had to work 24/7 those first three weeks because we were evacuating all these people in Russia, and things were changing so quickly. There were new decrees happening in Russia every day, sometimes twice a day. We were trying to keep up with all the crazy news.

We set up a briefing for our clients, telling them what’s going on. And just before this briefing, I spoke with my head of legal, and he said, “It’s called a special military operation. You cannot call it a war.” I said, well, then I’m not doing the briefing. We owe it to ourselves, to our team in Ukraine, to our clients, to call a war a war.

It was so weird that suddenly we were faced with these surreal questions that you’re not supposed to be facing in the 21st century.

The difficulty was we were swamped in Russia and in Ukraine moving people, and at the same time, our team members were actually doing exactly the same thing. They were either trying to get out or understand what was going on.

It must have been difficult to be put in this political situation where all of a sudden you need to decide where we stand on this.

We said, OK, we’re going to go back to our values as an organization. We’re going to go back to our values as human beings. And that prevails, because you can look back and know you’ve done the right thing. It was very empowering.

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, how would you describe the state of mobility in that specific region of Europe? Where did you primarily do business just before the war?

We had a lot of expats coming in and a lot of turnover for all sorts of industries. We would have around 200 moves a month. There are, of course, embassies, but also lots of oil and energy in Russia, and a lot of agriculture, pharma, and banking.

There was COVID, so things were quiet for a little while, and then it really just started to come back to life. We had a strong end of the year in 2021, and it was getting very busy. But then, by December, there was talk about a potential war.

So, everything was coming back to life [after COVID], we were about to have our best year ever, and then everything changed.

For Intermark’s business operations, does it still feel chaotic, or have things calmed down?

It’s absolutely chaotic. The moment you feel that maybe it’s evening out a little bit, suddenly there’s some sort of uncertainty. Every day this geopolitical thing has an effect on us, but there is absolutely one trend that we are seeing: It has changed the demographic of our moves. Previously, most moves were traditional—basically expat assignments. Now it’s pretty much Russians going wherever—going to Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, or Azerbaijan.

I know tons of Russians went to Turkey and UAE because it’s easier with visas. But as I speak to my colleagues in Denmark, Germany, Argentina, Sweden, and Spain, all of them are mostly dealing with Russians coming in or fleeing Russia.

Are these individual Russians choosing to move, or are they working for global organizations?

It’s a little bit of both. A lot of corporates actually said they would support Russians, and some of them are taking all of their workforces out of Russia and putting them in different locations where they have offices.

Some of them were tougher and said you can apply to jobs outside of Russia, and we can support you with relocation only if you find a job within another office. Then there are some Russians who, like me—and especially men affected by the military conscription—just left within a day. They left wherever they could given the flight and visa situation.

For those who left quickly, now we’re helping their company figure out what to do. Do you help them with immigration? Do you terminate them? Do you allow them to work remotely? Wahat does that mean from a compliance and immigration standpoint?

There is also a huge demographic of smaller Russian businesses who came to us and said, “We want to relocate our business with all of our people, and we need you to help us find a new location.”

Do you help Russian businesses move their entire legal entity to a different country?

You have to be super creative all the time. We’ve dealt with political crises—we’ve had smaller, local wars—so we’re used to thinking quickly. Our team would assess various jurisdictions to determine what the immigration environment is and how quick and easy it would be immigration-wise. Our team would create cost projections, like the cost of living and the cost of doing business, and determine if there were any political implications.

We would say, “Well, you have three options: You can go to Dubai, you can go to Turkey, or Armenia.” Then they would decide what they want to do, and we would help relocate them all and open a company for them. We help them start from scratch.

Has one location or destination been more popular than others?

The initial one was Dubai in the United Arab Emirates before people discovered that it was so expensive. So now, Armenia is very popular. The number of authorizations we used to get in a year for Armenia we now get in a week. We had to move our own people to Armenia just to be able to sustain and support all this.

But you can imagine how the market is completely swamped with all these people. The rents went up but, at the same time, Armenia has accepted it from a political and economical standpoint. They said they’re doing everything possible to accommodate all these Russians coming in to help them settle and make sure they stay. Armenia now has trendy new restaurants and bars, art galleries, and theaters. The whole scene of Armenia has changed.

How has Intermark adapted to changing markets?

Intermark was originally established 1993. Next year, we celebrate our 30th birthday! The company started helping people to settle in Moscow but eventually expanded.

Very gradually, we opened up in new countries, and our recent ones are Serbia and Cyprus, which we opened post-war. At the time, we had a client who said, “We’re moving 200 people to Serbia. Do you know someone who can help?” We had all these employees who wanted to move, so we asked, “Does anyone want to move to Serbia?” So, we actually moved our own people who are well trained in how to do relocation and how to do immigration. We ended up setting up an office, and now we have four people in Serbia.

What has it been like working with working people and companies affected by the war?

It’s different with Ukrainians because, immigration-wise, it is easier. Most of our Ukrainian team members and Ukrainian clients went to Europe, Canada, and the U.S. The ease of immigration for them was very generous from the world, and they have enormous support.

But Russians are struggling a lot, and it’s not being talked about. I try to talk about it as much as I can because what you read in the news is about which companies closed in Russia, but you don’t read about a big Russian exodus or about Russian refugees. They’re not even called that, although, essentially, that’s what they are.

A lot of people left in March from Russia, but then a lot of them went back, especially those who couldn’t immigrate, because it’s really, really hard.

For the Russians debating staying in Russia, they have to ask themselves, do you have your job or not? Can you access your money? Because when Visa and MasterCard stopped working, how do you access your money? For a lot of people, it’s really, really hard. I don’t think anyone actually wanted to leave.

Looking ahead to 2023, do you have any thoughts or hopes for this coming year?

My No. 1 hope is that there will be peace in our world and in our countries. That’s my biggest hope. For our company, I am optimistic. Our team is amazingly resilient and creative, and the things that we are coming up with like opening up offices in Serbia and Cyprus or offering new services help us rethink our business.

We’re so connected as a team now that I’m confident whatever is going to happen, it may not be perfect, but we will work it out, and we will help our clients to work it out.

After this week together at GWS2022, is there anything that you wish that your colleagues understood about what’s happening in Russia and Ukraine?

There are many Russians who have a lot of internal guilt because it’s their country that is doing it. You feel responsible but, at the same time, it’s out of your control. For Russians who chose to leave, it’s also sort of a life-and-death decision for you. But that’s not a popular or convenient truth that people want to hear.

I hurt for Ukraine and for the Ukrainian people, and how much support they’ve received is amazing. But my heart also breaks for a lot of Russian people.

If you’d like to learn more about Intermark Relocation, visit their website https://intermarkrelocation.com/.