For Belarus’s booming tech business, it did not matter much that the country’s president referred to the net as “garbage” and state factories the engine of economic success. Until now.
The sector could become a casualty of months of violent political meltdown from the east European country, placing at risk a source of foreign income that is worth 5% of exports.
The team of global IT companies have joined mass protests and are threatening to quit Belarus after the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko on August the 9th his political opponents say was rigged.
Stories of tortured detainees and the sight of plainclothes officers grabbing protesters off the street made working life difficult for the Minsk employees of their California-based software-maker PandaDoc, its CEO Mikita Mikado explained.
“Everyone in the IT community, all Belarusian’s inside the country and outside the country were shocked. They were shocked by how blatantly the elections were rigged and by how much violence was applied afterwards,” said Mikado.
An internal poll showed 83% of PandaDoc’s workers in the country need to relocate.
At least three protesters have been killed and thousands, including PandaDoc workers, were arrested.
The government has not commented on IT companies threatening to leave Belarus and didn’t respond to a request for comment. Lukashenko denies electoral fraud and the government denies abusing prisoners.
‘ATMOSPHERE OF FEAR’
The Belarus Hi-Tech Park, a heart on the eastern outskirts of Minsk, has risen to 750 companies since its launch in 2006, using 58,000 people and earning $2 billion in exports, based on government figures from 2019-end.
Wargaming, which generated the globally popular World of Tanks game, has a significant operation in Minsk, as does US-based EPAM Systems, based on two Belarusians in 1993. Belarusian software engineers are also behind Japanese-controlled Viber messenger.
The playground benefited from tax breaks and also the ability to exploit an educated local workforce. Belarus has a solid tradition of engineering and science instruction, as do many other former Soviet countries.
Since protests broke out, IT employees formed human chains on the road in solidarity. They created platforms for tracing individuals who went missing during the crackdown and collecting funds for the victims. EPAM launched a retraining programme for most folks to start a career in IT when they were terminated for supporting the opposition.
“Start-ups are not born in an atmosphere of fear and violence”
EPAM’s creator Arkady Dobkin was a signatory to an open letter calling for the release of prisoners and new elections. “Start-ups are not born in an atmosphere of fear and violence,” the letter stated.
The CEO of Rakuten Viber, Djamel Agaoua, told Forbes Russia that the business may prevent investments. Agaoua stated two of Viber’s employees were detained throughout the crackdown, one of whom ended up being taken to hospital.
As the protests gathered steam, ISP outages hit Belarus, disrupting the flow of messages and communications, including news and videos on social media. The authorities blamed the internet shutdown on external interference.
“Not even the police brutality was the most surprising event in Belarus, but the fact that internet has been shut off completely,” said Michael Rumiantsau, the Belarusian co-founder of this software firm FriendlyData, which was sold to ServiceNow Inc.
“It’s just unbelievable for the US partners, for the US clients who think this can be compared to the situation in North Korea or some other countries with totalitarian regimes,” he told journalists.
Minsk’s IT playground was created by former Belarusian ambassador to Washington Valery Tsepkalo, today an opposition figure in exile. He told journalists at our partner news agency Reuters that the park revealed “Belarus can be associated not only with farmers and with potatoes.” In 2016 the park accounted for 1.5% of gross domestic product.
By this past year, it shot up to 6.1%, but that expansion is currently in danger.
“Belarusian tech is going to suffer because talent is going to be seeking ways to escape the country,” Mikado said.
The team at Platform Executive hope you have enjoyed the ‘Tech businesses threaten to quit troubled Belarus after crackdown‘ article. Initial reporting via our official content partners at Thomson Reuters. Reporting by Matthias Williams. Editing by Alexandra Hudson.
To stay on top of the latest developments across the platform economy and gain access to our problem-solving tools and content sets, you can become a member for just $7 per month.