War in Russia Causes Digital Brain Drain in Belarus Part 2 | ukraine news
Before Russia renewed its invasion of Ukraine, Belarus built a world-class cutting-edge technology sector. It is now collapsing.
When Russian troops attacked Ukraine, Belarusian technicians went on the offensive. Cyber partisans managed to hack and cripple the control system of Belarusian Railways. The attack forced the trains to be run manually for several weeks, causing a significant slowdown in supplies to the Russian military.
Little is known about these cyber partisans. Their only public representative is the group’s spokesperson, Yulianna Shemetovets, who lives in the United States. According to Shemetovets, new recruits have joined them since the start of the war, and the group has around 60 members. All communications between group members are anonymous. No one knows the other’s name or whereabouts. There are no professional hackers on the team, just IT people, some with cybersecurity experience. According to an anonymous member of the group, their aim is “to stop the violence and repression of the terrorist regime in Belarus and to bring the country back to democratic principles and the rule of law”.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has accelerated the departure of Belarusian tech workers. Due to European and American sanctions, foreign customers began to refuse to work with Belarusian companies that still had a physical presence in Belarus. SWIFT Belarusian banks of its interbank transfer system. Belarusian IT companies began to experience problems with blocked accounts and access to cloud services.
The techs fled. During the previous migration wave of 2020-21, the relocation initiative came from employees. This time, Belarusian IT companies themselves took the lead. Some companies have chartered entire flights to get their employees out of the country. According to a survey, 80% of Belarusian IT companies have launched full or partial relocation programs.
In April 2022, video game developer Wargaming, with 2,400 employees in Belarus, left. The company transferred its Belarusian and Russian offices to another company and closed its studio in Minsk. Belarus’ largest IT employer, EPAM, spent more than $33 million in the first three months of the war on its employees. Workers who refused to leave were fired.
SOFTSWISS, a technology company providing software for online casinos, has moved half of its 1,000 employees based in Belarus. “Our employees are privileged to have a choice, and the war in Ukraine has helped many of them realize that relocation is currently the only way to bring their families to safety,” said SOFTSWISS founder Ivan Montic. “Our company offers them full support, from arranging charter flights to providing accommodation and assistance in finding a school or kindergarten for the children.”
The 2022 migration turned out to be much larger and more numerous than the first wave of departures. According to Aleksander Khomich, director of the Belarusian IT company Andersen, one in five IT workers left Belarus after the Russian war in Ukraine, compared to one in ten after the 2020 presidential election. employees dominated departures in 2020, while mid-level workers fled after February 2022.
Receive regular emails and stay informed of our work
Poland is the most popular destination, followed by Georgia, Lithuania and, somewhat unexpectedly, Uzbekistan, which has launched a special migration programme. Visas issued under the Poland Business Harbor program increased from 33,000 in June 2022 to 53,000 in October 2022.
Georgia is another popular destination. In the first three weeks of the conflict, Georgia’s interior minister said 15,777 Belarusians entered the country. By summer 2022, half of them had already left the country. Some moved west and others returned to Belarus after the first shock of the war.
Lithuania is home to another large Belarusian IT community. In May 2022, about 2,000 people worked in the Lithuanian offices of Belarusian IT companies. In the fall of 2022, two recently relocated companies of Belarusian origin – EPAM and Wargaming – became the second and third largest IT companies in Lithuania.
Other popular destinations include Armenia, Latvia, Germany, UK, USA, Canada and Netherlands. Overall, in the fall of 2022, it can be assumed that some 25,000 Belarusian IT workers left the country. A number of Belarusian IT workers remain in Ukraine, where there were about 2,000-4,000 before the war (their Telegram chat still has over a thousand members).
Although the mass exodus does not mean that the sector will cease to exist in Belarus, its long-term future looks dire. Companies operating in the domestic and Russian markets remain. Belarus still has schools to train new computer scientists. But Belarus’ leading IT university is experiencing a reduction in IT enrollment. According to a prominent Belarusian IT entrepreneur, Kirill Voloshin, “Gradually, Belarus will turn into something like a gray area.”
The progressive and politically active IT sector will move abroad, predicts Belarusian economist Lev Lvovsky: “Companies, even after relocation, in many respects remain Belarusian IT companies and maintain ties with each other. This gives hope that we will have a kind of Belarusian IT sector in exile. Exiled computer scientists from Belarus carry out crowdfunding projects to help the families of political prisoners or to help Belarusian volunteers in the Ukrainian army.
They are building “Digital Belarus”. It allows users to vote, pay taxes and, in the future, maybe even have a digital passport. The platform makes it possible to search and offer jobs and receive educational and medical services. “I think in the future we will move from being a state as a territory to being a state as a values-based community, so why not give it a try now?” concludes founder Pavel Liber.
Andrew Wilson is Professor of Eastern European Studies at University College London. Yale University Press recently released the fifth updated version of its book The Ukrainians: The Story of How a People Became a Nation.
Tadeusz Giczan is a non-resident Fellow of CEPA. He is a London-based journalist for Infopoint Media Network and a PhD candidate at University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
Bandwidth is CEPA’s online journal dedicated to advancing transatlantic technology policy cooperation. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or of the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Learn more about bandwidth
CEPA’s online journal dedicated to advancing transatlantic technology policy cooperation.