Belarus’ IT industry has been in a state of upheaval since the country’s controversial 2020 presidential elections.
After the polls were declared fraudulent, mass protests ensued, leading to a violent crackdown by the security forces. The result has been a sharp rise in the number of Belarusian IT professionals seeking work overseas, with Poland offering a Business Harbour Visa to encourage them to come to the country.
Scheme to bring families
Since the visa scheme was launched in 2020, over 55,000 visas have been issued, allowing Belarusians to work in Poland and bring family members with them. The scheme has also generated over €180m in investment, and there are hopes that the country can further cement its position as a gateway between Eastern and Western Europe.
Before the 2020 election, Belarus had been home to a burgeoning tech industry, with an IT park outside the capital Minsk offering a unique tax and legal regime. The country also boasts a number of excellent scientific universities.
A job in tech had become an attractive option for many Belarusians, offering relatively high salaries in a country where the cost of living was relatively low. However, the post-election unrest, combined with an upswing in authoritarian rule, led to many professionals feeling that their best option was to leave the country altogether.
One such professional was Kirill, a trained programmer and IT infrastructure admin, who decided to move to Poland with his wife after hearing about the Business Harbour Visa scheme.
Although the neighbouring countries share some cultural similarities and Kirill and his wife spoke some Polish already, it was not an easy transition. Many Polish companies were initially unaware of the visa programme, and Kirill had to take a job installing fibre-optic cables to make ends meet. Eventually, he secured a job with a Polish company and now feels that his life has changed for the better.
“There are a lot of possibilities, development and democracy. I am not afraid for my life here,” he said.
Other Belarusian IT professionals have also taken advantage of the visa programme, with some relocating to Poland with the companies they were already working for.
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.
Since the visa programme was launched, the Polish government has expanded it to include people from Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, according to Justyna Orlowska, the Undersecretary for GovTech at the Polish Prime Minister’s Office.
The Business Harbour Visa scheme has generated over €180m in investment, with Poland benefiting from the skills of highly trained Belarusian IT professionals. In recent years, Poland has positioned itself as a gateway between Eastern and Western Europe, and the visa scheme is part of that strategy.
The country has also been a major supporter of the Belarusian opposition, donating over €49m in 2021 to independent media, civil society and scholarships, as well as offering humanitarian visas to election observers persecuted by Lukashenko’s security services.
One Belarusian who has benefitted from the scheme is Alena, who works in app support. She had always wanted to leave Belarus and move to a Western country, but before the 2020 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.
When Poland introduced the Business Harbour Visa, she was one of the first to take advantage of the scheme and relocate 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.”