For the Belarusian tech workers in exile, the Polish business visa is a vital lifeline to escape repression

Belarus was once home to a burgeoning tech industry centered around an IT park outside of Minsk, with its own tax and legal system.

The country also boasted excellent scientific universities, such as radiotechnics and the Belarusian Technical University, a relic of the Soviet era.

A job in engineering was viewed 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, in the spring and summer of 2021, after an election widely condemned as stolen by strong President Alexander Lukashenko, hundreds of thousands of the country’s best and brightest took to the streets to protest against them.

These educated professionals often had liberal international views and opposed the regime. They felt that 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 the unspeakably brutal repression by the security forces in the wake of the election, many realized their best bet was to leave the country altogether. * Kirill was one of them.

“It was morally difficult and scary to be in Belarus while taking part in actions and reading independent daily newspapers, knowing that you could be jailed for your political stance, opinion or just wearing it [opposition coloured] white-red-white socks,” he told Euronews Next.

Born and raised in Minsk, Kirill trained as a programmer and worked as an IT infrastructure administrator. He heard about the Business Harbor Visa, which allows Belarusian professionals to work legally in Poland without any problems and bring close relatives with them.

55,000 business port visas

The scheme, set up in just a week in 2020, is one way Poland has been helping Belarusians flee the regime while filling some of Poland’s 100,000 programming jobs and nearly €180 million in investments brought in.

In recent years, Poland has seen political opportunities in being a gateway between Eastern and Western Europe and has issued 55,000 business harbor visas and humanitarian visas to Belarusian opposition figures and election observers, who continue to be targeted by state security services.

The central European country, which has garnered praise for providing military and humanitarian support to Ukraine since the Russian invasion, was also the single largest supporter of the Belarusian opposition, donating $53.6 million to independents in 2021 as well media, civil society and scholarships, as well as offering humanitarian visas to people like election observers who are being pursued 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 an obvious choice. But that didn’t make it easy.

Many companies had not heard of his visa program and initially did not take Kirill’s work experience outside of Poland seriously. To make ends meet, he had to take a job installing fiber optic cables. But eventually, with a Polish company on his resume, he started getting interviews – five in one month.

“My life has changed for the better since I moved to Poland. There are many opportunities, development and democracy. I’m not afraid for my life here,” he said.

Although Kirill came looking for new jobs, most of the newcomers came to the country with companies they already worked for.

When Western countries imposed sanctions on Belarus after the 2020 crackdown on Lukashenko, and later when Russia, in cooperation with Belarus, invaded Ukraine, many of the international companies working with outsourced Belarusian tech workers jumped into action to help with the resettlement help.

In the two years that the program has been running, the Polish Investment and Trade Agency has provided services to over 140 companies that submitted nearly 49,000 relocation applications, most of them for Belarusians since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for which Belarus was used as a launch pad acted due to its long border with Ukraine.

According to Justyna Orlowska, Undersecretary for GovTech in the Polish Prime Minister’s Office, in 2022 the program was expanded to include people from Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova.

Programmers make more money than doctors

*Alena, who works in app support, always wanted to leave Belarus and move west, but before the stolen election, her company just relocated to other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States, a well-known group of former Soviet republics still in the economic sphere of influence of Russia.

As a big Rammstein fan, she had always dreamed of living in Germany. When Poland introduced the Business Harbor Visa, she was one of the very first to use the program and moved from Belarus to a western country, packed her bags and flew to Wrocław in south-western Poland.

“The company just took care of the whole procedure, which made the move easy for me. I wasn’t that stressed. The adjustment period was quite short for me. [I’ve been] 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 realized he could make a better living as a Scrum Master teaching technicians to think outside the box.

He got his visa quickly after proving he had worked in the tech industry for two years.

“In Belarus, programmers can earn much more than doctors. Many doctors change their profession [junior software] tester I can’t judge them,” he said, noting that the salary doesn’t go that far in Poland, which has suffered from one of the highest inflation rates in Europe over the past year.

By that time almost all his family had moved to Wrocław. Although he misses his home and especially the jazz cafés in Minsk, he says freedom is priceless.

*Last names were removed at the request of respondents.


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