KYIV, Ukraine — Belarus's version of Silicon Valley — which once had more than 1,000 jostling and ambitious start-ups — was the one bright spot in a sclerotic economy that had changed little from Soviet times.
Dozens of top Belarusian IT companies and thousands of software engineers and others have fled the country, taking their expertise to nearby nations, potentially to reshape the map of tech prowess in Eastern Europe.
Some prominent names in IT, apps and gaming — EPAM, Wargaming, Flo Health, Synesis Group (bought by Japan’s Rakuten for $900 million in 2014) — were born in Minsk. Now, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia are fast-tracking visas or offering financial packages to scoop up fleeing Belarusian IT talent, hoping to create thousands of new jobs.
"Most of the founders I know left already — almost everyone in Belarus in the IT sphere," said Alex Shkor, the founder of the blockchain company DEIP, who left Belarus for Poland last year after a friend, Alexei Korotkov, the chief of the artificial-intelligence start-up MakeML, was jailed.
Both had joined the huge demonstrations against Lukashenko last summer protesting an election widely viewed as rigged in his favor. Lukashenko’s security forces have since waged violent attacks on dissent.
The tech brain drain accelerated in recent weeks as Lukashenko stepped up arrests of independent journalists, students and rights activists, according to Andrey Stryzhak, who helped create the BYSOL Foundation, which raises funds for victims of repression in Belarus.
Belarus was once Eastern Europe’s tech darling, with global financial institutions hopeful that Lukashenko was finally opening up his state-dominated economy and moving away from dependence on Russian loans and subsidies.
With Western rejection of the election, Lukashenko went to war against dissent at home and turned back to Moscow for financial, military and political support. Lukashenko’s government is closing down independent media, arresting journalists and rights workers, and reducing its diplomatic links to Europe.
“We realized that we could be next, so me and my co-founders had to escape and leave the country really fast. We are now in exile from Belarus. We cannot go back,” Shkor said.
Mikita, a 26-year-old IT specialist who said he fled Belarus last year for Ukraine after riot police attacked him, appeared still to be traumatized. He hesitated often as he recounted his story, smoking constantly.
Mikita — who spoke on the condition that his surname not be used because of security concerns — said he was arrested for carrying bandages in a briefcase to aid protesters injured in the unrest that followed the August 2020 election. He said he was severely beaten for three days in different police stations.
According to Mikita’s account, he saw a floor in a police station covered in blood. He said he heard the screams of other prisoners being hit until they went silent. His buttocks were left black with bruises, and he spent two weeks in a hospital, he told The Washington Post.
Then he received threatening phone calls warning that he would be killed if he went public with what had happened to him, he said.
“I needed to leave as soon as possible,” he said.
It took less than an hour to pack. He took only his laptop, its charger, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and a few items of clothing.
“People are constantly in fear. They have their suitcases packed next to the door like in the U.S.S.R. in the 1930s. I think that Belarus will continue to burn out,” he said.
At first in Ukraine, Mikita was so traumatized that even a dog’s bark terrified him, he said.
“I’d turn around and see someone in uniform, a policeman, and I’d physically start to feel pain. I’d be short of breath.” He found work and has no plans to return to Belarus.
Lukashenko’s victory claim in last summer’s presidential election was challenged by the opposition, triggering the biggest protests in the country’s history. The result was rejected by the West, with the United States, Europe, Britain and others imposing tough sanctions.
Aliaksei Frantskevich, the head of the Belarusian Crisis Center in Lviv, Ukraine, helps dozens of fleeing Belarusians each week, mainly ages 19 to 30. Around 80 percent of those settling in Lviv are IT specialists, he said. Others head to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.
“Pretty much everyone is doing it,” said one chief executive of a successful company with nearly 700 employees that abandoned Belarus. “Most Belarusian founders with a brain and a heart don’t support the movement into an absolute dictatorship and what’s happening in Belarus, the terror. Because every week, there’s another atrocity, another move toward, like, North Korea.” The executive spoke on the condition of anonymity for the security of staffers in Belarus.
PandaDoc, a document workflow and e-signing app, closed in Belarus and opened offices in Ukraine and Poland after the arrest in September of four managers, one of whom is still in custody.
Dmitry Gurski, co-founder of Flo Health, a popular women’s health app with more than 170 million downloads, announced last month that he had moved to London. The company also set up a hub in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius.
“The current situation in Belarus accelerated this process,” Gurski told Lithuanian media.
At least 3,000 Belarusian tech workers applied to Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation about obtaining visas and working in Ukraine, according to the ministry.
The Polish Investment and Trade Agency supported more than 4,000 visas for Belarusian IT workers last year. The agency reported that 30 Belarusian IT companies have set up offices with 1,800 employees and investments of $76.8 million.
Invest Lithuania spokeswoman Agne Rasciute said that at least 41 Belarusian companies had set up offices in Lithuania and that dozens more were considering the move. Belarusian firms planned to move more than 2,000 people — IT specialists and their families — to Lithuania, she said.
“You can’t feel safe now in Belarus. You can go to jail for wearing socks of red color,” said Artyom Kontsevoi, the publisher at dev.by, a Belarusian IT news site, referring to the red-and-white colors of the Belarusian opposition. “I’m not joking.”
Kontsevoi, who fled to Ukraine in September, runs dev.by from there.
Belarus’s high-tech sector was the inspiration of one of Lukashenko’s current foes: Valery Tsepkalo, who was Belarusian ambassador to the United States in the late 1990s and noted the dynamism of U.S. tech companies. In 2005, he founded Hi-Tech Park with a $300,000 government loan and a plot of state land east of the capital, Minsk.
It took him 16 months to persuade mystified officials to agree to the generous tax concessions that fueled the breakneck IT growth. But Hi-Tech Park grew into the largest tech hub in Eastern Europe.
“They didn’t understand anything in this business, and they didn’t intervene, and that was a good thing,” Tsepkalo said.
One key was the creation of 85 IT labs in Belarusian universities. Hi-Tech Park grew to more than 1,000 companies with 71,000 employees, accounting for annual exports worth $2.7 billion.
Shkor said the authorities initially left IT alone because “they didn’t know how to corrupt it and how to monopolize it, so that’s why we were able to develop the IT sector.”
Tsepkalo, who ran against Lukashenko in last year’s election, left Belarus after another prominent opposition leader, Victor Babariko, was jailed before the election. Tsepkalo’s wife, Veronika, and Babariko’s campaign manager, Maria Kolesnikova, united as a trio of female candidates alongside Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. (Babariko was sentenced to 14 years in prison this month in a trial condemned by the United States and the European Union as a sham.) Tsepkalo is consulting with governments, mainly in Europe and Central Asia, on setting up IT hubs.
Stryzhak said the damage to Belarusian IT was “irreparable and irreversible. We are no longer talking about any large investments in the country, and Belarus has completely destroyed the image it had of being an IT hub.”
But Lukashenko is unrepentant about destroying the rising star in his economy, accusing IT entrepreneurs of fomenting protests. He increased taxes on independent entrepreneurs from 9 percent to 13 percent, vowing in February to “bring them to their senses.” On Thursday, he complained that Belarus had too many of them.
“We have got bourgeois rich people, IT specialists, whom I created with these hands, providing them with conditions that are not provided anywhere else,” he said in comments to Russian media last September. “They wanted power.”
Belarus’s neighbors are gathering up the talent that Lukashenko disdains.
“It helps to build a new kind of economy,” said Kontsevoi, of dev.by. “You’re not just locating people to your country, you’re locating jobs. You’re locating money to your country, and opportunities.”
Dixon reported from Moscow. Mary Ilyushina in Moscow contributed to this report.