With warm words and fast visas, neighbours woo IT workers in Belarus

Belarus

After Max Korolevsky stated he was detained and then beaten by security forces during protests in Belarus, he asked the IT company he works for to transfer him to neighbouring Ukraine.

The 30-year-old, head of applications testing at a tech company he declined to name, is presently in Kyiv, part of the exodus of workers from Belarus’ flourishing IT sector who are fleeing turmoil since a disputed 9th of August election.

Mass protests have rocked the country and represent the gravest threat to President Alexander Lukashenko’s rule since he took power 26 years ago.

In response to Reuters questions about the exodus, the state-run Belarus Hi-Tech Park, the country’s IT hub, played down the impact of IT workers leaving.

“Hi-Tech Park has held thorough analysis of the true situation, such as consultations with CEO’s and key investors,” it said. “It (is) evident that most IT-related businessmen are willing to keep working in Belarus as before.”

For countries offering to take in IT workers, it is a chance to scoop up professionals from a thriving industry that accounts for some 5% of all Belarusian exports.

He compared it to the support Kyiv received after the 2014 Maidan protests swept a pro-Western government to power.

Lithuania’s investment agency has been talking to over 85 companies in the wake of the election turmoil, according to Director of Business Development Gediminas Koryzna.

OPEN LETTER

The IT industry played a prominent role in the protests, creating online platforms to trace people who went missing during the security crackdown and collecting funds for them.

Thousands of employees of some of Belarus’ leading technology firms also posted an open letter online in August threatening to leave Belarus en masse, accusing the government of creating an “atmosphere of fear and violence”.

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Lukashenko hasn’t commented directly on IT companies threatening to depart, but criticised the business that has benefited from tax breaks and the ability to tap an educated local workforce.

“I have already created paradise for them. No, it turns out they are missing something. They say they want power,” he said in a public event on the 1st of September.

The Belarus Hi-Tech Park, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Minsk, has risen to 750 companies since its launching in 2006, employing 58,000 people and earning $2 billion in exports, based on government figures by the end of 2019. Money that the country desperately needs.

“None of the residents applied to exit Hi-Tech Park, while current temporary movements of personnel do not exceed the normal level of day-to-day operations,” it said in a statement.

INTERNET OUTAGES

Mr Korolevsky was cycling via Minsk in August when he says he had been hauled into a van by security forces and taken to a detention centre on the night of mass demonstrations against Lukashenko.

“They took me aside, threw me on my knees, began to beat me with truncheons,” he told journalists in Kyiv. “I said, ‘guys, I’m going home, I have a cat and a dog in the home. What do you want from me?'”

Three days later Mr Korolevsky was released with lumps on his back, arms and legs, and asked to be moved overseas.

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The state Investigative Committee didn’t reply to a request for comment about Korolevsky’s complaints. The committee is responsible for investigating major crimes and has been reviewing allegations of prisoner abuse amid the uprising.

Security worries apart, internet and telecoms outages also have played a part in the IT industry exodus from the country.

The outages, which some protesters blame on authorities wanting to prevent them organizing rallies and sharing videos and pictures on the internet, have resulted in severe disruption for firms whose customers are largely based in the US and European marketplaces.

Minsk blamed foreign interference for the blackouts that hit the capital and other cities within a few days immediately after the election. Mobile internet users still regularly complain of interruptions on times when important protests are expected.

‘NO LONGER SAFE’

Gismart, a gaming app developer with more than 500 million downloads, stated two employees were arrested and beaten.

The Investigative Committee didn’t respond to a request for comment.

By its Minsk office, which employs 310 people, Gismart shifted 20 personnel to Ukraine temporarily to cope with the internet outages and will relocate 20-30 permanently.

“Many people are in the mood to say, ‘We can’t take it any more, let’s do something about it, we want to go somewhere else’,” administrative director Eugene Nagel told journalists.

Neighbouring countries quickly opened their doors.

Lithuania launched an internet page for IT specialists and is helping companies open bank accounts, obtain visas and locate office space. Kazakhstan provided a year of free office area.

Ukraine’s government exempted Belarusians from a temporary ban on foreigners and is working together with local businesses like Kyiv-based tech firm S-PRO to help IT businesses relocate.

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“Our idea was that when the internet goes off for the guys, they get on the plane, an hour later we meet them at the Kyiv airport, bring them to the office,” said Elena Izraylevych, CFO at S-PRO.

She helped Lightpoint Global, a firm servicing the U.S. marketplace, shift employees quickly.

“Here every day is important when there are interruptions to the internet,” Ilya Lashch, Lightpoint Global’s owner, told journalists at our partner news agency Reuters. He said, Izraylevych gave advice on local issues and put him in touch with individuals who would help with registration.

Lightpoint is enrolling as a business in Ukraine but has not decided whether to depart Minsk permanently.

“Simply put – it is no longer safe in Belarus. If one goes to shop for milk, she can’t be sure she doesn’t get detained,” said Olle Pridiuksson, founder of a start-up called Devrel Events that is shifting their applications developer from Minsk to Lithuania.

The team at Platform Executive hope you have enjoyed this news article. Initial reporting via our official content partners at Thomson Reuters. Reporting by Sergiy Karazy in Kyiv, Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk, Alan Charlish in Warsaw, Olzhas Auyezov in Almaty and Katya Golubkova in Moscow. Writing by Matthias Williams. Editing by Mike Collett-White.

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