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IT specialists caught in the crossfire of war

Tatjana Schweizer
March 16, 2022

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the information technology sector had been thriving in countries such as Ukraine and Belarus, drawing many young people to the industry. The war in Ukraine has changed everything.

Male IT specialist plugging in a fiber optic cable (symbolic picture)
Eastern Europe's IT specialists are looking for safety and decent jobsImage: Westend61/imago images

The Russian invasion of Ukraine hasn't brought the working life of Sergey Tokarev to a standstill. After fleeing his home town of Kyiv to find refuge in Romania, the young Ukrainian IT specialist has been busy day and night organizing safe hideouts for some of his staff who have remained in Ukraine to keep his business going.

"The IT sector is basically the only industry in Ukraine that's still up and running and garnering foreign revenue for the country," he told DW.

Before the war, information technology was a mainstay of Ukraine's economy, creating about 4% of gross domestic product (GDP). Following the Russian invasion in February, almost half of all businesses have ceased operations, inflicting losses to the tune of at least $100 billion (€91 billion) on Ukraine, according to an estimate by Oleg Ustenko, an adviser to President Volodymyr Selenskyy. Against the backdrop of mounting economic losses, keeping Ukraine's IT sector at least partly operational is proving ever more important.

What can sanctions achieve?

Western support

Quite naturally, though, the war is forcing more and more companies to operate in crisis mode. Bigger software companies have started to relocate parts or all of their business and staff to the western regions of Ukraine.

Smaller firms like that of Tokarev, however, are unable to find safer ground. Some of his employees, he said, are commuting between their work places and air raid shelters and are permanently fearing for their lives.

Working amid the war is next to impossible, he said, and yet many Ukrainian software specialists do everything they can to stay in business. This is because about 70% of them work as freelancers for Western companies, meaning they have to deliver if they want to earn money and secure a follow-up contract.

"Their clients, naturally, are concerned and are asking if their partners in Ukraine are still alive and able to finish the project," said Tokarev. But they are also supportive in many ways, he added, for example by making payments well in advance or even paying for days they couldn't work due to the war. Surprisingly, there's also no letup in fresh bookings from new clients, he noted. 

The building of the technology park in Minsk
Government-supported technology parks have made Belarus a hub of IT industries Image: DW/Alexandra Boguslawakaja

Collateral damage in Belarus

And yet, keeping one's business open is getting harder by the day in Ukraine. The government in Kyiv has ordered the general mobilization of all conscripts and reserve soldiers. Male citizens between 18 and 60 years of age are not allowed to leave the country which poses a severe problem for an industry that is about 75% male-dominated. 

Interestingly, the strength of the information technology industry in eastern Europe is a remnant of the former Soviet Union and its relatively well-organized and tech-focused education system.

Alongside Ukraine, information technology has been flourishing in neighboring Belarus in recent decades, where it contributed almost half of total growth at times. But in Belarus the pool of digital talent has been draining fast, especially over the past two years.

Following a fraudulent election in 2020, Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko launched a massive crackdown on his political opponents driving thousands of well-educated young IT professionals out of the country. Many of them found new employment in Poland and Ukraine.

In Ukraine, the Russian language, which is widely spoken in some regions, as well as similarities in culture and tradition, facilitated the integration of the Belarusian expats, who were even allowed to enter the country without visa requirements. According to official Ukrainian figures, about 3,000 IT specialists from Belarus have found jobs there since 2020.

Logo of the Imaguru startup hub
The well-known IT startup hub Imaguru in the Belarusian capital of Minsk closed its doors for good in April 2021Image: Bogdana Alexandrowskaya/DW

Moving on

Now, the Belarusians in Ukraine are again forced to pack their bags and leave the war-torn country in search of new employment. In the country of their origin, meanwhile, Lukashenko's support for the Russian invasion has triggered a second wave in the exodus of skilled tech workers.

Valery Ostrinsky is the head of the Belarusian Business Angels Network, a support group of IT startups seeking international funding for their businesses. "Being a Russian or Belarusian software developer is toxic these days," he told DW in an interview.

Within the global IT community, having a positive image was more important than presenting a profitable business case, he argued. That is why many companies were relocating out of Belarus as quickly as possible in order to protect their business, he added. He also said that charter flights to Armenia and Georgia were currently fully booked amid the exodus.

Making Ukraine a 'tech paradise'

Andrej, who didn't want to see his full name published, left his Belarusian home town of Gomel a short while ago. "Clients told us that they didn't want to collaborate with a Belarusian company anymore," he told DW.

The software engineer served a prison term in 2020 after taking part in anti-government protests. This barred him from access to many jobs, especially in state-owned IT companies. There had still been jobs in private firms, he said, but as they were now aiming to leave Belarus, employment opportunities were getting increasingly scarce.

"I didn't want to lose my job — that is why I quickly decided to pack up and move out," Andrej said. Now he lives in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, like many of his former colleagues.

According to Belarusian economist Lev Lvovskiy, his country's bad image is just one of the problems facing international firms active in the IT sector. Sanctions imposed on the Lukashenko regime were another major impediment, he told DW. At the moment, it's still difficult to assess the full impact of the tech brain drain in Belarus, he said, because many foreign firms had yet to come forward with relocation plans.

"Our prospects are somewhere between 'bad' and 'terrible,'" he said.

The outlook for the Ukrainian IT sector is far rosier, believes Sergey Tokarev, the Ukrainian startup founder. A number of international software firms are switching from Russian IT service providers to Ukrainian alternatives. The huge pool of talent in his home country coupled with the current global wave of solidarity makes for a perfect match on the road to success, he is convinced.

"Once the war is over, were are going to make Ukraine a tech paradise that'll become a genuine engine of growth for the whole country."

This article was originally published in German.