“We are scared. From my window I have heard explosions and shots fired. And it has been really difficult as I work for an IT company providing 24/7 IT support to customers, trying to do that with no internet access for the last two days,” says Petr (not his real name), a young Minsk-based IT sector employee.
Like much of the country, Belarus’ tech sector is reeling with shock at the brutality of the government crackdown on protests following the country’s disputed elections, which has included the reported detention of nearly 7,000 people, beatings of those arrested and shutting down the internet for two days.
Conditions are being formed in the country in which a tech business cannot function.
But the industry, which has become a big success story for the country, is also playing a unique role in challenging the government of Alexander Lukashenko — often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator” — who has ruled the eastern European country for 26 years.
The tech sector, with its internationally-recognised companies like Wargaming and Viber, has become an important pillar for the economy. It generated revenues of $3.1bn, and accounted for 5.7% of GDP in 2018.
One of the most prominent members of the Belarus tech community, Valery Tsepkalo, who set up Minsk’s High Tech Park in 2005, was one of the candidates attempting to run against President Lukashenko in the election, although he was ultimately denied a place on the ballot and forced to leave the country. Tsepkalo’s wife Veronica, then, became one of the prominent figures in the campaign run by opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
As the unrest following the elections continues, IT industry leaders are stepping in various ways to support protestors. Sifted spoke to two Belarusian startup founders who are normally based in London, who have flown into Minsk to show solidarity.
“I wanted to support my team who are based here,” said Alena Golden, who runs a tech company with a London head office and a development team in Minsk. “I came to Minsk to express solidarity with my wonderful, peaceful and creative Belarusian people who, when the police and army were shooting rubber bullets at them, simply threw back apples. So Belarusian of them!”
Some 2,000 startup CEOs, employees and investors in Belarus have signed an open letter to the government asking for an end to the violence and for new elections to be held. They warn unless there is political change, the country’s tech industry will be stifled and there will be an exodus of skilled IT staff from the country.
“Conditions are being formed in the country in which a tech business cannot function. Startups are not born in an atmosphere of fear and violence.”
Exodus of talent
An exodus may already be starting. One tech sector employee Sifted spoke to had already left the country because of the violence. Yuri Gurski, founder of VC investment firm Haxus, announced on his Facebook page that he would help employees at the companies Haxus invests in to temporarily relocate outside of Belarus if they “fear for their life and health”.
Sergey Barysiuk, cofounder of PandaDoc, meanwhile, appealed to Belarusian security forces to refrain from violence and promised financial support to any that are dismissed as a result.
Most of the successful Belarusian tech founders who have sold businesses to big tech companies like Facebook and Google now live outside the country. But they have money that could potentially help support the opposition cause in these subtle ways.
Many are cautious about commenting too directly about politics, and with good reason. A number of prominent tech industry leaders are reported to have been arrested in the last three days, including Kirill Golub, the president of the Belarus Business Angels association, and Mikhail Chuprynski, cofounder of Rozum Robotics and a leader of the Minsk Hackerspace community.
Belarus has seen protests following disputed elections several times before. But this time, the combination of technology itself, and the emergence of a well-connected and wealthier middle class, created by the successful tech industry, may make a crucial difference.
“Telegram has made such a huge difference,” says Golden, referring to the messaging site that became the key source of information for people as access to the internet was cut off. “I remember two elections ago in 2010 there was a similar situation but the protests were not so extensive. The media was not so strong then and we didn’t have so much social media. Now that we have all these information sources you can’t suppress the people easily.”
People from the IT sphere have seen many other countries, and can compare the freedom the people have in other countries to how things are here.
Ahead of the elections a group of software engineers calling itself Honest People created an alternative vote-tallying platform called Golos. Voters were asked to send in photographs of their ballot papers to make it more difficult for officials to under-report votes for the opposition candidate.
Petr says that in addition to the technology itself, working in the technology sector has helped open people’s eyes. IT workers in Belarus typically earn about four times the average Belarusian salary and have more opportunities to travel and meet people from abroad.
“People from the IT sphere have seen many other countries, and can compare the freedom the people have in other countries to how things are here,” he says.
The two-day shutdown of the internet — which the Belarus government claims has been orchestrated by forces outside the country — has been the last straw for many people. One advocacy group estimates that stopping all digital banking, online shopping and other services cost the country $56m in lost economic activity per day.
"I’m shit scared"
Alex L says it also brought home to many tech companies that their freedom to operate is always likely to be constrained in Belarus.
“Now IT companies know that they hold that [internet] switch and no one knows how far they will go next time,” he says. Alex runs a successful tech business from London, and has a lot to lose, including his own freedom, by coming back to Minsk to join the protests.
“I am shit scared,” he admits. “But I am more scared of everyone staying home and nothing changing. Everyone understands that this is a last stand. If Lukashenko stays and nothing changes, everyone capable of leaving the country will leave.”