As Lukashenko clings to power, a new initiative seeks to retrain Belarus’ riot police as computer programmers

As Lukashenko clings to power, a new initiative seeks to retrain Belarus’ riot police as computer programmers
Riot police in Minsk. Image: Homoatrox/Wikimedia Commons under a CC licence

17 November 2020

The tech industry is skilled at finding solutions, says startup entrepreneur Mikita Mikado. So when pro-democracy protests spilled out onto the streets of Belarus in August — triggered by presidential elections largely condemned as rigged — he began to problem solve.

Teams of riot police were brutally beating demonstrators, many of whom later complained of torture in pre-trial detention centres. Others filmed protestors — men, women and children, many carrying flowers — in a bid to intimidate the crowds and hint at future reprisals. So how could businesses de-escalate the violence?

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Mikado came up with a pledge: he would pay for police officers who wanted to side with their own people and quit their jobs to retrain for Belarus’ booming IT sector. As CEO of PandaDoc, the software company that constitutes as one of Belarusian tech’s greatest success stories, his offer drew serious attention.

“I’d already done something similar about two years ago, where I sponsored people who wanted to transition to tech,” he told The Calvert Journal. “And then when I saw the violence and heard about the torture — when I heard about all of those terrible things from my friends, first-hand — I couldn’t stand aside.”

The plan became just one initiative from BYSOL, a solidarity foundation providing support to anyone who has been arrested or lost their jobs after taking part in the protests. So far, hundreds of police officers have applied to take the group up on the offer — but the scheme hasn’t been without controversy.

“There are lot of discussions about this happening in Belarusian society,” says Jaroslav Likhachevskiy, CEO of Belarusian health tech firm DeepDee and one of the founders of BYSOL. “These men could be criminals; they could be abusers. They might have tortured people. Why should we help them? But our main goal first and foremost is to stop the violence. And that means we are ready to take these men out of the equation anyway we can.”

At the moment, all applicants to the scheme undergo a security check, with a great deal attention paid to both their story — and their apparent willingness to change. Any police officer leaving the force will face real hardships.

Protesters in Minsk. Image: Maxim Shikunets/Wikimedia Commons under a CC licence

Aside from the academic challenge of retraining, swapping careers could well mean leaving a certain life behind. Not only are police officers sacrificing comfortably-paid jobs, many are living in apartments provided by the state, says Likhachevskiy. By leaving the force, they are forcing their own families out of their homes. BYSOL are already looking at providing psychological and legal support to those who make the switch, but Likhachevskiy admits that reintergration will be hard.

Yet even for those who do not make the cut, he says, the most important thing is to keep building a new Belarus without Lukashenko. Every new country needs a new police force, says Likhachevskiy. “The police is one of the main forces that keeps Lukashenko in power. It’s very important for us as a nation to build a dialogue with them and give them the opportunity to join their people. And I truly believe there are lots of honest officers ready to build that new Belarus.”

“The police is one of the main forces that keeps Lukashenko in power. It’s very important for us as a nation to build a dialogue with them and give them the opportunity to join their people”

The state, meanwhile, has begun to fight back. Mikado stepped away from the project after PandaDoc’s offices in Minsk were raided on 3 September, leading to the arrest of four employees. Initially the group were charged with embezzling state funds; after lawyers presented audit documents, those charges were later charged to fraud. The company’s Belarusian accounts also remain frozen. Three of the employees have since been released on house arrest; one remains in detention.

“It was a difficult decision,” says Mikado, “but for the safety of others, I’ve stepped away from the programme.” Both he and Likhachevskiy, who has since stepped up to lead the project, believe that the raid was a direct retaliation to his re-training offer.

Protesters in Minsk. Image: Max Katz/Wikimedia Commons under a CC licence

“We operate a very clean business; we are audited year after year by one of the big four [accounting companies] — so yes, I think there’s a connection. I think the escalation of this conflict is bad for all parties. It’s bad for the people in jail. But it’s also bad for the country, because it sets a precedent that you can be jailed for the opinions, posts, activism of your colleagues.”

Likhachevskiy, meanwhile, says that he expects to be targeted in a similar way to Mikado. Although DeepDee is headquartered in the Netherlands, its research and development department remains in Minsk. “We’re waiting for problems,” he says, “although I proclaimed my participation [a while ago]. Until now, no one has come for us.”

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In the meantime, both men are worried about the effect that protests could have on Belarusian’s tech scene — an industry that makes up some 6 per cent of the country’s GDP. “Everyday we’re in this situation, we’re losing contracts, we’re losing money, we’re losing people who are leaving the country,” says Likhachevskiy. “We’ve been building our reputation for the last ten years, until the ‘Made in Belarus’ brand has become quite well-known. But this situation hurts us.”

Ultimately, a full resolution may not just require practical solutions on the ground, but international or geopolitical pressure. “I believe that sanctions will help a lot, particularly personal sanctions against individuals that have committed crimes,” says Likhachevskiy. “Economic pressure is important, because Lukashenko controls the entire economy, and he uses these resources to pay the police and the army to keep him in power.”

“All around the world, tech offers practical solutions to problems which have not been solved,” says Mikado. “Most of them are good. Tech provides a fast jump through an industrial revolution, particularly in Belarus, especially as the country is still transitioning from the Soviet era. But honestly, tech is never the only solution.”

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