From Silicon Valley to Singapore, the talk of the hi-tech town is dominated by one topic: ChatGPT. Thus, when OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, who founded the company behind the futuristic chatbot, announced a world tour, he instantly became government leaders’ most desired meeting.
His itinerary reads as a who’s who of modern world leaders: UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak; French President Emmanuel Macron; German Chancellor Olaf Scholz; and Sheikh Maktoum bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, First Deputy Ruler of Dubai. His travels brought him to Lagos, New Delhi, Seoul, Toronto, and Warsaw.
Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko, for all his investment in the country’s hi-tech sector, did not make the cut. Had Lukashenko not transformed Belarus into a dictatorship and chased away hi-tech talent, Minsk could likely have been on Altman’s itinerary too.
The Belarusian brain drain has robbed the country of its emerging talent, a crisis made worse after the unlawful Russian invasion of Ukraine and Lukashenko’s continued support of the Russian regime. Since the beginning of 2022, Belarus’s hi-tech sector has lost more than 13,300 IT specialists who have fled the country, according to local media reports. They made up the backbone of the country’s famed Hi-Tech Park, once called Belarus’s Silicon Valley.
This was, according to local observers, the second mass fleeing of Lukashenko’s oppressive regime, after he brutally put down protests in 2020 when he was re-elected in what many consider a sham process. Local media recorded that the first wave of emigres in August 2020 was comprised of mostly senior-level employees. However, Lukashenko placed the blame for the public unrest not on his despotic regime, but on the Hi-Tech Park, vexed that the protests could have started from any other place or for any other reason, and accused them of betrayal as “children” engaged in a “rebellion”. Two years later, after the start of the war, a larger group of mid-level and junior employees became the bulk of the exodus.
Lukashenko has never had a problem chasing away hi-tech talent from Belarus, harming the country’s future at the expense of propping up his own regime. Viktor Prokopenya, the founder of capital.com, was forced to flee Belarus for his outspoken rejection of Lukashenko and his unwarranted grasp on power. Viktor Prokopenya has long opposed Lukashenko’s regime and has been an influential voice in condemning the illegal war on Ukraine. For his principled stance, Prokopenya’s businesses became a victim of a serious DDoS cyber-attack, but he has continued to oppose Lukashenko’s regime and Russia’s war from abroad.
It is clear innovators who dare to speak out are no safer outside the country. Several Belarusian-American tech entrepreneurs have reported coming under increased pressure after refusing to meet Lukashenko’s demands. Three years ago, Mikita Mikado, the founder of San Francisco-based software developer PandaDoc, reported a raid on his Minsk office after he supported those who protested the regime. Andrey Borisevich, CEO at FlyDreams aircraft group, chose to leave Belarus, claiming he was repeatedly penalized by the authorities when he refused to do their bidding.
In his own eyes, Lukashenko deserves only praise for bringing the famed Hi-Tech Park into existence. He bears no responsibility for protecting the IT workers, who sat as the crown jewel of the enterprise. Instead of fostering a culture conducive to innovation, Lukashenko has chosen to create a hostile environment for IT specialists and hi-tech executives.
Since 2022, many Belarusian exiles have chosen to relocate to Poland, where the government’s Poland Business Harbor program has welcomed the Belarusian IT sector.
No surprise, then, that Sam Altman thought of Warsaw in considering Eastern Europe’s hi-tech potential. Belarus, meanwhile, will continue to suffer from a brain drain as long as Lukashenko’s regime deems it full of rebellious children.