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Today Belarus is going through difficult times: the political and economic crisis that followed the unfolding rallies and protests of those who disagree with the results of the presidential elections that were held on August 9, 2020. According to official data, Alexander Grigorievich Lukashenko won in them. Major world publications wrote about unprecedented violence by the authorities against peaceful protests in Belarus: The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Frankfurter Allgemeine, The Independent, The Guardian, The New York Times.
The whole world with bated breath is watching the unfolding events. Workers of medium and large industrial enterprises of Belarus announced the start of strikes and the creation of strike committees, more than 7 thousand people were detained at peaceful rallies. Representatives of culture and art appeal to the Government with a demand to stop the violence, residents of the Hi-Tech Park demand the release of political prisoners, half a million thirsty for change people join almost traditional Sunday marches of New Belarus, women come out in white (the color of freedom) dresses in solidarity and support those detained at peaceful protests, representatives of the IT industry also join protests.
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As a tech media, we cannot but highlight what happened to the IT sphere of Belarus in recent weeks, and what is its status today.
In connection with the upcoming presidential elections, tension inside the country was growing strongly due to the fact that several strong candidates could not take part in them. Ex-banker Viktor Babariko, considered one of the main rivals of the incumbent president, as well as the former head of the HTP, Valery Tsepkalo, were not registered as presidential candidates: Viktor is now in the KGB pre-trial detention center with his son Eduard, while Valery has left the country. Two criminal cases were also initiated against blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, his group was not even registered as a candidate by the CEC (Central Election Commission of the Republic of Belarus). After the arrest, instead of her husband, Sergei’s wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, put forward her candidacy. On July 16, it became known that the headquarters of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who was nevertheless allowed to participate in the elections, is merging with the teams of Babariko and Tsepkalo. The joint team promulgated the principles of the joint campaign: refusal to boycott the elections, demanding the release of all political prisoners, and holding new fair elections.
On August 9, 2020, the 6th elections of the President of the Republic of Belarus took place. The whole day the Internet was practically absent in the entire country (a couple of days before that there were relevant rumors, but we hoped that they would not be confirmed, although we armed ourselves with VPN applications), people could not find out what was happening in the country. By evening, according to official data provided by the Central Election Commission, Aleksandr Grigorievich Lukashenko won the victory, having received about 80% of the votes against 7% from the main opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Soon, Svetlana herself was forced to move to Lithuania for political reasons. On the same day, mass peaceful protests against electoral fraud began in the cities. The security forces began to brutally suppress the protests, using rubber bullets, firecrackers, water cannons, stun grenades, indiscriminately detaining people in the streets.
Over the years, the IT sphere has become some kind of a visiting card of Belarus. The share of high technologies in the republic’s GDP is 6.5%. There are more than 1000 IT companies in Belarus, 886 companies are residents of the Hi-Tech Park (whose clients are from over 67 countries of the world). 91.9% of the software produced in the Park is exported. HTP creates unique conditions for its residents, which are exempt from all corporate taxes, including value added tax and income tax. Individual income tax for employees of the Park’s resident companies has a flat rate of 9% and is not included in gross annual income. And these are not all the benefits.
One of the initiators of the creation of the Hi-Tech Park and its first director is Valery Tsepkalo, an unregistered candidate for President of the Republic of Belarus.
Today, the country has developed conditions in which it is very difficult for a technology business to function. But first things first.
Before describing the chronicles of events, it is important to note that the IT industry did not stand aside during the election campaign either. In July, at the initiative of Valery Tsepkalo’s team, the Social Technology Hackathon 2020 was organized to develop a solution that could become an alternative vote-counting tool and make elections fair and transparent. This is how Golos and Zubr platforms appeared. On August 20, the Golos platform together with the Zubr platform and the Honest People initiative released a Report, which provides evidence of vote falsification at every third polling station.
What happened next?
Throughout the country, the Internet was shut down, the telephone connection did not always work either. People massively downloaded VPN and installed proxies. This shutdown continued for the next 3 days. People were left with no information, business was suffering losses, no one could answer the question when the connection would appear. Beltelecom blamed attacks from abroad for DDoS failures. However, experts and human rights organizations later came to the conclusion that the shutdown was originally initiated from within the country. According to Netblocks calculations (https://netblocks.org/cost/ here you can find the current figures for the country), every day of the absence of the Internet brought the Belarusian economy a loss of $56.4 million. It is not difficult to calculate the total losses for 3 days of Internet isolation.
Many IT companies had prepared for the lack of the Internet in advance: some partially took their employees abroad in order to be able to maintain contact with foreign clients, or switched to international SIM cards, made action plans and briefings for team members in case of unforeseen circumstances, someone had planned in advance the trips of key employees abroad, where the servers are located, to keep them in working order.
We at Rocket DAO also faced the problem of no Internet: for at least 3 days, our team’s work was almost completely paralyzed. VPN did not always work from the desktop, the mobile connection was junk. Later we managed to reconfigure the local Wi-Fi, but new adventures began: several guys from our office were detained on their way home from work, so we devoted a whole week to finding them, and saw with our own eyes all the events taking place in our country these days. Among those detained are the manager of Startup Jedi Darya Skorokhod, CEO of EduDo and Flint Capital investment manager Yury Shlaganov. Since we have a small team, everyone was involved, and we will definitely tell our story in a separate article. Now the guys are alright, they are free :)
In addition to the moral damage and the nationwide blues from everything that was happening in the country, it is important to understand that the absence of the Internet now affects the country’s image in front of contractors, investors, foreign clients, which can shake the country’s position in the global IT market in the future. Many IT companies already organize relocations to Russia, Ukraine, Turkey for their employees. So, for example, on August, 21, the Minsk office of Viber was closed (Forbes wrote about this), and on the 25th, Yandex began relocate its employees to Russia (source — thebell.io).
Pavel Durov, having decided to support Belarus, wrote on his Twitter about the inclusion of special mechanisms to bypass regional Internet blocking in his Telegram messenger. New proxies created specifically for Belarus were working, but also intermittently — due to the large number of connections.
On the night from 9 to 10, the co-owner and COO of Rozum Robotics, the first and leading company in Eastern Europe for the development of collaborative robots, Mikhail Chuprinsky, was detained in his own entrance. He is also one of the active members of the local Hackerspace community, which has established the production of protective shields for medical personnel during the fight against COVID-19. On August 14, Mikhail was released from the TDF (temporary detention facility) in Zhodino.
On the same day, Kirill Golub, a venture investor, president of the Belarusian Association of Business Angels named Angels Band, founder of the Lithuanian network of business angels LitBAN, an active member of the international business angel club Changer Club (Riga, Latvia), was detained near his home. On August 11, it became known that he was in the TDF in the city of Zhodino. On August 13, he was released.
Unfortunately, almost every IT company in the country has faced employee detention. Each morning began with roll calls and checks of the lists from Okrestsina, the local isolation ward, where the riot police took all the detainees.
The international human rights group “Agora” has made an urgent report to the UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and human rights in Belarus. The report refers to the state Internet shutdown, politically motivated harassment of journalists and bloggers. This appeal was supported by 30 national and international human rights organizations.
On the same day, HTP resident and CEO of Iomico Nikolay Murzenkov was the first to decide to come forward and send a video appeal to the HTP management. In a rather harsh message, Nikolai called on Vsevolod Yanchevsky, a representative of the HTP, to stand up for the people, and not interfere with them, forbidding employees of IT companies to join the rallies.
At about 7 am on August 12, the Internet started working in Belarus. Psiphon has become the most popular service for bypassing blocking these days. Until August 8, the service was not even included in the 1000 most downloaded. As of August 11, the number of connections to the service reached 10.67 million. On August 12, Psiphon became the most downloaded application on iOS devices in the country, and the second most popular on Android (yielding to TunnelBear, which offered 10 GB of free traffic per month to residents of Belarus on August 8).
Members of Belarus IT CEO Club initiated and signed an open letter calling on the Government to stop violence against its own citizens. The letter contains the following requirements:
Stop violence against civilians and remove the atmosphere of fear from the streets.
Release all political prisoners and detainees.
Conduct new transparent elections of the President of the Republic of Belarus.
Provide citizens of the Republic of Belarus with free access to information.
The letter also states that the departure of IT specialists from the country can significantly affect tax and investment revenues in Belarus. As of August 25, according to dev.by, it is known about 2500+ industry representatives who signed the letter.
At the same time, a post from PandaDoc CEO Mikita Mikado appeared on Facebook with a statement of his readiness to financially help representatives of law enforcement agencies who decided to surrender their post and go to the side of the people: in addition to depriving the main income, graduates of the Academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in case of dismissal, are required to pay the state from $10 to $20 thousand. To assist and develop the initiative, a website has been created https://www.protectbelarus.org/. By August 23, the team had already selected 130 applications out of 400+ received, 27 payments were approved and 11 were listed, the CEO of PandaDoc wrote about this on his Facebook page.
In his video message, Mikita also spoke about his readiness to help victims with retraining within the framework of the #войтивайти (enter an IT) project. You can find other mentors and entrepreneurs who have supported the initiative by following the hashtag on Facebook.
Good news: In response to numerous requests from Belarusians for help, Elon Musk on Twitter asked how he could help Belarus in this difficult time for the country :)
The offices of Yandex and Uber in Minsk were searched. Details and reasons remain undisclosed.
On the same day, the head of Rozum Robotics, Viktor Khomenok, announced an indefinite strike, the statement was signed by more than 20 people.
The IT business has intensified, mass support for the victims has begun. Two Belarusian companies immediately announced their intention to help:
Crypto-exchange Currency.com of Viktor Prokopenia allocated a fund of $100,000 for Rehabilitation of Victims;
IsSoft Solutions called on other HTP residents to join the initiative, and the company’s team decided to donate $500,000 to charity.
On the same day, the international online hackathon Build for Belarus, organized by Estonian businessman Ragnar Sass, took place. The goal of the hackathon is to create services and applications that can help in the struggle for democracy and fair elections in Belarus during the crisis in several areas: communications, security, medicine and assistance to civil society. More than 250 people took part in the hackathon, and on the 16th they already presented their developments. Three projects were recognized as winners: #tut_pomogut_bot (a channel for receiving applications for help and the desire to become a volunteer in the Telegram messenger), GeoBel (an online map of “hot” events and protests as well as medical centers based on publications of the Nexta Telegram channel) and PeopleFinder (Telegram bot that helps to find people who were missing during protests).
At the same time, IT workers took part in an action of solidarity with the victims near the HTP building. Here you can watch a video from the action.
The CEO of a Belarusian Gurtam copany made a statement about his readiness to allocate $500 thousand to help victims during the protests.
By the way, this is not the only initiative for financial assistance, there are now several campaigns to raise funds for the victims on Facebook:
Belarus Solidarity Foundation: $1.7 million (by the way, musicians from different countries have recently released a single collection For Belarus on the Bandcamp platform — in support of victims in Belarus. All the money earned will be transferred to the foundation).
Support Victims of Police Brutality in Belarus: more than $33 thousand.
Support for Belarus: more than $2.7 million.
Here we go again, the initiative from Pavel Durov: Telegram created an official channel in Belarus https://t.me/telegrambelarus, where an anonymous poll “For whom did you vote in the presidential elections in the Republic of Belarus?” was published. To date, more than 2 million people have taken part in the survey.
Belitsoft company expressed its readiness to allocate $100 thousand to support the injured participants of rallies and demonstrations.
On this day, a website was also launched to search for missing and detainees, where you can find out from the status, place of serving the sentence or the address of the hospital where the victim is located https://blm-findpeople.web.app/search.
On August 18, the first press conference of the Coordination Council, initiated by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was held. Its purpose is the peaceful transfer of power in Belarus, overcoming the political crisis and protecting the country’s sovereignty. The Board includes Mikhail Rumyantsev (investor, CEO of the Belarusian startup FrinedlyData, bought in 2018 by ServiceNow, you can read our interview with Mikhail by this link) and Tatiana Marynich (Director of Imaguru startup hub, we talked about its activities in our article with an overview of the ecosystem of Belarus).
Many IT companies announced that they want to retrain for free those who suffered during mass arrests, who were dismissed due to strikes, and those who are ready to leave the public sector. Some of the first to announce:
WM Reply: the company is ready to give the basics of web development, design, business analysis, project management within the framework of 2–3-month courses, and even hires the best students;
School of Web-development TeaсhMeSkills announced its readiness to provide free training and has already opened a set in three areas (Front-end, Python, PHP) for civil servants, teachers, factory workers and all those who have lost their jobs;
EPAM Systems: firstly, the company is now ready to allocate funds to help the victims, and secondly, it organizes free courses for people who have no experience in IT, in all regional centers of the country. Details are on the website.
An updated list of initiatives of requalification is available on dev.by.
The absence of the Internet in the country from 9 to 12 was just the beginning. On August 22, a number of regional media outlets and election sites were blocked. The Belarusian subdivision of the sports resource Tribuna, the sites of Radio Svaboda, the unregistered human rights center Viasna, the Belsat TV channel, Euroradio, the team of Viktor Babariko, the Honest People project, the team of Valery Tsepkalo, Virtual Brest, Golos and Zubr platforms, many sites of VPN services and many others are among them. In total, as tut.by reports, there were 72 inaccessible resources.
In parallel with this, the International Association of Game Developers with an open letter addressed Lukashenka and the HTP board with a request to protect citizens and developers from Belarus. The document and the requirements of the Association can be found on their website. In case of non-compliance with these requirements, the representatives of the association promise to do everything possible to warn foreign companies and investors about cooperation with Belarus and to help Belarusian IT companies with relocation.
At the same time, a part of the Belarusian team of the British company Godel Technologies has been relocated to Ukraine. The Minsk office of Yandex, where more than 300 Belarusian citizens work, did the same: their gradual relocation to Russia began, those who refused moved out of town, to private houses. The EPAM developers also have the opportunity to move to foreign offices of the company, at least temporarily, Wargaming also announces the creation of a relocation plan for employees in case of force majeure circumstances beyond the control of the company. Tut.by writes about it.
That’s all for today. We hope that the situation in the country will stabilize in the near future. In the meantime, on the website of dev.by media portal, you can learn where and how to ask for help as well as how you can help (financially or by volunteering).
Peace to everyone!