On the night of the Belarusian presidential elections, Andrey Fedorovich, a 27-year-old web developer with an enviable job and a big flat in Minsk, found himself lying on the ground underneath an abandoned van, hiding from riot police rampaging across the city.
“I first thought about leaving when I was lying underneath that van, when I saw what kind of people live in my country,” Mr Fedorovich says. He and his wife have now decided to flee for Kyiv in Ukraine.
Belarus – perhaps better known for its tractor factories – has a booming tech industry. Minsk was the USSR’s designated tech hub, and now over 10,000 tech workers are based there.
These workers have long enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle and were once hailed as the sole hope for the country’s Soviet-style economy.
However, the vicious crackdown on protesters railing against his controversial re-election on Aug 9 and arrests of tech workers have irked Belarus’ IT community.
In the weeks that followed Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election, several Belarusian IT companies including the local office of Russian IT giant Yandex were raided by riot police, prompting a temporary evacuation of staff across the industry.
Few companies will publicly admit to planning a move to another country but relocation is the hot topic for tech workers.
“It’s a strong signal not to invest in Belarus if people are leaving and if they don’t see themselves living in Belarus any longer,” Valery Tsepkalo, an exiled politician who spearheaded a government initiative to foster high-tech businesses in Belarus, told the Telegraph. “The risks of working there have become too colossal.”
Like many former Soviet republics, Belarus has a strong legacy of physics and mathematics schools, giving rise to generations of scientists and IT professionals.
While most of Belarus’ economy remains in state hands – it is the last ex-Soviet country to still have collective farms – Mr Lukashenko in 2000 green-lit Mr Tsepkalo’s project to set up the Hi-Tech Park, a hub that combines Belarus’ best tech brains, low regulation and a preferential tax regime.
By 2018, the IT sector accounted for 6 per cent of the country’s GDP, on par with agriculture and construction.
Mr Lukashenko in a speech earlier this year hailed IT workers for a “major contribution to our economy.”
He changed his tune after the elections, describing the IT community as “rich men whom I created with my own hands and gave them the work conditions that no one else will anywhere.”
He added: “What do they want? They want power.”
President Lukashenko raised the stakes in his stand-off with protesters and the West on Thursday, accusing the country’s western neighbours of fomenting a revolution in Belarus and vowing to seal the border with Poland and Lithuania.
In the aftermath of police violence and torture, Mikita Mikado, the Belarusian founder of Silicon Valley-headquartered company PandaDoc, offered to set up a charity scheme to raise money and offer training for Belarusian law enforcement officers willing resign to protest the state-orchestrated violence.
A few weeks later, PandaDoc’s office in Minsk was raided, four top managers arrested and charged with fraud.
“We, IT workers, tried to believe that we can build an IT country in Belarus… that if we don’t meddle into politics, we will be left alone,” Mr Mikado, who lives in the Silicon Valley, said in an emotional appeal to Belarusian IT workers earlier this month. “But how can you stand aside when women are raped in police vans and people get tortured in prison?.. They took my guys hostage. Tomorrow, they will come for your people.”
Rodion Tereshkov, an IT product manager who once interviewed for a job at PandaDoc, says the dream of working in his home country is now over.
Mr Tereshkov, 27, who is married and had a two-year old son, was grabbed by riot police at the election night protest, repeatedly beaten, gassed with pepper spray and humiliated in custody.
“I pay a crazy amount of tax, and they call us scum and animals and beat us,” Mr Tereshkov said, sitting at an outdoor cafe which serves matcha lattes.
“I’m going to leave out of conviction so that I don’t have to pay them taxes.”
Mr Fedorovich recalls vividly how he and his wife hid underneath an abandoned van: “I could see the policemen’s feet and the faces of the people who were knocked down to the ground – they were looking at us and they were being clubbed by truncheons.”
When Mr Fedorovich bumps into friends and colleagues at protest rallies these days, all they talk about is arrangements for relocation.
The IT sector has long provided for the most coveted jobs in Belarus, offering employees a dynamic career and salaries pegged to the U.S. dollar.
The income tax for employees of the IT companies under the umbrella of the state-run Hi-Tech Park is as low as 9 per cent.
With her salary pegged to the dollar, 26-year old Maria Staraykava, a product manager at a local IT company, has been making “a lot more money” than her mother, a teacher at a provincial school, whose monthly salary is about £300.
With rent in Minsk a mere fraction of her income, Ms Staraykava has been able to save up and live a comfortable life. She does not want to leave her home country but says that the ongoing political crisis and makes it almost inevitable.
“Everyone is packing up: some people are going away for a while. But some don’t buy a return ticket.”
Internet connection across Belarus was down for two days following Mr Lukashenko’s re-election in what is widely believed to be a state-orchestrated campaign to jam communications. Authorities have rejected suggestions that they deliberately jammed internet traffic.
Most of the software and technology developed in Belarus is exported, and local companies struggle to explain the recent internet blackout along with open warfare on the streets of Minsk to their foreign clients.
Mr Tsepkalo who fled Belarus last month after being targeted by Mr Lukashenko’s insults against his family, says that the current political climate makes it impossible for IT companies in Belarus to carry on as normal.
“Clients don’t want to take on the risks – are they going to have to take into account employees’ political affiliation now? Or the likelihood of them being sent to jail or disappear without a trace?”