Are tech companies leaving Belarus?
Viber confirmed it had temporarily closed its office in Minsk. Yandex’s Minsk office was raided by law enforcement, and therefore employees are working from home. British Godel Technologies is leaving Ukraine due to safety concerns. Will tech companies survive the Belarus Revolution?
“Yandex is evacuating employees from Belarus after searches in the company's office. Viber has closed its office in Belarus. High-tech giants are considering moving operations to other countries. Even if Lukashenka survives, Belarus IT-industry will likely not,” tweeted Franak Viačorka, a journalist from Belarus.
Once dubbed the next IT Hong Kong, Belarus now is facing quite a different challenge. Employees of the IT companies working in Belarus no longer feel safe, and the investment climate is getting worse. Therefore, tech firms are looking for ways to protect their employees, whether by closing the offices or simply moving business operations abroad.
Godel Technologies was the first to go
British IT company Godel Technologies was the first to announce it’s moving part of its operations to Kyiv, Ukraine.
“Part of our employees, some of them with their families and their pets, are working in Kyiv already. We decided to move to minimize risks related to the situation in the country, also with internet shutdown for a couple of days, that had an impact on our working process, relations with clients and resulted in significant financial losses,” Belaruski Partizan quoted a company representative.
Godel Technologies, with its headquarters in Manchester, has offices in Minsk, Brest, Grodno, Gomer, Mogilev, and Vitebsk. In Belarus, it employs 1100 people.
Two weeks ago, Belarus authorities searched the Russian internet giant Yandex’s offices in Minsk amid protests in the Belarus capital, Reuters reported. The motive was unclear, and no equipment or documents were seized.
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As a result, Yandex decided not to work from the office anymore. Some Minsk-based employees were relocated to Russia. Those who were not willing to leave the country are evacuated to ‘dachas’ in the countryside, reported The Bell. In Minsk, Yandex employs around 300 people.
Although the motive of the raid is not clear at this moment, anonymous sources quoted by The Bell speculated that the government is after Yandex Taxi passengers’ data.
Viber temporarily closed its office
Rakuten CEO Djamel Agaoua expressed concern about the situation in Belarus, and therefore decided to temporarily close its office in Minsk. The Japanese Rakuten, which owns the Viber messaging service, is situated in the High Technology Park in Belarus.
“Our Minsk office was temporarily closed last week due to the safety concerns of our team. It remained closed for a few more days due to internet issues in the country. Since Wednesday, it has reopened to employees,” Viber tweeted.
Forbes.ru reported that two of Viber’s employees were arrested, and one of them was hospitalized as a result of the arrest. Viber employs 120 staff in Minsk. According to Djamel Agaoua, some IT companies have already decided to leave Belarus.
Our Minsk office was temporarily closed last week due to the safety concerns of our team. It remained closed for a few more days due to internet issues in the country. Since Wednesday, it has reopened to employees,Viber tweeted.
“This is not acceptable in 2020 and we will not accept having our team members live in a climate of fear and violence,” Viber tweeted. The company’s office has been reopened.
Belarus has been dubbed the next IT Hong Kong or Eastern European Silicon Valley by various experts and global media, such as Deutsche Welle or The Wall Street Journal. According to the Belarus digest, the total production and sales revenue of the IT sector was $3.1 billion in 2018. IT accounted for 5.7% of Belarus’s GDP.
Big players still holding
“This shows that companies care about their employees. To talk about expanding business is impossible at the moment,” Maksimas Milta, Head of the Communication and Development Unit at European Humanities University, told CyberNews.
He emphasized that the IT sector in Belarus is significant for the whole economy as only around one-third of the companies are private. If big companies decide to leave Minsk, it would have a tremendous impact on the economy of an already poor country.
“Such big players as EPAM or Wargaming that are key players in the sector are not taking any steps, and that is good news,” said Maksimas Milta.
The US company EPAM Systems employs around 37,000 people, and 20,000 of them are situated in Belarus. Wargaming is a Belarusian company famous for the World of Tanks.
According to Maksimas Milta, the IT sector in Belarus is taking care of the employees. As Alexander Lukashenko pretended COVID-19 is not a problem and there was no quarantine in the country, the tech companies allowed their employees to work from home.
“The IT companies are eyeing all the possibilities. They are not encouraging their employees to go and protest but promise them to take care of, for example, their medical bills if it’s necessary. People want to feel safe, to know they will have a job to come back to if they are arrested. That is not the case with the public sector,” said Maksimas Milta.
Some of the companies are doing feasibility studies and looking into opportunities to move if necessary. Most likely, Kyiv would be the first choice because of the language, prices, and legal environment.