KIEV (AFP) – Like thousands of others in Belarus, IT specialist Aliaksandr Charnavoki took to the streets of Minsk last year for unprecedented protests against strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.
Arrested, struck by police and held in detention for four days, Charnavoki eventually fled to neighbouring Ukraine – joining an exodus of fellow tech workers that has left the future of a booming IT sector in doubt.
It was not the “violence and lawlessness” that made him leave, Charnavoki, 39, told AFP in an interview on messenger Telegram.
It was the sense that nothing would ever change. “The fight against the regime has become meaningless,” he said.
If ex-Soviet Belarus is known for producing anything, it is more likely to be tractors, fertiliser and oil products than software and tech services.
But in recent years, its capital Minsk has become a regional high-tech hub, especially after 2017 when Lukashenko signed a decree allowing tech companies not to pay most taxes, including income tax.
The country’s Hi-Tech Park (HTP) scheme has seen more than 1,000 tech companies register to operate in Belarus, with over 70,000 workers.
Gaming giant Wargaming – maker of World of Tanks and its multiple spin-offs – was founded in Minsk and maintains its central development studio in the city.
Calling app Viber was another success story from the HTP, with its early development done in offices in Belarus, until the company was bought by Japanese tech giant Rakuten in 2014 for USD900 million.
Much of the work is less glamourous – like outsourced custom software design for corporate clients – but very profitable.
The HTP said the Belarusian tech sector’s exports of products and services hit a record USD2.7 billion in 2020, up 25 per cent from the year before, and accounting for four per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.
But now the industry is facing deep uncertainty after thousands of its workers – many of them liberal-minded opposition supporters like Charnavoki – decided to leave.
Last year’s wave of demonstrations over a disputed August 9 election was met with an intense crackdown.
Thousands were jailed as reports of torture and ill-treatment at the hands of police circulated widely.
Backed by ally Moscow, Lukashenko has weathered the protest storm despite fierce Western condemnation and several rounds of new sanctions.
The sanctions have not targetted the IT sector, but Minsk-based IT expert Sergei Lavrinenko said he expected its growth to stall because of the exodus.
He estimated that up to 15,000 IT workers have already fled Belarus because of the crackdown.
Some companies have shuttered their operations entirely.