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Belarusians weigh their futures as Lukashenko hangs on to power

Lukashenko claims he won 80 percent of the vote, but he is not recognized as president by a growing number of countries | BELTA/AFP via Getty Images

A growing number of tech professionals are choosing to leave rather than fight.

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MINSK — Alexander Lukashenko’s secret inauguration this week made it clear he’s got no intention of quitting Belarus.

That’s forcing a growing number of professionals, especially from Belarus’ burgeoning IT sector, to decide whether to stay and fight or to take their skills elsewhere.

“For many people, it’s just difficult to work in such an environment, emotionally,” said Aleksei Shkor, 30, blockchain architect and CEO at DEIP, a Belarusian IT company.

The regime’s increasing brutality — hundreds were arrested in the angry protests following Wednesday’s secretive swearing-in — underline the danger of continued opposition.

“The authorities want to intimidate people so that they do not take to the streets. They are very afraid of the protests,” Shkor said.

IT professionals have actively participated in the current political unrest.

Thousands have been detained, and more than 250 politicians and activists have been arrested and accused of criminal activity in recent months.

“Everyone understands that we are not protected. Anyone can become a victim of repression,” Shkor said in a phone interview.

One of those is Aleksei Korotkov, a friend of Shkor’s and one of the latest people declared a political prisoner by the Viasna human rights watchdog.

The 25-year-old CEO and founder of MakeML, a startup that develops artificial intelligence software systems, was arrested in downtown Minsk during a peaceful rally at the end of August. Viasna said he is accused of training and financing people to take part in anti-government rallies. Korotkov faces up to three years in prison if found guilty.

“We are very indignant. This is simply absurd, nonsense,” Shkor said.

IT professionals have actively participated in the current political unrest. Many volunteered for the teams of opposition candidates in the August 9 presidential election. Some helped build an online platform for alternative vote counting to undermine official cheating.

In recent weeks, many IT workers have joined the massive protests in Minsk and other cities, demonstrating against the official results of the election, which they consider rigged. Lukashenko claims he won 80 percent of the vote, but he is not recognized as president by a growing number of countries.

“The so-called ‘inauguration’ of 23 September 2020 and the new mandate claimed by Aleksandr Lukashenko lack any democratic legitimacy,” said an EU declaration.

Stanislav Shushkevich, the first leader of Belarus after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, said in a phone interview that the ceremony resembled “the selection of a crime boss.”

“In the structures of organized crime it is done secretly,” he said. “He is not a legitimate president.”

Looking to leave

The crackdown is fuelling a rising tide of emigration among IT specialists, who belong to a very mobile profession. A third of surveyed IT specialists are planning to leave, according to online publication dev.by, while about 5 percent have already left — many to Ukraine.

“Ukraine is popular because there is no visa regime between our countries,” said Shkor.

According to a survey published on dev.by, 12 Belarusian IT companies are in the process of leaving the country, 59 are moving some staff and another 112 companies are looking for a suitable country to move to.

Despite IT generating about 5 percent of the Belarusian GDP, on par with farming and forestry, the government hasn’t treated the sector with kid gloves.

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya | Arturas Morozovas/Getty Images

At the beginning of this month, police raided the Minsk office of U.S.-headquartered software company PandaDoc and arrested some senior employees. The authorities accused them of stealing $40,000 from corporate accounts and abusing their positions — damaging the state.

“The law in Belarus has ceased to exist,” the company said in a statement. “The authorities do not even bother to act according to the prevailing rules and laws of the country. The charges are fabricated upon political orders that come from somewhere in the government. This affects everyone in Belarus.”

PandaDoc’s CEO Mikita Mikado believes that the police raid was revenge for his personal efforts to provide financial assistance to representatives of the riot police and security forces who wanted to resign.

It’s not only IT specialists who are weighing their options. Before the elections, Belarus was a stable place to live, provided you kept out of politics. That’s no longer the case.

Shkor believes that if the political crisis persists for much longer, “there won’t be much of an IT sector left.”

Andrei Strizhak, 35, left Belarus four weeks before the August election. He was the coordinator of a volunteer movement called BYCOVID-19, which collected donations to buy and distribute personal protective equipment during the first months of the pandemic. At the time, Lukashenko belittled the threat of the virus, saying it could be combated with vodka.

Strizhak emigrated first to Ukraine and then to Lithuania. He is one of 50 core members of the opposition Coordination Council, created after the election to negotiate a peaceful transfer of power.

“As long as Lukashenko is in power, there is nothing for me to do in Belarus,” he said in a phone interview from Vilnius.

Shkor believes that if the political crisis persists for much longer, “there won’t be much of an IT sector left.”

“I predict that within a few months, we will [see] up to 50 percent of IT specialists relocating abroad.”

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