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No way back anymore, says Belarusian tech sector fighting the regime

Tensions between Belarus' autocratic president and the country's thriving tech scene is only growing following the disputed election last month

By Kit Gillet in Bucharest

“We have no way back anymore,” says Jaroslav Likhachevskiy, chief executive and cofounder of Belarusian eye-diagnosis startup DeepDee, speaking at a recent tech event. “We cannot return to the Belarus we had before August 9th.”

The comments came as Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years, faces his seventh week of protest after a disputed election in early August, with thousands taking to the streets claiming a rigged election and demanding regime change. On Wednesday it was announced that Lukashenko had been inaugurated for a sixth term, in an unannounced ceremony.

Likhachevskiy’s comments also highlight how the Belarus tech sector, which makes up around 6.5% of the country’s gross domestic product and half its economic growth last year, has hardened in its opposition to Lukashenko in recent weeks, and moved to the frontline of the protests.

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This follows a particular escalation earlier this month when authorities raided the Minsk office of software company PandaDoc, whose founder had given interviews on the political situation in the country. Four of the company’s employees remain in detention.

Tania Marinich, founder and chief executive of IMAGURU Startup Hub in Minsk, speaking at the same event, said they’re currently operating under a state of emergency.

“We run a solidarity program, providing free space and educational programs in IT and entrepreneurship, legal and even psychological support for all affected,” she said. “We are not giving up. The fight came to us, and we can’t avoid participation.”

Likhachevskiy added: “The only way we have now is to go to the end, until we win… Otherwise everything we’ve built for the last decade, all of our IT industry, our Hi-Tech Park, all of our startups, are going to be completely ruined.” 

Helping your neighbours

In these difficult times the Belarusian tech ecosystem has received vocal support from tech communities in neighbouring countries, like those in Latvia who organised the conference last week attended by Sifted, where Marinich, Likhachevskiy and others were speaking about the national crisis.

Liva Perkone, founder of Latvian innovation strategy company Helve, who helped organise the event, told Sifted: “The ability to choose your future, build and create without restrictions, and speak your mind are individual freedoms many in the west might take for granted, but it’s a life-or-death struggle happening right now in the streets of Belarus.”

“Support from Europe will be crucial in the coming months, and our main priority is to use the tools and channels at our disposal to amplify the voices from the ground in Minsk, so we know what’s happening and how we can help,” she added.

A tech sector in trouble

Despite solidarity from elsewhere in Europe, there are fears of the long-term impacts on Belarus’ tech ecosystem.

According to Cyril Golub, cofounder of startup investing club Angels Band, who was one of those detained by the police during the recent unrest, people are already starting to consider leaving.

“Now more than 60,000 people are working in the ICT sector [in Belarus], and more than 1000 companies and enterprises are working in this sector, at least 800 are residents of Hi-Tech park [in Minsk],” he told those in attendance. “Our colleagues started to relocate from Moscow and from Ukrainian cities to Minsk. But that’s our past.”

“For me, the situation is very similar to the last days of the USSR,” he added. “I feel that no one is confident that the government is still in power. For now there is no power of law here in Belarus, only rule of power,” he said, adding that for the last decade people in Belarus have known that elections weren’t free, but most were confident that a majority of people voted for Lukashenko.

“Now most people are completely sure that these elections were not in favour of the president.”

Golub said he is unsure how things will end. “Society can do nothing if we don’t start violence, and we won’t because Belarusians are peaceful people. From this perspective we cannot see how to resolve the situation.”

“For now there is no power of law here in Belarus, only rule of power.”

Others are also worried that the whole tech industry is now being scapegoated by the president and his allies.

Darya Danilova, cofounder of SaaS platform RocketData, which has temporarily moved some of its customer service teams abroad due to concerns over access to the Internet, said that tech-based initiatives that were created before the election to try to provide a fair and honest result have raised the stakes for the tech sector.

“That’s why our president blames all of the IT sector,” she said.

At the same time, she added that CEOs like her feel very unsafe, “because we are afraid that because of this logic every company could be affected by certain sanctions by the government.”

Be careful what you say

The stifling of freedom of speech is also a major concern for many prominent entrepreneurs. “We know that the government can banish our company because we have some position about it,” said Egor Dubrovsky, chief executive and cofounder at Filmustage, speaking at the event. “If I post something on Facebook, tomorrow I can be arrested…I don’t know how you live with this, when you always have to think about your company, your employees, cofounders,” he said.

There is also a growing fear that tech workers will now move abroad in their droves, gutting the thriving tech scene, which has grown strongly for over a decade.

“A lot of founders want to stay in Belarus, to live in Belarus, and to develop this country,” said Nastia Khamiankova, cofounder of TechMinsk Accelerator. “Before the elections a lot of people had this faith that we could change something. Everything that happened in August made people and founders think about temporarily leaving. For many founders it is a matter of living lives, to stay in Belarus or leave and defend their companies and the people who work for them and their relatives.”

“Should we relocate, or should we stay here? For me, there is no clear answer,” said Angels Band’s Golub, stressing that he wouldn’t abandon friends or colleagues under arrest.

At the same time, he said there was a need for neighbouring countries to create green corridors for those who are in danger. “To simplify their approach to getting visas and to actually cross the border. I know that Latvia and Poland have succeeded in this,” he added.

It’s an unsettling and bleak picture for a country that many had hoped was increasingly moving towards the greater European community, in part due to its influential tech scene.

 

Kit Gillet is Sifted’s eastern Europe correspondent. He tweets from @KitGillet

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Wimm
Wimm

It looks like some tech companies in Belarus have lost their common sense:
– business shouldn’t interfere in politics – except for defending their interests. Companies don’t have voting rights and that is for good reason.
– this is a US driven color revolution. And such “revolutions” tend to end badly – even when they succeed. They pretend to have no agenda while in fact they have a very strong agenda that they immediately try to implement once they have the power. The resulting distrust and corruption damages the country – making it less ready for democracy as before.

Wlodek Laskowski
Wlodek Laskowski

A Russian troll or a Western “useful idiot” calling it a “US driven colour revolution” which is total nonsense.