Tech Brains Flee Belarus Leader’s Crackdown
After Belarus’s authoritarian leader faced down mass protests against his 26-year rule, the pioneers that turned the former Soviet republic into an unlikely tech hub are increasingly headed for the exit.
A government-backed industry park in Minsk was one of the flagship policies of President Alexander Lukashenko. Some of the most-famous startup successes are phone-messaging app Viber and online gaming service World of Tanks, which made founder Victor Kislyi the nation’s first billionaire.
Viber closed its office in Minsk after police beat protesters last August.
Companies are shifting some employees abroad or relocating altogether, as are many freelancers. Japan’s Rakuten, which owns Viber, was one of the first to close its office after police beat protesters last August. Aliaksandr Kuushynau, a division head at Gurtam, which makes GPS-tracking solutions, left after seeing his face splashed across state television over a probe into Pandadoc, another tech company where his brother worked.
“We thought it would just be a short working trip so we didn’t even pack winter clothes,” Kuushynau, 38, said from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. “But, half a year later, we’re still here, my brother Viktar’s still in a KGB cell and our Minsk apartment is gathering dust.”
The thousands of entrepreneurs and software engineers that were central to an industry that generated $2.2 billion of exports for Belarus in 2019 had been left relatively untouched in recent years. But the crackdowns on demonstrators that followed Lukashenko’s controversial declaration of victory in elections last year have spooked many.
Belarus’s loss is a boon for neighbors such as Lithuania, which is registering new fintech businesses faster than anywhere else in the European Union as it reshapes its economy toward innovation. Kuushynau cleared what he called a relatively straightforward process for tech professionals to obtain a visa in Lithuania. Getting by speaking Russian hasn’t proved a problem.
More than 40 IT firms are moving almost 900 employees to Vilnius, with another 30 weighing the same switch. The government there, which already provides fintech companies with expedited licensing and English-language services, is offering incentives to arrivals from Belarus that include allowing foreigners to open bank accounts, set up companies and declare taxes online.
Another advantage is a burgeoning community of Belarusian emigres. Vilnius has become a second home for many political activists, including exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
In play is a thriving industry. New York-listed EPAM Systems Inc. alone has more than 10,000 of its 38,000-strong global workforce in Belarus.
Lithuania isn’t the only country competing for talent fleeing Lukashenko’s rule. Poland is smoothing relocation by waiving work-permit procedures, while Ukraine is creating a virtual “tech city” and offering tax breaks, though its government has long struggled to tame graft.
Tsikhanouskaya says companies leaving Belarus will return “with pleasure” if Lukashenko steps aside, and most are so far only moving part of their workforce, hoping the situation improves. But the stability on offer across the border may prove too tempting.
“We still see Belarus as our home,” according to Kuushynau, who said Gurtam’s presence in Lithuania continues to grow. “But the longer you remain abroad, the easier it gets to continue building your life there — even if the situation at home changes.”