Early in the summer of 2020, as Belarus was gearing up for a presidential election, it seemed clear that the vote would once again be far from free and fair. Authorities removed one opposition candidate after another, arresting them or invalidating their candidacy, and officials already sounded confident that Alexander Lukashenko, known abroad as “Europe’s last dictator,” would win a sixth term.

Pavel Liber, at the time a tech executive in the capital Minsk, didn’t want to sit idly by. Together with dozens of anonymous volunteers, he launched a project called Golos, meaning “voice,” which allowed people from across Belarus to submit — through chatbots on Viber and Telegram — voting sheets that showed who they had voted for. The idea was to highlight any discrepancies between official figures and the real ballot count — and gather proof of any election-rigging.

While working on the project, Liber received a call from a well-connected friend. He urged Liber to leave Belarus — or risk arrest. Soon after, Liber caught a flight to Istanbul. Figuring he could move back after the election, which was scheduled about two weeks later, he only packed a small bag.

When the chatbots went live, the response exceeded Liber’s expectations. More than a million Belarusians registered. The authorities nevertheless did not shut Golos down. “We were lucky because at that time, our government and police — they were too analog. So they didn’t consider a digital product as a real threat,” Liber told Rest of World. “They didn’t care about two chatbots.”

Lukashenko’s victory — which Golos as well as independent studies calculated to be fraudulent — plunged his country into turmoil. Liber said the data collected by Golos offered “fast, visual, and transparent proof” that the election was rigged. Authorities answered mass demonstrations with a severe and violent crackdown.

As Liber learned what was happening back home, he realized he would not be able to return as soon as he’d hoped. “I felt pretty depressed,” he said. While the Lukashenko regime continued its brutal repression long after the immediate backlash, Liber moved to Ukraine and then settled in Lithuania, an EU country with strong cultural and historical ties to Belarus.

He has been joined by thousands of fellow refugees. Based on destination countries’ official statistics, about 120,000 Belarusians have left the country since 2020, Andrei Kazakevich, political scientist and academic director at the Political Sphere institute, told Rest of World. Other estimates put the figure at 200,000 to 300,000, compared to a total population of 9.3 million.

A disproportionate number of them are tech workers. Out of an IT industry workforce of 60,000 to 100,000 people in 2020, about 20,000 had left by June 2022, according to Belarusian tech website Dev.by. They moved to other former Soviet countries and throughout Europe — from Portugal to Uzbekistan. The exodus is ongoing, exacerbated by Belarus facilitating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Rest of World visited two cities, in Lithuania and Georgia, that are now home to sizable Belarusian tech communities. Their members have to navigate living abroad while not antagonizing the Lukashenko regime, which they fear might cause trouble for friends and family or threaten their own ability to visit home. Companies, too, have been forced to walk the tightrope of having teams inside and outside the increasingly isolated country. Tech workers told Rest of World they fear Belarus’ political situation will only deteriorate further.

“We don’t have a future in the current situation,” a Belarusian startup founder based in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, told Rest of World. He requested anonymity because he is in the process of moving his remaining employees out of Belarus.

Some exiles are also trying to fight back, with many tech workers, like Liber, directly involved in efforts to resist the Lukashenko regime. The studies that warned of election fraud claimed opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya had won the vote. She, too, fled the country, and now also lives in Vilnius.

Her chief political advisor, Franak Viačorka, told Rest of World that the tech sector has been crucial to the democracy movement. “Without Belarusian IT companies, there would be no Belarusian national revival, there would be no Belarusian revolt in 2020,” he said.

Andrej Vasilenko for Rest of World

Belarus’ IT sector emerged in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The sudden opening of borders with the West paved the way for the first Belarusian tech success story: outsourcing company EPAM, an acronym for Effective Programming for America, which was founded in 1993. While a handful of EPAM engineers worked out of a basement in Minsk, the company’s CEO was in the U.S. selling their skills. By 2022, the company employed around 60,000 people.

The creation of the Belarus Hi-Tech Park in 2005, mainly centered around an area on the outskirts of Minsk, supercharged the industry’s development. The idea came from Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the U.S., who had been inspired by Silicon Valley. In order to attract foreign investors, the government gave tech companies registered at the Hi-Tech Park generous tax exemptions.

As Lukashenko, who had first won the presidency in 1994, kept control over key areas of Belarus’ economy, the tech sector developed as an island of private ownership and entrepreneurship. With well-trained engineers and cheaper prices than other European countries, Belarus became a popular destination for IT outsourcing. Homegrown products — the women’s health app Flo, the Wargaming-developed game World of Tanks, the face filter app MSQRD — also increasingly achieved international success.

Emile Ducke/The New York Times/Redux

According to official statistics, the country’s export of IT services increased 30-fold between 2005 and 2016, and exceeded $1 billion in value by 2017. In international reports and media features, Belarus was often hailed as a model of digital transition, with the government increasingly promoting — and taking credit for — the tech success story.

Kazakevich, the political scientist, who also works as a research fellow at Lithuania’s Vytautas Magnus University, pinpoints the Covid-19 pandemic as a turning point. After Lukashenko dismissed the threat of the virus as “psychosis,” citizens organized through social media to inform and protect one another, laying the groundwork for future collective action. “It was the first phase of the first stage of popular mobilization,” Kazakevich told Rest of World over Zoom.

Popular discontent grew in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections as the government clamped down on opposition figures who planned to run against Lukashenko, such as Tsepkalo, the person behind the Hi-Tech Park. His candidacy was invalidated and he fled the country. Political novice Tsikhanouskaya unexpectedly became Lukashenko’s main challenger after her husband, opposition candidate Sergei Tikhanovsky, was arrested and later imprisoned.

Amid the protests that followed the election, members of the tech sector spoke out. Some 2,500 Belarusian tech CEOs, investors, and workers published an open letter several days after the election, calling for an end to police violence, the release of political prisoners, and new elections.

Many of the country’s tech workers — who skew young, highly educated, and liberal — took part in mass rallies, such as the “March for Freedom” on August 16, which filled Minsk’s boulevards. One tech worker, now based in Georgia, told Rest of World that he took part in a demonstration near the Hi-Tech Park, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid persecution when he visits home. Protest gatherings near the Park were organized into November, with footage online often showing crowds holding white-red-white flags — a historic flag that has become a symbol of democratic Belarus.

Joris van Gennip/Redux

Lukashenko’s regime responded with violence, mass detentions, and even torture. Anyone who had joined the protests was a target. “We were living in fear of being arrested, sometimes it was like paranoia,” the Georgia-based tech worker said. “It is difficult to live in such a situation, that’s why we decided to relocate.”

Some companies tried to take a stand. Document-automation software firm PandaDoc was among the first to attract Lukashenko’s wrath. Having opened its first office in 2012 in Minsk, the company had already relocated its headquarters to San Francisco by 2014. For co-founder Mikita Mikado, this move was a dream come true. “IT was the only sector not controlled by the state, there was nothing else,” he told Rest of World over Zoom, referring to the relative lack of government interference in the industry. “I got a degree in software engineering to get out of Belarus. It was a way to be free.”

"IT was the only sector not controlled by the state, there was nothing else."

In California, he stayed away from Belarusian politics and focused on his business, which became one of the first Belarus-originated unicorns. But he couldn’t ignore the 2020 elections and their fallout. “The beatings and the violence with which the government responded to the peaceful protests, the brutality of it, just woke a lot of people up,” Mikado said. In response, he appealed to police officers and other security forces to disobey the government, promising to support them financially. He set up a website called Project Belarus to gather donations.

It did not take long for the authorities to respond to Mikado’s daring offer, which had gone viral. In early September, the police and a team from Belarus’ Financial Investigation Department searched the company’s Minsk office. The police detained four employees who were subsequently charged with embezzlement. At the time, Mikado described the move as hostage-taking and decided to relocate his 300 Belarus-based employees, primarily to Poland and Ukraine.

The Imaguru Hub, a tech-focused coworking and meetup space in Minsk that fostered homegrown startups, also fell victim to the political repression. It had hosted events with the opposition during the 2020 elections, and in April 2021, its office lease was abruptly terminated. At its new location in Vilnius, photos of the post-election protests as well as a white-red-white flag remind visitors of the center’s origins.

Andrej Vasilenko for Rest of World

While Lukashenko had mostly avoided antagonizing the West, he now aggressively changed course. In May 2021, a Belarusian fighter jet forced a Ryanair flight to make an emergency landing in Minsk, where authorities arrested a dissident who was on board. Later that year, the EU accused the Belarusian regime of manufacturing  a migration crisis by giving Belarusian visas to people who wanted to seek asylum in the EU and organizing illegal crossings to neighboring countries.

The situation became even more volatile after the invasion of Ukraine. To stay in power, Lukashenko relied ever more on his authoritarian neighbor, Russian president Vladimir Putin, for support. In February 2022, he allowed Russia to launch its attack on Kyiv from Belarus.

For tech workers, it brought new reasons to leave. Young men feared getting mobilized after Lukashenko said on February 24, the day of the invasion, that Belarusian troops could get involved. (So far, they have not.) IT work was impacted too. The EU’s sanctions on Belarus did not affect most of the tech sector, but clients were nervous. According to a survey of more than 3,000 tech specialists carried out in March 2022 by Dev.by, the problems they encountered following the invasion included clients abandoning projects or blocking developers’ accounts, issues with finding new customers and projects, loss of access to cloud services, and difficulties with cross-border money transfers.

"It is not possible to grow any more in Belarus."

Some international companies with offices in Belarus set up special desks to help workers move abroad. A former EPAM employee, who requested anonymity for safety reasons, told Rest of World he had to leave Belarus after his client revoked access to his project from the country. “EPAM helped many people to relocate from Belarus, with relocation bonuses and all this organizational support including flights and hotels,” he said. “Because when you are relocating, you are very nervous.” 

In early March, he moved from Minsk to the Georgian capital Tbilisi, going via Kazakhstan because there were no direct flights. “I decided not to wait anymore,” he said. “When I arrived in Georgia, I experienced a feeling of big power in me because all this fear went away.”

EPAM and most other outsourcing companies have been able to keep their Minsk offices open, even if their staff is much reduced, but other tech companies and startups have found it more difficult to stay. According to an unpublished survey carried out last summer by Imaguru Hub, 78% of Belarusian startup founders had already moved out of the country. Tania Marinich, Imaguru’s founder, told Rest of World that a lack of access to funding and investors was a key concern.

“It is not possible to grow any more in Belarus, leaving is mostly a strategic decision,” said the anonymous startup founder who had relocated to Vilnius. “For prospects and potential customers, especially big customers, it is important where your people are located.”

After the 2020 election, the common expectation among Belarusians was that political change was inevitable, he said. But the mood became increasingly somber. “War changed everything,” he recalled, adding that people began noticing their neighbors had suddenly moved abroad and left behind empty apartments.

The startup founder left Belarus in March last year. “We had a meeting with our friends, it was a panic and everyone was just browsing tickets,” he said, adding that many people opted to go to Georgia. “But I have a dog and I was worried about the flight transfer. So I got to Vilnius by car.”

Relocating abroad had first brought new opportunities for Belarusian tech companies and entrepreneurs. Emerging from a relatively closed economy, they could suddenly connect with global funders and investors. But the Ukraine invasion changed this. “During the first year of relocation, there were a lot of venture funds interested in supporting Belarusian startups,” Imaguru’s Marinich told Rest of World. “Suddenly, all doors closed [in] just one day, 24 February. Now, the Belarus origin is something really scary for an investor.”

Belarus’ complicity in the invasion of Ukraine has also linked the country’s future to the outcome of the war. Last year, the Belarusian Cyber-Partisans, a group of several dozen current and former tech workers — initially established to undermine Lukashenko following the 2020 elections — focused their activities on helping their embattled neighbor. At the start of the invasion, with the help of railway workers, they attacked the Belarusian railway company’s computer system and took part in other sabotage actions that threw a wrench in the Russian military’s logistics. “Our major goal for sure stays the same: to free Belarus, to keep it independent, and start building up democratic institutions. But now, it does depend on the victory of Ukraine,” Yuliana Shemetovets, the group’s spokesperson, told Rest of World over Zoom.

Daro Sulakauri for Rest of World

In Vilnius, signs of the Belarusian community are easy to spot. The startup founder who brought his dog told Rest of World that when he walks at night, he often hears people speaking Russian, as Belarusians mostly do. The Pahonia bar, a popular meeting spot in the city center, serves a cocktail with the colors white, red, and white. EPAM and Wargaming have opened offices in the sleek towers of Vilnius’ business district.

Throughout Eastern Europe, Belarusian tech workers have become coveted assets. In 2020, Poland and Lithuania introduced specific incentives, including relocation allowances and fast migration procedures, to attract more tech workers and companies from Belarus. “We have around 60, 80 companies from Belarus that started operating in Lithuania since 2020,” Karolis Žemaitis, the Lithuanian vice minister of economy and innovation, told Rest of World. Last year, EPAM and Wargaming were reportedly the biggest and third-biggest tax payers among tech companies in Lithuania, respectively.

Another hot spot for exiled Belarusian tech workers is Georgia. Batumi, a balmy Black Sea resort town, is known for its casinos, bars, and nightclubs, but over the past year, it has gained a new growth industry: coworking spaces for exiled tech workers.

One day in November 2022, Rest of World visited a coworking space called Linx, located on a quiet cobblestone street in the city center. It is housed inside a residential building that dates back to the early 20th century, when Batumi was an oil port in the Russian empire. The space was opened by Mikita, a network engineer from Vitebsk in eastern Belarus. He had moved abroad with Igor, a project administrator at a tech company, as they feared being mobilized for the war in Ukraine. After a short stay in Uzbekistan, the two friends settled in Georgia. “I have relatives in Ukraine. My grandmother is Ukrainian. In my mind, it was impossible to go to war — to kill whom, my brothers?” Mikita told Rest of World, while Igor translated. The men asked to be identified by their first names only so that they, and their families back in Belarus, would be harder to identify.

They chose Batumi for its small-city vibe and cheaper rents compared to the capital Tbilisi, which also has a sizable community of foreign tech workers. The Linx space, decorated with a white-red-white flag, is also intended as a community center for exiled Belarusians. “On Thursdays, we have a Belarusian networking meeting. We help people getting used to speaking in our native language,” Igor told Rest of World. Under Lukashenko, Belarusian had been marginalized in favor of Russian. “We help each other psychologically, it is crucial to feel that you are not alone.”

In Georgia, the Belarusians are outnumbered by Russians, who also fled abroad en masse following the invasion of Ukraine. Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs estimates that between January and September 2022, around 113,000 Russians and 13,000 Belarusians settled in the country of just 3.7 million people, attracted by its low taxes and visa exemptions. Although exact numbers are not known, a significant proportion are assumed to be tech workers — for one, they are among those who can more easily work remotely and afford Georgia’s skyrocketing rents.

Last April, Irakli Nadareishvili, Georgia’s deputy minister of economy, called the relocation of international companies from Russia and Belarus an “opportunity” for his country. The World Bank estimates the Georgian economy grew by 10% in 2022, its second consecutive year of double-digit growth.

Belarusians are sometimes confused for Russians, who are less welcomed because of the 2008 war with Georgia, after which Moscow recognized two Georgian breakaway provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as independent states. But Belarusian tech workers who spoke to Rest of World said negative reactions from Georgians are rare.

Daro Sulakauri for Rest of World

A Tbilisi-based tech consultant told Rest of World that once — at the start of the war in Ukraine, when some Georgians had assumed Belarusian people supported the invasion — a bank cashier refused to help him. But, by now, “Georgians distinguish Belarusians from Russians,” he said. “Some of my friends even took that as a leverage to negotiate [lower] rent.”

Back in Belarus, the ongoing brain drain is depriving the country of skilled professionals and tax revenue. “I literally have zero connections in tech who remained in Belarus,” said Mikado, the PandaDoc founder. 

"I literally have zero connections in tech who remained in Belarus."

There is little left to nurture a new generation of tech workers. “Companies that used to be interested in training new specialists are winding down their educational programs now,” Nina Shuliakova, Dev.by’s editor in chief, told Rest of World. “Highly qualified teachers, startup schools, and tech competitions are leaving the country.” 

The authorities do little to stem the outflow. “They really want everyone who doesn’t agree to leave the country. Every day I see my previous colleagues ... moved to Poland, Lithuania, Germany, or any other country,” Tatsiana Khomich, a Paris-based activist who used to work as a tech industry business analyst in Belarus, told Rest of World over Zoom.

Khomich was close to Viktar Babaryka, a well-known philanthropist and banker who wanted to challenge Lukashenko in the 2020 elections but was arrested and given a lengthy prison sentence. Khomich left Belarus just before the elections. Her sister Maria Kalesnikava, a famous musician who ran Babaryka’s campaign headquarters, decided to stay. In September 2020, Kalesnikava was kidnapped by masked men and later sentenced to 11 years in a penal colony.

Andrej Vasilenko for Rest of World

One day in October 2022, Pavel Liber walked into the relocated home of Imaguru Hub in Vilnius to pitch his latest project. Dressed in jeans and a gray hoodie emblazoned with a giant panda, he described an app that would provide a place for Belarusians to stay connected as they disperse across the globe, and build a new, digital homeland.

Seated in a cozy amphitheater with orange-painted walls, his audience listened quietly as Liber explained how the app, New Belarus — an independent initiative supported by exiled leader Tsikhanouskaya’s team — would help exiles stay in touch with people back home, build communities in their current countries, and bolster the democratic movement. At the end of his talk, after inviting everyone to test the beta version, he was peppered with questions.

New Belarus

“It will allow us to aggregate people from Belarus, no matter where they are located, and build a kind of virtual country,” Liber told Rest of World in a Vilnius cafe, two weeks after his presentation.

A pilot version of New Belarus was released in early December. By February 3, the app had been downloaded over 20,000 times. The app opens with an illustration of a woman wearing a traditional Belarusian dress and a wreath of flowers on her head, with a sun radiating in the background.

On December 29, the Lukashenko government classified the app as “extremist material,” meaning people in Belarus can be arrested for using it.

In the coming months, Liber plans to add collective decision-making tools and support for digital IDs for exiled Belarusians. Their utility might be put to the test sooner rather than later: In January, Lukashenko signed a new law allowing the government to strip exiled Belarusians of their citizenship, putting dissidents at risk of becoming stateless.

Most of the dozen exiled Belarusian tech workers who spoke with Rest of World said they are willing to return home, but are waiting for the end of the war in Ukraine, the fall of Lukashenko, or, ideally, both. Until then, they face an uncertain future. Many Belarusians are having to deal with a precarious legal status in their current places of residence. Their families are often scattered across Belarus and various other countries.

The situation could get more dire still. Lukashenko has inched ever closer to Putin, publicly meeting him 13 times since the 2022 invasion. Their countries have held joint military exercises, and Russia has used Belarusian air space to launch missile attacks against Ukraine. Putin’s long-term goal, according to a leaked document from his executive office obtained by Yahoo News, is to absorb Belarus into a “Union State.”

Many tech executives have considered the possibility of Belarusian armed forces getting involved in the war and triggering more impactful Western sanctions. “In case the war scenario happens, I expect major companies with Western headquarters will remove [their remaining workers from Belarus],” Sergei, a startup founder and tech blogger, told Rest of World over Zoom from Poland. He did not want to use his full name for safety reasons.

“My current hope is that in any year, in five years, in two years, in 10 years, when Belarus becomes a country which follows the law, I will come back,” said the Vilnius-based startup founder. “Or the alternative — I don’t know. Maybe we build this new digital Belarus and we could be a Belarusian in any country.”