Belarus’ neighbours open doors to tech talent

WARSAW (AFP) – With Belarus in upheaval, its neighbours are eyeing its tech sector in the hope of attracting the talent behind global successes such as calling app Viber and the game World of Tanks.

Since the mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko began last month, Poland and the Baltic states have opened their doors to companies from the former Soviet republic’s thriving IT sector.

Poland’s Software Development Association head of growth Lukasz Czajkowski said relocation was a “win-win” both for Belarusian IT workers and for Poland’s economy.

Poland has a booming IT sector that required an additional 50,000 workers in 2019, according to European Commission estimates.

Many Belarusian IT sector employees have openly supported and participated in the anti-Lukashenko protests, themselves fuelled by communication through social media.

Czajkowski said it was unsurprising that some Belarusian start-ups would be thinking of moving.

“These people want change. They have contact with the outside world, work for Western clients and therefore travel. They earn more than most Belarusians, they have different aspirations,” he told AFP.

Poland’s Investment and Trade Agency has set up a new programme called ‘Poland: Business Harbour’ offering legal and logistical assistance to Belarusian tech companies wanting to set up in Poland.

Renata Zukowska, a spokeswoman for the agency, said it was working with “10 big firms and dozens of smaller ones” that want to move some or all of their operations, but she declined to reveal which ones until completion.

Despite a largely state-controlled economy dominated by farming and heavy industry, Belarus has managed to turn the legacy of a solid Soviet technical education into a thriving IT sector helped along by tax breaks.

Belarus’s tech sector currently employs around 60,000 people and represents some five per cent of the country’s economy, according to experts.

In 2005, Minsk created a High Technology Park, quickly dubbed a ‘Belarusian Silicon Valley’, where companies could receive additional incentives and protection from the perils of doing business in a post-Soviet environment.

But that all changed when some executives openly sided with the opposition in the run-up to and following Lukashenko’s disputed re-election on August 9.

PandaDoc founder Mikita Mikado proposed financial aid for members of the security forces who wanted to switch sides.

Since then, the company has been raided and some of its managers have been arrested for fraud.

Poland is not alone in trying to attract technical know-how from Belarus.

The Baltic countries that were once part of the Soviet Union and are now European Union (EU) members have also outlined a raft of new measures.

Latvian Investment and Development Agency (LIAA) Head Kaspars Rozkalns last week said that “29 companies are seriously thinking about moving, while 12 others have decided to move”.

Lithuania has said it is in negotiation with 60 Belarusian companies, mostly in the IT sector.

One potentially influential figure is former government minister in Belarus who has switched to the opposition Valery Tsepkalo.

Tsepkalo is credited with overseeing the development of Belarus’s tech sector and has now fled to Poland after unsuccessfully trying to register as a candidate against Lukashenko.

Tsepkalo, who has been touring neighbouring countries to drum up support for the opposition, has a gloomy outlook for the sector without fundamental political and economic change.

Larger IT companies with offices in Belarus but headquarters abroad will be less affected, he said in an interview with the portal onliner.by.

But smaller start-ups “will be forced to take their main offices out of Belarus although their developers could stay, at least in theory”.

He added, “The chances of attracting capital into Belarus’s IT sector at the moment are zero to none”.