Belarus was once the home of an up-and-coming tech industry, centred around an IT park outside Minsk which had its own tax and legal regime.
The country also boasted excellent scientific universities, like Radioteknik and the Belarus Technical University, a relic of the Soviet times.
A job in tech was seen by locals as a way to earn a relatively high salary in a country where the cost of living was relatively low.
But two years ago, after an election which was widely condemned as stolen by strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, hundreds of thousands of the country’s best and brightest filed onto the streets to protest back in the spring and summer of 2021.
These educated professionals often had a liberal international outlook and opposed the regime. They felt that momentum was with them and that their country could finally be free and democratic after decades of rule by the same man.
But after unspeakably brutal repression from the security forces in the wake of the election, many realised their best chance was to leave the country altogether. *Kirill was one of them.
"It was morally hard and frightening to be in Belarus, while taking part in actions and reading daily independent newspapers, knowing, that you could be put in jail for your political stance, opinion or simply for wearing [opposition coloured] white-red-white socks," he told Euronews Next.
Born and bred in Minsk, Kirill was a trained programmer and worked as an IT infrastructure admin. He heard about the Business Harbour Visa, which allows Belarusian professionals to work legally in Poland easily and bring close relatives with them.
55,000 Business Harbour Visas
Set up in the space of just a week in 2020, the programme is one way Poland has helped Belarusians fleeing the regime, while filling some of Poland’s 100,000 vacancies for programmers and bringing in almost €180 million in investments.
In recent years, Poland has seen political opportunities in being a gateway between eastern and western Europe and has issued 55,000 Business Harbour Visas as well as humanitarian visas to Belarusian opposition activists and election observers, who continue to be targeted by the state security services.
Winning plaudits for military and humanitarian support for Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, the central European country has also been the biggest single supporter of the Belarusian opposition, donating $53.6 million (€49.9 million) to independent media, civil society and scholarships in 2021, as well as offering humanitarian visas for 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 neighbouring countries are culturally similar, so it seemed like an obvious choice. But that didn’t make it easy.
Many companies hadn’t heard of his visa programme and didn’t initially take Kirill’s work experience outside of Poland seriously. To make ends meet, he had to take a job installing fibre-optic cables. But eventually, with a Polish company on his CV, he started getting interviews - five in one month.
"My life has changed for the better since I moved to Poland. There are a lot of possibilities, development and democracy. I am not afraid for my life here," he said.
Though Kirill came looking for new jobs, most of the new arrivals to the country have come with companies they were already working for.
When western countries introduced sanctions on Belarus after Lukashenko’s crackdown in 2020, and later when Russia invaded Ukraine with Belarus’ cooperation, many of the international companies working with outsourced Belarusian tech workers sprang into action to help relocate them.
In the two years that the programme has been running, the Polish Investment and Trade Agency has provided services to over 140 companies that have submitted almost 49,000 relocation requests, most of these for Belarusians since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Belarus acted as a launchpad for due to its long border with Ukraine.
The programme was expanded in 2022 to include people from Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, according to Justyna Orlowska, the Undersecretary for GovTech at 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 to the West, but before the stolen election, her company was only relocating to other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States, a group of former Soviet Republics generally seen as still being in Russia’s economic sphere of influence.
A massive Rammstein fan, she had always dreamed of living in Germany. When Poland introduced the Business Harbour Visa, she was one of the very first to take advantage of the programme and relocate from Belarus to a western country, packing her bags and flying to Wrocław in southwestern Poland.
"The company just took care of the whole procedure, which made my relocation easy. I was not that stressed. The period of adjustment was quite short for me. [I’ve been] here for over a year and still don’t want to go back".
Another Belarusian living in Wrocław is *Ivan who first came in 2021. Ivan has a Master’s degree in theology but realised he could earn a better living as a scrum master training tech workers 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 are switching to become [junior software] testers. I can’t judge them," he said, noting that the salary doesn’t go as far in Poland, which has suffered from some of the highest inflation in Europe over the last year.
At this point, almost his whole family have moved to Wrocław. Though he misses home and especially Minsk’s jazz cafes, you can’t put a price on freedom, he says.
*Surnames have been removed at the request of interviewees.