For exiled Belarusian tech workers, a Polish business visa is a vital lifeline to escape oppression.

Belarus was once home to a technology industry centered around an IT park outside Minsk, which had its own tax and legal system.

The country also boasts excellent science universities, such as Radiotechnics and the Belarusian Technical University, a legacy of the Soviet era.

A job in technology was seen by locals as a way to earn relatively high wages in a country with a low cost of living.

But two years ago, after an election widely condemned as rigged by strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, hundreds of thousands of the country’s best and brightest took to the streets to protest in the spring and summer of 2021.

These educated professionals often had a liberal international outlook and were opposed to the regime. They felt that inspiration was with them and that their country could become free and democratic after being ruled by the same man for decades.

But after the election was followed by an indescribably brutal crackdown by the security forces, many realized that their best option was to leave the country altogether. *Kyril was one of them.

Being in Belarus knowing that you could be imprisoned because of your political position, your views or simply because of your dress, while taking part in the action and reading free newspapers every day was morally difficult and scary. [opposition coloured] White-red-white socks,” he told EuroNews Next.

Born and raised in Minsk, Kirill is a trained programmer and has worked as an IT infrastructure manager. He heard about the Business Harbor Visa, which allows Belarusian professionals to easily work legally in Poland and bring their immediate family.

55,000 commercial port visas

In the year The program, set up over a one-week period in 2020, is one way Poland has helped escape the regime, filling some of Poland’s 100,000 vacancies for programmers and investing nearly 180 million euros.

In recent years, Poland has seen political opportunities as a gateway between Eastern and Western Europe and has issued 55,000 business port visas as well as humanitarian visas to Belarusian opposition activists and election observers, who continue to be targeted by government security services.

The Central European country, which has won awards for military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine since the Russian invasion, has become the biggest single backer of the Belarusian opposition, with $53.6 million (€49.9 million) for free media, civil society and scholarships in 2021, as well as humanitarian visas for people fleeing Lukashenko’s security services as election observers. give away.

Kirill and his wife When you move in 2021, some speak Polish and the neighboring countries are culturally similar, so it seems like an obvious choice. But that didn’t make it any easier.

Many companies had not heard of his visa program and initially did not take Kirill’s work experience outside of Poland seriously. He had to work installing fiber optic cables to make ends meet. Eventually, though, with a Polish company on his CV, he started getting interviews – five in one month.

“After moving to Poland, my life has changed for the better. There are more options, development and democracy. I’m not afraid of my life here,” he said.

Although Kirill came looking for a new job, most came to the country with companies they already worked for.

In the year After Lukashenko’s move in 2020, when Western countries imposed sanctions on Belarus and later Russia invaded Ukraine with Belarusian cooperation, many international companies helped to relocate Belarusian tech workers from abroad.

During the two years of the program, the Polish Investment and Trade Agency provided services to more than 140 companies that submitted about 49,000 relocation requests, most of which were for Belarusians after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which served as a launching pad for Belarus. Because of the long border with Ukraine.

According to Justyna Orlowska, Deputy Secretary of GovTech in the Polish Prime Minister’s Office, the program will be expanded to include people from Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova in 2022.

Programmers earn more than doctors

*Alena, who works in application support, always wanted to leave Belarus and move west, but before the stolen election, her company was moving to other countries in the Commonwealth of Free States, a group of former Soviet republics still under Russian economic influence.

A big Rammstein fan, she always dreamed of living in Germany. When Poland introduced the Business Port Visa, she was one of the first to take advantage of the program, packing her bags and flying to Wroclaw in southwest Poland after moving to a western country from Belarus.

“The company just took care of the whole process, which made my transfer easier. I wasn’t that stressed. The adjustment period was very short for me. [I’ve been] It’s been over a year here and I still don’t want to go back.”

Another Belarusian citizen living in Wrocław is Ivan, who first arrived in 2021. Evan has a master’s degree in theology, but realized he could make a better living as a chameleon master training tech workers to think outside the box.

He got his visa quickly after showing that he had worked in the tech industry for two years.

“In Belarus, programmers earn more than doctors. Many are becoming doctors.” [junior software] testers. “I can’t judge them,” he said, noting that wages in Poland, which experienced the highest inflation in Europe last year, did not go up much.

By this time, almost the entire family had moved to Wrocław. Although he misses home and especially the jazz cafes of Minsk, you can’t put a price on freedom, he says.

*Surnames have been redacted at the request of interviewees.

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