Belarus was once home to a booming tech industry centered around an IT park outside Minsk that had its own tax and legal regime.
The country also had excellent scientific universities, such as Radioteknik and the Technical University of Belarus, a remnant of the Soviet era.
A tech job was seen by locals as a way to earn a relatively high salary in a country with a relatively low cost of living.
But two years ago, after an election that was widely condemned as stolen by strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, hundreds of thousands of the country’s best and brightest took to the streets to protest in the spring and summer 2021.
These educated professionals often had a liberal international outlook and opposed the regime. They felt the momentum was with them and that their country could finally be free and democratic after decades of rule by the same man.
But after an unspeakably brutal crackdown by security forces following the election, many realized their best chance was to leave the country altogether. *Kirill was one of them.
“It was morally hard and scary to be in Belarus, taking part in actions and reading independent daily newspapers, knowing that you could be imprisoned for your political position, your opinion or simply for carrying [opposition coloured] white-red-white socks,” he told Euronews Next.
Born and raised in Minsk, Kirill was a trained programmer and worked as an IT infrastructure administrator. He heard about the Business Harbor Visa, which makes it easy for Belarusian professionals to legally work in Poland and bring close relatives with them.
55,000 business port visas
Set up in just a week in 2020, the program is one of the ways Poland has helped Belarusians flee the regime, while also filling some of Poland’s 100,000 vacancies for programmers. and by generating nearly 180 million euros in investments.
In recent years, Poland has seen political opportunities in being a bridge between Eastern and Western Europe and has issued 55,000 business port visas as well as humanitarian visas to Belarusian opposition activists and election observers, who continue to be targeted by state security services.
Winning praise for its military and humanitarian support to Ukraine since Russia invaded, the Central European country was also the biggest supporter of the Belarusian opposition, donating $53.6 million ( 49.9 million euros) to independent media, civil society and scholarships in 2021, as well as offering humanitarian visas to those, such as election observers, persecuted by Lukashenko’s security services.
Kirill and his wife already spoke some Polish when they moved in 2021 and the neighboring countries are culturally similar, so it seemed like an obvious choice. But that didn’t make things any easier.
Many companies had not heard of his visa program and did not take Kirill’s work experience outside of Poland seriously. To make ends meet, he had to accept a job installing fiber optic cables. But eventually, with a Polish company on his resume, he started getting interviews — five in a month.
“My life has changed for the better since I moved to Poland. There are lots of opportunities, development and democracy. I’m not afraid for my life here,” he said.
Although Kirill came looking for new jobs, most newcomers to the country came with companies they already worked for.
When Western countries introduced sanctions against Belarus after Lukashenko’s 2020 crackdown, and later when Russia invaded Ukraine with cooperation from Belarus, many international companies working with outsourced Belarusian tech workers entered in action to help relocate them.
During the two years of the program’s operation, the Polish Agency for Investment and Trade has provided services to more than 140 companies which have submitted nearly 49,000 relocation applications, mostly for Belarusians since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which Belarus served as a springboard for because of its long border with Ukraine.
The program was expanded in 2022 to include people from Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, according to Justyna Orlowska, undersecretary for GovTech in the Polish prime minister’s office.
Programmers earn more than doctors
* Alena, who works in app support, had always wanted to leave Belarus and move west, but before the stolen election, her business was only moving to other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States, a group of former Soviet republics generally seen as still within Russia’s sphere of economic influence.
A big fan of Rammstein, she had always dreamed of living in Germany. When Poland introduced the Business Harbor Visa, she was one of the very first to take advantage of the program and move from Belarus to a Western country, pack her bags and fly to Wrocław in the south- western Poland.
“The company just took care of the whole procedure, which made my move easier. I wasn’t that stressed. The adjustment period was quite short for me. [I’ve been] here for more than a year and I still don’t want to go back”.
Another Belarusian living in Wrocław is *Ivan who first arrived in 2021. Ivan holds a master’s degree in theology but realized he could make a better living as a scrum master training technicians to think outside the box.
He got his visa quickly after showing that he had worked in the tech industry for two years.
“In Belarus, programmers can earn much more than doctors. Many doctors change to become [junior software] testers. I can’t judge them,” he said, noting that pay doesn’t go as far in Poland, which has suffered from some of the highest inflation in Europe over the past year.
At this point, almost his entire family moved to Wrocław. Although he misses home and especially the jazz cafes of Minsk, you can’t put a price on freedom, he says.
*Surnames have been removed at the request of the interviewees.