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From Belarus With Love — Part VIII: “Seoul in the Centre of Pyongyang”

Series parts:

  1. From Belarus With Love — Part I: Schizophrenic EPO Policy
  2. From Belarus With Love — Part II: “Techwashing” an Autocratic Regime?
  3. From Belarus With Love — Part III: Apps From the Dictatorship
  4. From Belarus With Love — Part IV: “Software from Minsk” via Gilching and Rijswijk
  5. From Belarus With Love — Part V: From Start-Up to Success Story...
  6. From Belarus With Love — Part VI: “Big Daddy” Hammers the Opposition...
  7. From Belarus With Love — Part VII: The Post-Election Crackdown
  8. YOU ARE HERE ☞ “Seoul in the Centre of Pyongyang”

HTP Minsk from top
The Belarus High Technologies Park in Minsk played a significant role in the events which led to the massive anti-Lukashenko protests in the autumn of 2020.

Summary: In this series which explores the relationship between the EPO and the Belarus High Technologies Park we now take a look at this so-called "Seoul in the centre of Pyongyang"

The Belarusian autocrat Lukashenko is a former collective farm boss who seems to have an uneasy relationship with the world of modern technology. Back in 2007 he told journalists at a press event to which foreign media were not admitted that the Internet was "full of sites hostile to Belarus" and a law was needed "to end such anarchy".

But despite Lukashenko's misgivings about modern technology, two years earlier in 2005 he had been persuaded to agree to the establishment of a "High Technologies Park" in Minsk.

"During that time Tsepkalo became aware of a significant number of Belarusian tech entrepreneurs active in Silicon Valley and this made him ask why they should have to leave their home country to be successful."The HTP was the brain-child of Valery Tsepkalo, who served as Belarus ambassador to the USA from 1997-2002. During that time Tsepkalo became aware of a significant number of Belarusian tech entrepreneurs active in Silicon Valley and this made him ask why they should have to leave their home country to be successful.

In 2005, Tsepkalo convinced Lukashenko to agree to the creation of a special economic zone with its own extra-territorial tax regime for tech companies and their employees. The government donated a derelict building on the outskirts of Minsk and guaranteed a USD 300,000 loan to help get the project up and running.

"Software engineers at the HTP could earn about USD 1,600 a month, compared to average Belarus salaries of around USD 400."Tsepkalo was in charge of the HTP for 12 years and under his leadership it began to gain a reputation as the “Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe".

By March 2017, the HTP had 164 companies on its books, with more than 27,000 software engineers between them. Its activities accounted for around 4% of the country's GDP and were generating annual revenues of around USD 950m for the state.

Software engineers at the HTP could earn about USD 1,600 a month, compared to average Belarus salaries of around USD 400. Employment in the IT sector became virtually the only way a young person could achieve social advancement with an interesting job and a decent salary. Consequently, many able and intelligent people ended up working in the technology sector and Belarusian software designers succeeded in making a global name for themselves as high-quality, innovative developers.

"The Belarusian writer Victor Martsinovich described the situation as "Seoul in the centre of Pyongyang"."The relatively high level of income and connections to an international network meant that IT experts frequently had opportunities to travel abroad and to learn how business worked elsewhere, in particular in the developed countries of Europe and in the US. This had an impact on the cultural and political views of the employees themselves and, in many cases, it inspired an interest in improving the political situation in their home country.

Nevertheless, most of those involved in the IT sector tended to avoid direct political involvement and preferred to live as "internal emigrants" in a parallel world, barely coming into contact with the authorities and government structures. The Belarusian writer Victor Martsinovich described the situation as "Seoul in the centre of Pyongyang".

In 2017 Tsepkalo was dismissed from his position as Director of the HTP and was replaced by Lukashenko's former adviser on "ideological matters", Vsevolod Yanchevski.

At the time there were fears that having such a Lukashenko loyalist at the helm would lead to increased political interference in the affairs of the HTP. However, these concerns turned out to be unfounded and under its new management, the HTP more or less continued to be left to its own devices.

At the end of December 2017, a new Decree "On the Development of the Digital Economy" was issued. This decree extended the HTP's special extra-territorial regime until 2049 and also provided a formal legal basis for the free circulation of cryptocurrencies and the use of smart contracts.

In February 2020, Yanchevski played host to US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and told journalists that Pompeo's visit to the HTP was good sign for the development of business and cooperation between Belarus and the USA.

Vsevolod Yanchevski and Pompeo
In February 2020, the Director of the Belarus HTP, Vsevolod Yanchevski, received a visit from US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

However, the relationship between the Belarus IT sector and the political establishment was about to change dramatically.

In the next part we shall see how the long era of "peaceful co-existence" came to an abrupt end when some of those associated with the HPT started to become directly involved in political activities during the contentious Presidential election campaign of 2020.

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