How Europe’s Last Dictatorship Became a Tech Hub


Ten days after the awards, Facebook bought the company for an undisclosed sum. The founders, whose average age was about 25 at the time, moved to London and the United States. Together with some of those co-workers, Mr. Kovalyov is developing a new Minsk start-up, AR Squad, which creates augmented reality content.

One of the first masks the other company developed was one resembling Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, Belarus’s president, who has ruled for more than two decades. He is prone to publicity stunts like picking potatoes at his estate or taking his teenage son, Nikolai, commonly referred to as Kolya, to sit at international meetings in a military uniform.

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Dmitri Kovalyov, an artist in Minsk, helped develop a tool that lets people superimpose various masks in selfie videos.

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Siarhei Hudzilin for The New York Times

Mr. Lukashenko’s mask featured his trademark comb-over hair and bushy mustache, but was not considered offensive. On the contrary, Mr. Lukashenko began to believe that the tech industry could become a magic wand to help him end the country’s chronic dependency on Russia.

“Creation of an IT state is our ambitious but reachable goal,” Mr. Lukashenko said at a gathering of lawmakers and bureaucrats this summer. “This will allow us to make Belarus even more modern and prosperous and will let Belarusians look into the future with confidence.”

Mr. Lukashenko, who once called the internet “a pile of garbage,” began to utter improbable words for a former manager of a collective farm — about the need to develop artificial intelligence, driverless cars and blockchain technology, which allows multiple parties to keep shared digital records.

His government has taken several steps to encourage the tech industry’s development, like granting visa-free entry to citizens of 79 countries, including all Western states, when entering through the Minsk airport. Mr. Lukashenko also wants to lift restrictions on currency transfers to encourage venture financing for start-ups.

Belarus produces top-level technical talent, an inheritance from its Soviet past, said Arkady M. Dobkin, who immigrated to the United States in the 1990s and established a software company there.

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The Minsk office of Viber, the call and messaging app, whose space is in a former industrial zone that has gentrified.

Credit
Siarhei Hudzilin for The New York Times

Today, Mr. Dobkin is the chief executive of EPAM, which does programing for the world’s leading tech companies and is considered one of the fastest-growing public tech companies in the world.

EPAM’s headquarters is in Newtown, Pa., but its main development hub is in Minsk, where more than 6,000 of its technology specialists work.

“I think it was the absence of oil that made Belarus do this,” said Mr. Dobkin, 57. “Here, universities produce more highly qualified specialists than the internal market needs.”

Many locals say the government’s talk about growing as a tech hub is a comfortable distraction in a country that heavily depends on Russia for cut-rate fuel and political patronage.

Sergei Chaly, an outspoken economist and former government official, calls Belarus “a dying country with bitcoins.”

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Employees at Wargaming, whose game “World of Tanks” has more than 200 million registered users, including the Belarusian president’s son.

Credit
Siarhei Hudzilin for The New York Times

Vladimir Lipkovich, a popular blogger who made a career out of ridiculing Belarusian bureaucrats, said the only reason the tech industry had found some success in Belarus is that the government “cannot seize people’s brains.” He joked, “If they want to capture an IT company, what would they get, computers?”

Politics doesn’t seem a big concern for many in the tech crowd, even if young political activists use group chats on the call and messaging app Viber — an Israeli company whose development hub is in Minsk — to coordinate activities and plan rallies.

Mr. Lukashenko’s son is a fan of World of Tanks, a multiplayer online game developed in Belarus in which people fight in tank battles. With more than 200 million registered users across the world, it is one of the top 10 games in terms of total digital revenue.

Tanks have an important cultural meaning for Belarus and other former Soviet states, where almost every family has an ancestor who fought in one.

“He plays tanks, but this is controlled,” Mr. Lukashenko said of his son at a televised meeting with schoolteachers.

“One hour for tanks, 1.5 hours for music,” the president added, explaining how he controls his son’s time spent on the game. “Two hours for tanks — four hours for music.”

“Four hours is difficult,” Mr. Lukashenko said, “so he doesn’t play for longer than one hour.”

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