A brutal crackdown on Belarusian protesters following the August 9 presidential election, rigged in favour of incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, has prompted a massive exodus of local IT companies and individual IT professionals.
In spite of Lukashenko's neo-Soviet system, Belarus has managed to establish a world-class IT sector that accounts for 5% of the country's total exports. The IT industry has been a haven of prosperity in the otherwise unreformed economy.
However, things have changed rapidly over the last few weeks. In the wake of the discredited presidential vote, dozens of IT workers were arrested in protests, while authorities have been meddling with the internet, creating extra hurdles for IT businesses.
Now, the exit of leading companies and IT professionals is likely to have grave consequences for Belarus' tech industry.
Exodus to Latvia
As of mid-September, 12 businesses registered in Belarus have decided to relocate to Latvia, that country’s Ministry of Economy announced, most of which operate in the IT sector.
Meanwhile, many more are likely to follow suit, as at least 100 Belarusian companies earlier said they are seriously exploring the possibility of relocating their operations to Latvia, according to LIAA.
According to official data, about 1,700 companies work in the IT sector in Belarus, and their main market is the US. Some Belarusian IT companies also have offices in Silicon Valley.
Some companies that have decided to move their business qualify for the status of start-ups. These companies plan to transfer around 470 employees to Latvia, mainly company management representatives and key specialists, Latvia's Ministry of Economy said.
One of the companies that are considering relocating their Belarusian employees to Latvia is San Francisco-based PandaDoc, which develops sales-process software and has an office in Minsk.
At the height of the August protests, PandaDoc's Belarusian founder Mikita Mikado slammed the government's crackdown on peaceful protesters and the rigging of the election. He also announced a support fund for law enforcers who would voluntarily quit their job.
The Belarusian authorities' response was harsh. Four Minsk-based employees of PandaDoc were arrested in early September, the company's Belarusian office was raided and its operation came to a halt.
"This action is purely an act of repression against the founders of PandaDoc who have been supporting some of the victims of the Belarussian government in the weeks since the stolen presidential election," the company said in a statement.
As the four arrested PandaDoc employees remained in jail as of mid-September, Mikado announced the cancellation of his law enforcer fund initiative.
Other Belarus neighbours have also offered relocation options to Belarusian IT professionals.
In early September, Ukraine’s digital transformation ministry opened a special web portal for Belarusian IT specialists who want to move to Ukraine, and hired Denis Aleinikov, a Belarusian lawyer who developed a low-tax IT zone in Minsk which has emerged as one of Europe’s leading high tech parks, to run the project, Ukraine Business News reported.
"About our initiative to support IT professionals living in Belarus there is technical support, which works 24 hours a day and already helps specialists from Belarus," Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital minister, was quoted as saying by UBN, adding that of the 4,500 Belarusians who have fled to Ukraine to escape the police violence in Belarus, more than 300 are IT workers.
Meanwhile, Lithuania and Poland have also said they are willing to accept relocated IT companies and professionals from Belarus.
IT university plans scrapped
The Belarusian government's crackdown on protesters has also put a lid on plans to open an IT university in Minsk.
The idea came from Belarus-born tech entrepreneur Yuri Gursky, the owner of Flo and Wannaby, who wanted to launch a university alongside some partners.
"We planned to accept no more than 1,000 or 2,000 students," he was quoted as saying by Forbes Russia. "We would tell graduates that those doing well would be guaranteed employment with a certain pool of companies."
But the recent crackdown on protesters has made Gursky reconsider his plans. "For instance, [authorities] could just sue us if out of 2,000 students, 700 took part in protests," he explained. "And the university's founders would go to prison."
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