‘We can’t keep silent’: Belarus tech CEOs call for new elections

World

13 August 2020, 21:01

Over 500 members of Belarus’ booming tech industry have weighed in on the unstable situation in the country in an open letter calling for new elections.

Authorities reacted violently to protests that broke out in the wake of Sunday’s disputed election, which sparked an outcry over the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Senior executives from some of Belarus’ top IT companies signed a letter that casts doubt on the validity of the election results, as well as calling for an end to violence against protesters and the release of political prisoners.

They have urged government agencies to:

  1. Stop violence against civilians and remove the atmosphere of fear from the streets;
  2. Release all political prisoners and detainees;
  3. Conduct new transparent elections of the President of the Republic of Belarus;
  4. Provide citizens of the Republic of Belarus with free access to information.

Several of the signatories are high up in companies at Minsk’s world-renowned Hi-Tech Park, including management from EPAM Systems and Itransition.

The clout of the letter is amplified by the fact it comes from the IT sector in Belarus, which is “famous for its development and success,” Kamil Klysinski, a senior fellow at the Centre for Eastern Studies, a think-tank focussing on Belarus, told Euronews.

The letter states that “peaceful protests are dispersed with inappropriate use of force” and “ordinary people are detained for no reason, beaten and arrested.”

“Voters and observers have recorded numerous violations that indicate falsification of the election results,” they added. “We assume that the presidential elections in the Republic of Belarus were rigged.”

While the IT chiefs do not claim to be “experts in politics” they say “we are experts in the tech business”.

“It is now impossible to keep silent,” Michael Dubakov, founder of startup Fibery, told Euronews.

“It’s impossible to work like this”

Dubakov said he took his dog out for a walk on the outskirts of Minsk on Wednesday evening and was forced to run away from police who were using flash-bang grenades. “It’s impossible to work like this,” he said.

For this startup boss, the most important message in the letter is the demand for new elections or he says he would endorse a recount of the ballots from Sunday.

“Lukashenko won with 80% of the vote but where are these people? If 80% of people voted for him, why don’t we see them in the streets supporting him now?” he said.

Dubakov also highlighted the fact that Belarus had limited access to the internet for several days. “For IT companies it’s impossible to do business and it’s awful for the economy,” he added.

He thinks if the situation in the country continues to deteriorate, Belarus will see a brain drain in the IT sector, with companies forced to send or hire staff outside of its borders.

The letter says that tech businesses cannot function in the conditions that are forming in the country, adding that “startups are not born in an atmosphere of fear and violence”.

Elena Sokolova, the founder of the Internet of Things, said: “This was more of a desperate letter.”

“We understand that it will not affect anything. It’s a cry out loud,” she said. “You just don’t know what to do. You can’t sit, you have to do something.”

Sokolova said she is involved in an initiative to raise funds for police officers in order that they might move away from their jobs in public office and work for the private sector.

“With this letter, we want to get through to someone, because (it is useless) to go up against a riot squad with guns that dont always fire rubber bullets if you have nothing in your hands,” she added.

“We will lose years of progress”

Despite the letter’s strong words, Dubakov is thankful for how he says his industry has been treated by the current administration.

“For the last 10 years, to be honest, the government has been very supportive and I’m grateful for this,” he said.

Indeed, Klysinski sees the IT sector’s as “a success, but driven by low taxes.

Those on the Hi-Tech Park are offered an exemption from corporate income tax, real estate tax and VAT, among other things.

Dubakov thinks the next two weeks will be decisive in how things will turn out for his industry — he hopes Belarus’ leaders will listen to the tech chiefs’ opinions and open a dialogue with the people, as well as writing a new constitution and holding new elections.

“If not we will lose years of progress,” he says.

Sokolova offered a stark warning: “If nothing changes now, we will leave. Nothing will keep me here at all,” she said.

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