Most Eastern European countries have their own headline trope, the phrase that English-speaking newspaper editors can’t resist. And in Belarus, a dispatch from Minsk will inevitably begin: “In Europe’s last dictatorship…”
It is an image that Belarus — and its leader of 26 years, Alexander Lukashenko — has worked hard to shed, at least on the world stage. Their not-so-secret weapon: Belarus’ burgeoning tech scene. In the last few years, newspapers haven’t just hailed Belarus as “Europe’s last dictatorship” but as the unexpected breakout star of the European startup market. As well as nurturing success stories such as Viber, Wargaming, and MSQRD, high-tech businesses have invigorated an economy that still relies heavily on state manufacturing and five-year-plans — accounting for almost 6 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2018.
“Conditions are being formed in the country in which a tech business cannot function. Startups are not born in an atmosphere of fear and violence”
Now, however, that progress could be at risk. Pro-democracy protesters flooded Belarus on 9 August, after the country’s presidential election returned another term for Lukashenko — and widespread reports of copious vote rigging. Riot police and Belarusian special forces have cracked down hard, prompting sanctions from the European Union. Belarus’ IT leaders are now worried that the authorities’ hardline approach will bring the progress they’ve built crashing down. More than 2,500 tech employees, including hundreds of founders, CEOs, and investors, signed an open letter to the Belarusian government, calling on officials to either reinstate free and fair elections, or risk “erasing all of their achievements”.
“In recent months, we have seen a spiral of violence unfolding. Peaceful protests are dispersed with inappropriate use of force. Ordinary people are detained for no reason, beaten and arrested,” the letter said. “Conditions are being formed in the country in which a tech business cannot function. Startups are not born in an atmosphere of fear and violence. In the near future, we will begin to observe a massive outflow of specialists abroad.”
Darya Danilova, co-founder and CEO of Rocketdata.io, whose clients include McDonalds and Nike, was one of those that signed the letter. “The IT community in Belarus is very tight knit,” she told The Calvert Journal. “It was easy to negotiate the text [of that letter] because everyone felt that pain, both as a group of citizens, and as a group of CEOs.”
The question for some looking at Belarus’ worried tech sector may be: why now? Belarus’ hi-tech industry only ever experienced limited benefit from Lukashenko’s one-man rule. Some investors were stuck by the country’s seeming stability, and there is little question that the tax breaks that attracted businesses to Minsk’s Hi-Tech business park would be extended when they came up for renewal this year: the Belarusian government is not in a habit of challenging legislation.
But generally, the government and the young, more liberal minds of the tech industry existed in a parallel. “Before, it was a case that neither one of us would bother the other,” says Danilova. “If ever we’d had a problem with the government, we would have just moved our business to another country, and I think the government understood that.”
Investors also had little to write home about, even for those willing to overlook trifles such as human rights violations. “Even if we just talk in terms of businesses, there were always some real risks [In Belarus] that any investor would consider as a threat,” says Michael Rumiantsau, managing director of founders.ai, a digital platform for startups.
“First of all, there’s the threat that employees can be detained arbitrarily. Secondly, the fact that the government has the power and is willing to shut off of the internet [as it has already done in a bid to quell protests] is a huge risk. Generally speaking, it’s hard for companies to defend their rights in court in Belarus. And then there’s also a lot of threats regarding privacy and data, bank accounts being blocked.”
The recent protests, however, have proven that even if a country looks like a bad bet for business, it can inevitably get worse. “The investment climate is not tolerable. Lukashenko is [being photographed by state media] running across the street with an automatic weapon,” says Rumiantsau. “Would you invest in North Korea?”
What worries Rumiantsau and Danilova most, however, is not that outside investors will lose faith in Belarus, but that the country’s human capital — the educated young people on which the tech industry thrives and survives — will lose hope in their own country. “A lot of our employees are highly involved with the protests because people who work in startups tend to be young, talented people with a lot of energy who have travelled all over the world,” says Danilova. “It’s important for our employees that the government respects their right to choose and their right to have their opinion.”
Simply the sheer number of tech employees who have been arrested at protests has caused problems for firms. “I have a friend with a small company building digital architecture,” explains Darafei Praliaskouski, head of product for Kontur.io, a startup which provides mapping services for organisations that respond and manage disasters. When asked if he has considered mapping the protests, he replies darkly that such activities would likely end with a stint in jail. “At one point, a third of the employees [at my friend’s company] were in prison,” he says. “Can you imagine the impact of that? It’s killing smaller companies.”
“At one point, a third of the employees [at my friend’s company] were in prison. It’s killing smaller companies.”
Strikers in the IT industry have so far not come under the same scrutiny as those at state factories, often seen as Lukashenko’s traditional voter base. The fact that high-tech firms are privately owned has limited official attempts to sack or dock the wages of dissenters. But even the act of taking to the streets has seen many IT employees detained at protests, jailed and beaten. Belarusian riot cops also regularly film the crowds at demonstrations, leaving the hanging fear that retribution could come further down the line.
“Anyone who went out to try and do something to get fair elections now feels unsafe,” says Danilova. “No one broke the law, but we can be arrested for something that didn’t happen and everyone is very afraid. People relocating away from Minsk to other countries. We don’t feel personally safe, and we don’t feel our companies are protected.”
In part, this exodus has already begun. Many companies, including Danilova’s, moved some of their customer service teams abroad even before Belarus’ presidential elections, concerned already that the country’s internet connection could become sporadic.
When protests began, companies such Viber and Russian tech firm Yandex evacuated their employees from the country. If reforms are not implemented in Belarus, then their colleagues could follow them. “If Lukashenko stays in power, I am confident that lots of companies will move. You can’t build a business in a concentration camp,” says Rumiantsau. “Engineers work hard and pay taxes, but if they’re not appreciated in Belarus, then they will be welcomed elsewhere. Success is down to people. And Belarus has great human potential.”
Managers such as Praliaskouski, who is currently interviewing employees for a job opening, says that they have seen a shift in priorities. Some jobseekers will simply walk out of interviews if a company cannot offer them an opportunity to relocate, he says. He doubts that such technicians will be easily replaced if they do leave the country: programmers from countries such as Russia, who may want to move to Belarus to take up vacancies, often don’t have the English-language skills to measure up to their Belarusian counterparts.
“When you interview [Belarusians], a lot of people want to relocate. They are changing jobs just because they want to relocate,” Praliaskouski adds. “A couple of my friends have gone to Ukraine: you don’t need a visa for the first 90 days. They are going there to see what happens, and hope that things will change.”
For now, the ground remains uncertain. Lukashenko will not want to destabilise the country’s tech industry, but neither is it a priority. “His survival is priority number one,” says Praliaskouski. “Lukashenko won’t be happy to see the tech industry go; he won’t want to do it. But it’s survival that is at the top of his list.”
But such uncertainty also allows for hope. “We’re not considering moving yet,” says Danilova. “We like our country, we want to live here, and we want to change things in a peaceful and legal manner. We will only go if we are certain that there’s nothing else we can do.”