Pavel Liber is one of up to a thousand IT workers estimated to have quit Belarus for Ukraine over the last three months.
But, while many will have left amid the violence after the disputed presidential election in August, for Liber it was different.
The 36-year-old says he quit in the weeks before the poll after “receiving significant threats” from the government about a program he had developed to detect voter fraud.
Belarus was plunged into crisis when Alexander Lukashenko was announced the winner of the August 9 election. Authorities said Lukashenko, who is the only president Belarus has ever known, won an 80% vote share in the poll. His critics say the election was rigged in his favour.
“The government understood that our system was to provide alternative election results – not the official ones, and we got significant threats to our team before the election,” he told Euronews.
“My team and me hope that this is temporary. We fully understand that we can only come back again after significant changes.
“For now, we see increasing violence and aggression against the Belarussian people. Belarus has moved to become a police country and it is not the time to return.”
Belarus’ IT sector is one of the country’s economic success stories: it makes up 5.5% of the country’s GDP and software exports were set to hit $2 billion (€1.69bn) last year. At the heart of the triumph is a high-tech park in Minsk, which acts as a hub for the industry. Experts have called it “an island of growth in a sea of stagnation”.
But the current political crisis is threatening to drain the sector of its talent.Beyond the departure of workers to neighbouring Ukraine, some parts of the IT industry has been involved in supporting the anti-Lukashenko protests.
“Unfortunately, laws don’t work in Belarus,” continued Liber. “If you tell that you are not satisfied with the regime, not satisfied with the government, you will be punished. They might even get after your family. One member of our team had fled to Ukraine and published a statement critical of the government, and he already got calls with threats to his family. The regime is trying to push people as much as possible.
“The problem for people like me in the IT sector is that you are not safe. Even if you stay out of politics and earn good money, you can soon lose everything in a matter of days. There are no laws to protect you.
“However, the government is not prepared for a war in the digital space. Minsk is like the small Silicon Valley and it always finds digital solutions to surprise the government.”
Ukraine seeks its own IT sector boost
There is perhaps little surprise that Liber chose Ukraine. Authorities there have developed their own virtual IT hub. Diia City offers lower taxes and simplified rules to attract tech firms. The goal is to generate an additional 450,000 IT jobs in Ukraine by 2025 so the industry can generate $12 billion (€10.1 billion) in economic activity per year.
Constantine Vasuk, director of IT Ukraine, says that Russia, Estonia, Georgia, and Poland are all options for Belarusians looking to escape.
He estimates around 1,000 IT workers from Belarus have fled to Ukraine. Kyiv says that figure is part of a total of 41,000 people that have made the move since August.
“Ukraine is a great place to go because firstly, we have a similar culture, and it is, therefore, easy to move here with your kids,” said Vasuk.
“Secondly, we also speak Russian. Thirdly, it is straightforward to register as an entrepreneur and only pay 5% income tax. And fourthly, you need no real registration. And the last point, we have good internet.”
‘If Lukashenko stays, he could lose his IT sector’
IT Ukraine, together with the ministry for digital transformation, has produced a guide to help Belarusians move and settle in their country.
“If the political crisis becomes long-term in Belarus, we might see big companies move here,” said Bornyakov.
“They want security and their business to be stable, and we can provide this. For us, it is about helping people and companies to conduct business safely.”
Liber, whose family are still in Belarus, says the country could face losing one of the few bright spots in its economic make-up.
“If Lukashenko stays as president, he might lose his IT sector,” he said. “In my opinion, IT specialists are not ready to stay in Belarus if there continue to be threats and an unsafe climate. They are in a position where they can easily move and find a job elsewhere.”
Every weekday at 1900 CET, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get an alert for this and other breaking news. It’s available on Apple and Android devices.