Against the backdrop of Belarus’s Soviet-style command economy, in which state companies dominate sectors like oil and gas, fertilizer, tractor manufacturing, and agriculture, one industry has long been an outlier: a thriving IT sector in Minsk.
Thousands of programmers and coders have helped birth hundreds of innovations, from games to apps to networking utility tools -- not to mention the massively popular online game World Of Tanks. Offices in the high-tech business park on the city’s outskirts bear more resemblance to the edgy urban decor and hip vibes of Silicon Valley or Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Berlin’s Silicon Allee.
That sector is now threatened by the brutal, ongoing police crackdown that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has unleashed against Belarusians protesting his claim of victory in the bitterly disputed August 9 election.
On August 12, scores of chief executives from Belarus’s leading tech companies and leading investors called on Lukashenka to hold a new election, and to halt the police violence that has roiled the country and resulted in thousands of arrests.
If that doesn’t happen, the executives said in their open letter, they will take their businesses out of Belarus.
“Conditions are being formed in the country in which a tech business cannot function,” the letter said. “Start-ups are not born in an atmosphere of fear and violence. Start-ups are born in an atmosphere of freedom and openness."
“There is a risk that in a short time all the achievements in the field of high technology will be wiped out,” they wrote.
Compounding the unease for Minsk's IT sector: widespread Internet outages that began late on August 9 and lasted for nearly three days. International monitors said data suggested that the outages were deliberate on the part of the Belarusian government, likely aimed at limiting the spread of protests.
One Minsk programmer in his early 30s, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Anton, said that in response to the outages lots of IT companies were moving some of their teams to Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, to support critical infrastructure and support functions.
“If [Lukashenka] stays in power, all people who can leave the country will leave the country, not just the tech workers,” he told RFE/RL.
Valer Tsapkala, a former ambassador to the United States who was instrumental in setting up the Minsk park where most of the country’s IT industry is located, accused Lukashenka of destroying the trust that the industry tried to cultivate.
“The high-tech sector, it’s all about trust, not about expensive hardware or equipment. How can you build anything if trust has been violated?” said Tsapkala, who was disqualified as a candidate to challenge Lukashenka and fled Belarus in July amid rumors he was about to be arrested.
“There’s no trust in the government, in Lukashenka’s words anymore,” he told RFE/RL.
Minsk’s version of Silicon Valley has been around roughly since 2005, when Tsapkala, entrepreneurs, and others managed to persuade Lukashenka’s government to allow the creation of the Hi-Tech Park in the capital.
Among other things, the tech incubator allowed for perks such as breaks on corporate income and value-added taxes. In the years since, it’s become home to scores of start-ups and app developers, drawing on the skills and technical training of Belarusians, as well as Russians, Ukrainians, and others.
The “ecosystem,” as similar tech communities are known around the world, has nurtured the development of apps such as the secure messaging app Viber and World Of Tanks.
More than 35,000 people were employed by tech developers and related companies as of 2018, according to the most recent government figures. Tsapkala estimated the tech sector currently employs closer to 50,000 people.
In 2018, the country’s tech sector made up around 5.5 percent of the country’s entire GDP, valued at around $1.5 billion, and Economy Minister Dzmitry Krutoi predicted it could rise to 10 percent by 2022-23.
Tsapkala headed the park for more than 12 years before his dismissal. After he and other would-be challengers were barred from the presidential ballot for reasons they say were fabricated, his campaign threw its support behind opposition candidate Svyatlana Tskikhanouskaya.
Tsapkala said he agreed with the sentiment in the open letter, predicting that the country’s tech sector stood to be destroyed if the government didn’t stop the police crackdown and call a new election.
“Lukashenka thought [the tech executives] might keep silent because of the tax benefits, but they are citizens of Belarus. They see what’s happening on the streets,” Tsapkala said.
The Internet outages also posed an existential threat to the country’s tech industry.
Disruptions began early on election day and persisted as Belarusians poured into the streets to protest the state’s claim that Lukashenka had won a sixth term with more than 80 percent of the vote.
Access to Belarusian news sites, messaging apps, search engines like Google and Yandex, and social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and VK were severely disrupted.
The outages lasted more than 61 hours, according by the activist organization NetBlocks, which tracks Internet traffic globally.
According to calculations from NetBlocks and another U.S.-based nongovernmental organization called the Internet Society, the economic loss of the overall shutoff amounted to $56 million a day.
The actual cause of the outages, which appeared to ease on August 12, were not entirely clear, though suspicion fell on the country’s two main Internet Service Providers – state-owned companies that account for almost all of the country’s web traffic.
Czech researchers said in a blog post that a networking protocol called IPv6, which is responsible for routing Internet traffic around the world, appeared to be shut down on the eve of the election, and that could only have happened from within Belarus.
“The whole idea of the high-tech park was that you can run software that can be located in America or Europe; that was the original idea, outsourcing, development,” Tsapkala said. “They cannot function without the Internet.”
The First To Leave
Anton, the programmer who moved to Minsk from Russia eight years ago, said the Minsk tech sector was a close-knit community, with developers and their families living in similar neighborhoods, attracted by salaries that were among the highest in Belarus.
He said that for years, many tech workers were inclined to stay out of politics; there were few supporters of Lukashenka, but few outright vocal opponents either.
“Yeah, we all thought: ‘Well, we aren’t living in the best country in the world. Freedom of speech is not a very strong thing. But the situation was OK for us, stable. The salaries were good’,” he said.
Lukashenka’s response to the coronavirus was the tipping point for many, he said. Among other things, the Belarusian leader downplayed the threat of the virus, suggesting working in farm fields, riding tractors, going to the sauna, or even drinking vodka were acceptable remedies.
“There is some kind of threshold that you cannot cross,” Anton said. “And after that, people stopped believing him -- tech workers, everybody. That was the turning point for Lukashenka. People didn’t believe him.”
Many in the tech sector have already been working remotely for months, he said, holed up in apartments and homes to prevent being infected with the coronavirus. The Internet outages disrupted teleworking, and the political turmoil has consumed workers’ attentions, and worries.
For the IT guys, “it will be easiest for them to find jobs abroad. IT companies will be moving assets, offices,” he said. “The IT guys will be the first ones to leave. In the long run, this will destroy the industry.”
When the tech park was originally being set up, Tsapkala said promoters had to overcome perceptions from foreign companies, and investors, that the Lukashenka government was a violent regime.
“We tried to convince them it wasn’t that bad,” he said. “But in the end, it appears that it is much worse. Much, much, much worse.”