Belarus IT sector hit by exodus after crackdown after the vote

Kiev (AFP)

Like thousands of others in Belarus, IT specialist Aliaksandr Kharnavoki took to the streets last year in Minsk to protest against the 26-year rule of the strong man Alexander Lukashenko.

Arrested, beaten by police, and held in custody for four days, Charnavoki eventually fled to neighboring Ukraine – and joined an exodus of tech peers that questions the future of a booming IT sector.

It was not “violence and lawlessness” that made him leave, Charnavoki, 39, told AFP in an interview on Messenger Telegram.

It was a feeling that nothing would ever change.

“The fight against the regime has become meaningless,” he said.

If the former Soviet Belarus is known for producing anything, it is tractors, fertilizers and oil products rather than software and technical services.

But in recent years, its capital, Minsk, has become a regional high-tech hub, especially after 2017 when Lukashenko signed a decree that allowed tech companies not to pay most taxes, including income tax.

The country’s Hi-Tech Park (HTP) program has resulted in more than 1,000 tech companies with over 70,000 employees registering in Belarus.

The gaming giant Wargaming – manufacturer of “World of Tanks” and its numerous offshoots – was founded in Minsk and maintains its central development studio in the city.

Viber calling app was another HTP success story, early development in offices in Belarus until the company was bought by Japanese tech giant Rakuten for $ 900 million in 2014.

Much of the work is less glamorous – like outsourced custom software design for corporate clients – but very profitable.

According to HTP, exports of products and services from the Belarusian technology sector reached a record $ 2.7 billion in 2020, 25 percent more than last year and account for four percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

– Deep uncertainty –

But now the industry is facing great uncertainty after thousands of its workers – many of them liberal opposition supporters like Charnavoki – decided to leave.

Last year’s wave of demonstrations over the controversial elections on August 9 was confronted with violent crackdowns. Thousands were arrested as reports of torture and ill-treatment by the police were widespread.

Supported by his ally Moscow, Lukashenko survived the storm of protest despite severe Western condemnation and several rounds of new sanctions.

The sanctions weren’t aimed at the IT sector, but Sergei Lavrinenko, a Minsk-based IT expert, said he expected its growth to stall due to the exodus.

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He estimates that up to 15,000 IT employees have fled Belarus because of the raid.

Some companies have completely ceased operations.

The software provider PandaDoc, founded in Minsk in 2011, has closed its office in the city and relocated dozens of employees to neighboring countries under pressure from the authorities.

Its founder, Mikita Mikado, is a prominent opponent of Lukashenko and offered financial aid and retraining in the technology sector to the police who turned against the government during the protest movement.

The company’s offices were searched and four employees were arrested, three of them still under house arrest and one behind bars.

– Acid atmosphere –

Ivan, a 28-year-old IT specialist, told AFP over the phone from Minsk that the atmosphere among young tech workers in the city had deteriorated after the raid.

“The places where IT freaks went to party are empty, cafes are empty, some have gone bankrupt,” said Ivan, who did not want to publish his last name for fear of the consequences. “The mood is not fun.”

Some neighbors of Belarus see an opportunity, because countries like Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states are looking for dissatisfied IT specialists.

Ukraine offers Belarusian IT specialists who want to work in the country simplified migration procedures and tax breaks.

Kharnavoki, who left Minsk in October, quickly found a job as a software developer with a Ukrainian IT company.

He said that while he had the chance to leave Belarus, others in IT – especially those with children – had found it more difficult to leave.

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IT expert Lavrinenko said it could take some time, but “unless the situation changes,” the sector is unlikely to continue to flourish.

“I think people will go slowly but surely, and in a few years the industry could even go into recession.”

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