How Belarusian “Silicon Valley” turned on Lukashenko

From afar, Belarusian “Silicon Valley”, on the outskirts of Minsk, looks a little sad like a large concrete cube. Beneath its Soviet exterior, the park of high technologies of the capital of Belarus is home to a very advanced sector. This is where the encrypted messaging application Viber and the World of Tanks game came into being. Former head of a collective farm, President Alexander Lukashenko was probably far from imagining that this industry, long cherished but whose power he has always underestimated, would one day turn against him.

When he gave the green light to build the park in the mid-2000s, the autocrat ignored all new technologies, a field far removed from the traditional model inherited from the USSR, with its large state industries. “He didn’t understand anything about the IT business. That’s why we were able to develop it “, recalls the founder of the park, Valery Tsepkalo, a former member of the opposition regime, now in exile in Warsaw after being prevented from running for president.

Driven by the tax benefits granted by the regime, the digital industry quickly became a key driver of the Belarusian economy. In 2018, it represented 5.5% of GDP with nearly $ 1.5 billion in exports, and employed 60,000 people.

A pillar of the protest

Since the fraudulent re-election of Alexander Lukashenko on August 9, employees of information technology (IT) companies have become a pillar of the protest shaking the country. “Without them, this revolution would be impossible”, says Belarusian analyst Franak Viacorka, specialist in digital media.

Their role was decisive from the start of the presidential election. Skeptical about the government’s ability to conduct a transparent process, a few created, for the first time, an online election observation platform, Golos (“Voices”), to do an independent vote count. Each voter was invited to take a photo of their ballot and send it as proof. “The idea was to be able to compare the official results with those that the voters had sent us”, Explain Pavel Liber, 36, creator of Golos and vice-president of Epam, a multinational specialized in the creation of digital products.

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One million people (out of 9.5 million inhabitants) downloaded the application in two weeks. “When the government discovered our platform, they called for it to be closed, Mr Liber continues. We received threats, and the official media called us terrorists. “ Despite the disruptions linked to internet shutdowns on election day and the following two days, Golos helped demonstrate the scale of the frauds that sparked the first protests: “At least 50% of the votes had been tampered with. “

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