BELARUS: STRONG ICT SECTOR RESTLESS – REASONS AND POSSIBLE IMPLICATIONS OF DIGITAL DISOBEDIENCE AND BRAIN DRAIN TO FINNISH BUSINESSES

The ongoing movement in Belarus is not limited to possible changes in public power and thus in the ability and rights of citizens. Companies and the experts working in them will also have to re-evaluate where and how they can do business in the future. News flashes and images have been dominated by heavy industry – machinery, equipment and chemical industry – where strikes have been visible and with financially rapid consequences. For many, the only well-known Belarusian product is still the Belarus- tractor of the neighboring farmer.

However, already during the Soviet era, Belarus had a strong regional concentration of information and communication technologies. More than half of all Soviet computer and component manufacturing was Belarusian, and naturally after the Iron Curtain broke, that expertise began to be directed to the global market. The low cost level and the relatively strong share of technical sciences in the country’s education field made the country an attractive destination for Western companies in outsourcing information technology and information work.

However, in addition to the “cargo work” done for others, Belarus has also generated its own success stories. EPAM Systems, which originated in Minsk in 1993 and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2012, has continued to grow, for example by making six acquisitions in 2019 alone, with acquisitions from Europe as well as Asia and North America. EPAM employs more than 35,000 information professionals worldwide. The IBA Group and Intetics are other examples of companies that make IT and software products for businesses. Headquarters have moved away from Belarus, but a large part of the development and support activities have been held in the country of origin.

Even the average consumer has unknowingly been able to use applications based on Belarusian know-how. Recent successes have included MSQRD, a facial image editing app sold to Facebook, a floating menstruation tracking app listed in the top five of 2018 health apps in the U.S., and map expert maps.me. Game development has also been part of the Minsk competence palette. In August 2020, mobile tower analytics site Sensor Tower listed Belarusian Brain Wash (by Say Games) and Log Thrower (Playgendary) among the most downloaded mobile games.

Something about dark clouds in the sky tells the story of Viber, which offers free online calls and instant messaging. Viber’s co-founder and chief technology officer was Igor Magazinnik from Belarus. Viber has been downloaded more than 1.1 billion times and has more than 250 million monthly users. The company was founded in Israel and was later sold to the Japanese giant Rakuten. In 2020, Rakuten announced that it would permanently close down its Minsk operations because it did not consider it able to operate in a country ruled by a repressive regime.

And the earth burns many more underfoot. Dozens of ICT companies are said to have already tried to leave, and as you might guess, neighboring countries have promised help with relocation. Equally presumably, the current administration, helped by the coronavirus, has blocked the exit opportunities for companies and experts. However, knowledge and information work are more difficult to herd than traditional industry: Many Belarusian companies are growing and now recruiting in their foreign offices. An outsourcing expert threatens to become an outsourcer. Short-term chaos can have long-term consequences through brain drain, once lost skills may not return, even if the command changes.

The ICT community has not responded to the crisis simply by planning an escape. Actors who call themselves cyber-partisans have jammed public power websites, and game developer-artist Andrei Maksimau has developed an application based on artificial intelligence and neural networks to identify mass users of violence by police and the military – on YouTube, Maksimau publishes his videos under the international name Andrew Maksimov. This type of digital disobedience (newitz, 2020) , a.k.a. as “hacktivism” for the most active doers or “clicktivism” for their followers (George and Leidner, 2019) has emerged in numerous societal turmoils across globe (Agur and Frisch, 2019). The phenomenon communicates both the technical skill as well as discontent with the way society is developing to.

The situation at hand may have consequences that crosses many borders – e.g. in Jyväskylä, a 140.000 renowned for its strong education (also in ICT) the reported acute people shortage in ICT-jobs is reported to be some 1.500 professionals. Just recently, the IT-giant Accenture announced the expansion of its location to include Jyväskylä that should be a site for 100 people in a short time span.

At the same time, a more or less full consensus has been reached between political parties, that amid the prevailing immigration crises and agreed limitations in the refugee intakes, the attraction of talented professionals into Finnish companies should be enhanced. For Belarus this type of development would mean brain drain i.e. migration of educated professional people for better opportunities, both within countries as well as across country borders (Dodani and LaPorte, 2005). The reasons for leaving also resonate well with the ones presented by Dodani and LaPorte (ibid.): improved standard of living and quality of life, higher salary levels, better access to advanced technology and more stability in societal and political conditions in different places worldwide.

Will Finland and Jyväskylä – as an example – take an active stance to the situation once the hindering effect of pandemia is somewhat “passé” – or who will tap into the bielorussian talent – if any? For the receiving end of the professional migrating the phenomenon can be labelled as brain imports (“aivotuonti” in Finnish). The process could lead in the net brain gain for Finnish industries, who suffer from brain movement to opposite direction: Finnish educated professionals leave for opportunities elsewhere (Heinämäki, 2004) and the current “trade balance” of knowlegde has repeatedly been 1000-2000 people negative for Finland in 2010s, yet it has slightly decreased

in the 2017-2019 period (Tilastokeskus/Statistics Finland, 2020). The highest level research (doctoral graduates) close to 10 % leave Finland (Haapamäki, 2017).

The preparation of the ground for benefitting from the availability of skilled resources potentially looking for relocation is not easy in the prevailing conditions of suppression and control of contact in and out of Belarus. At the same time, the situation would offer an interesting setting to (action) research the steps taken by different stakeholders, their reasons and consequences. Research questions could address e.g. the following issues:

  1. How strong and active are the plans to relocate in the studied Belarus ICT-community?
  2. What factors are contributing to a) willingness to migrate and to b) considerations and choices of the relocation destination?
  3. What actions should the potential beneficiaries of the brain drain in order to grasp the opportunity?

In the current case of communication limitations, the informant group for such a research could consist of ICT-professional originated from Belarus and currently employed outside it, as well as the student communities outside Belarus. The study would naturally be of multidisciplinary nature, as it could address the social, business and technological viewpoints to cast a holistic light on the case.

Juha Saukkonen

The author act as the Senior Lecturer of Management in the International Business –program at the JAMK University of Applied Sciences, focusing in teaching and research in Technology Business, Knowledge Management and Futures Foresight

(contributing authors from Belarus prefer at this point not to be named)

References:

Agur, C., & Frisch, N. (2019). Digital disobedience and the limits of persuasion: Social media activism in Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement. Social Media+ Society5(1), 2056305119827002.

Dodani, S., & LaPorte, R. E. (2005). Brain drain from developing countries: how can brain drain be converted into wisdom gain?. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine98(11), 487-491.

George, J. J., & Leidner, D. E. (2019). From clicktivism to hacktivism: Understanding digital activism. Information and Organization29(3), 100249.

Haapamäki, J. (2017). Korkeakoulutettujen maastamuutto. Accessible at: https://tilastoneuvos.vipunen.fi/2017/01/11/korkeakoulutettujen-maastamuutto/ Accessed 17th August, 2021.

Heinämäki, J. (2004). Aivovuoto Suomesta (Master’s thesis, Aalto University). Accessable at: https://aaltodoc.aalto.fi/bitstream/handle/123456789/56972/master_Hein%C3%A4m%C3%A4ki_Jussi_2004.pdf?sequence=1 Retrieved 26th August, 2021.

Newitz, A. (2020). Digital disobedience. New Scientist247(3289), 21.

Tilastokeskus/Statistics Finland (2017):

Tilastokeskus/Statistics Finland (2020): Suomen kansalaisten muuttotappio vähentynyt kaikissa koulutusryhmissä. Accessible at: https://www.stat.fi/til/muutl/2019/02/muutl_2019_02_2020-12-21_tie_001_fi.html Retrieved 26th August, 2021.

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