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The Last Business Model of the De-ditigitalized Minsk Dictator

Scanpix“/ITAR-TASS

Before describing Aliaksandr Lukashenko’s new migration business model, let me remind you of another business model he has already lost.

It should be recalled that Alexsander Lukashenko quietly, jealously, and painstakingly, with the help of Chinese investment, built up the Belarusian information technology (IT) sector, and it developed successfully. The initial impetus was the establishment of the High Technology Park (HTP) in 2005 by the presidential decree, and in 2014 the sector gained further momentum when HTP residents were granted additional benefits, such as exemption from corporate taxes.

In 2019, more than 1,000 companies with 58,000 employees have already registered in the Park. The IT sector accounted for 6.2% of gross domestic product (GDP) of Belarus in 2019 and 7.6% in January 2020. Around 80% of Belarusian IT exports went to America and the UK, and the US business weekly The Wall Street Journal called Belarus ‘the Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe‘.

One IT professional generates around $100,000 of added value per year, and the influx is good for the reputation of the country. In its best year, IT sector of Belarushas already earned more than the agricultural sector of the country.

As the Belarusian public rose up after the stolen presidential elections last August and the Minsk regime resorted to unprecedented terror, IT companies actively joined the protests. Thousands of IT employees published an open letter in August 2020, accusing the Belarusian regime of escalating the climate of fear and violence and threatening to flee their homeland.

The top professionals threatened to vote with their feet, while the pragmatic neighbours saw a chance for themselves. The Polish government offered Belarusian IT professionals to move to Poland, activating the ‘Poland Business Harbour’ programme with grants of between 1 and 4 million zlotys, assistance in securing an office, transporting ploughmen, etc.

On 4 October, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky signed a special decree on attracting Belarusian IT specialists, and dozens of Belarusian companies in this sector have relocated to Ukraine as part of the ‘IT Relocate Belarus’ project.

In Lithuania, the telecommunications company Bitė has started working on attracting Belarusian IT companies in parallel with the authorities, promising to provide free communication services for 3 months to all companies in the sector moving their operations to our country. And so on and so forth.

According to the daily Belorusskie Novosti, Minsk has lost more than 5% of its GDP due to the retreat of technology companies, even though the Belarusian government planned to increase the contribution of the digital economy to the GDP structure of the country to 15% by 2025.

After unprecedented repression, Minsk’s dictator has “discovered” a new way to “boost” GDP

According to Pavlo Latushko, former ambassador of Belarus to Poland, former Minister of Culture of Belarus and currently Head of the opposition National Anti-Crisis Board in exile in Poland, the algorithm of the migrant ‘business’ works like this. Suppose a passenger liner arriving in Minsk has 200 passengers. Of these, 30 ‘ordinary’ passengers go through the usual border and customs procedures, while the remaining 170 are met by representatives of the Belarusian border service and a tourist company for ‘special’ clearance.

Those who do not have visas are immediately accommodated in hotels and sanatoriums all over the territory of the country and then escorted by the Belarusian KGB, border guards or internal affairs officers to the border of what used to be Lithuania or Latvia, but is now Poland.

For those without visas, they are available at consular posts for a single-entry visa for EUR 180. If a group visa is applied for, the cost per person is reduced to EUR 30.

According to Pavlo Latushko’s sources in Belarus, it is also a common algorithm for a tourism company to take 180 euros from an Iraqi citizen, then process him/her for a group visa for 30 euros, and pocket 150 euros. In this way, hundreds of thousands of effectively ‘black money’ can be raised in a week.

There are 13 travel agencies serving migrants in Belarus, with the state-owned Centrkurort, which is under the administration of the President of Belarus, ‘laying the foundations’. Many of the companies were set up just for this ‘project’ and are therefore de facto they are for one day. By the way, a significant number of them are founded by Iraqi citizens.

Everyone involved in the ‘business’ chain is well aware that the final goal is to reach the border with the European Union (EU) and to cross illegally at places not designed for that purpose. And the migrants understand that they have come to Belarus not to admire the country, but to do something illegal. They probably also realise that in Belarus they are being turned into something akin to a living commodity from the days of slavery.

Zamir, an Iraqi Kurd who came with his family of 15, told Svoboda on 14 November that they had been promised a passage in 15 days, even though the family had already been renting a room for a month in Minsk hotel Jubiliejnaya at a cost of a hundred dollars a night.

Since the room could not accommodate 15 people, the children slept there, while the rest of the family slept on benches near the hotel. Zamir said he realised that there was little chance of crossing the border, but he was not thinking of returning to Iraq, as there was no money for that. It is just a matter of luck.

Belarusian businessmen make money from the migrants – they buy tents, food, etc. at markets, and some pay taxi drivers EUR 300 to take them to the border.

At the same time, on 11 November, a 27-year-old pregnant Iraqi woman was found by border guards without outwear and shoes. They took her to the border village of Poplavci, called an ambulance, and doctors at the hospital pronounced that the foetus was dead after an examination. Nine deaths have been recorded in Belarus on the border with Poland until 12 November.

According to Igor Yakovenko, a Russian journalist, former secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists and member of the Duma, both Alexander Lukashenko and President of Russia Vladimir Putin need dead bodies on the Belarusian-Polish border in order to stimulate the chorus of those who accuse Poland and Europe of betraying the humanist ideals.

Ilya Ponomariov, a former member of the Russian Duma and now a Ukrainian businessman, adds: this is a great opportunity for Vladimir Putin to talk again about the humanitarian crisis, the West’s ‘double standards’, etc., and the Russian President has the full benefit of the current situation, with Alexander Lukashenko being pressed up against the Kremlin.

Alexander Lukashenko’s initial aim was to ‘sell’ the drastic picture of the migrant influx to the West so that the EU would start talking to him as a legitimate president. It is not Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who de facto won the elections, but he, Alexander Lukashenko, who is the President. So that there is some kind of negotiating track, and the dictator is a master negotiator.

However, avoiding the main issue with Belarus – the war on its own society, where the worst repression since the Second World War – 40,000 prisoners, almost 1,000 political prisoners, unsolved murders, torture, etc. – has been launched and is still going on, for the sake of holding on to power in a country in the middle of the European continent.

The Belarusian opposition and Pavel Latushko personally want the West to declare Alexander Lukashenko a terorist, because that would be a fair and civilised legal position to take against a dictator who is committing crimes against both his own citizens and the people of other countries.

In any case, Alexander Lukashenko will not abandon the EU’s algorithm of attacking migrants, and Pavel Latushko says he sees Lithuania as the next target of the Minsk regime. There may be a tactical pause in the Belarusian dictator’s personally devised scenario, but the human factor cannot be ruled out – in drastic circumstances, people may simply not be able to stand it anymore and may burst.

Especially when, in the worst scenario, weapons will be transferred to Belarus to ‘stop’ the conflict, as the Belarusian KGB seems to be doing from Afghanistan via Tajikistan. For example, weapons for the Kurds to take revenge on the Polish military. The Belarusian dictator himself has announced the supply of arms to Belarus, but from the warring east of Ukraine, Donbas.

On 16 November, on the Polish TV channel TVN Pavel Latushko stated that he had information about groups of up to ten Iraqis and up to ten Afghans being trained by the KGB under KGB supervision at the base of the special task force of the Opsa Border Troops in the Vitebsk region.

The Minsk regime is not engaged in some unprecedented innovation. Vadim Mojeiko, an analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), recalls the 2018 World Cup in Russia, after which migrants from Africa also tried to enter the EU through Belarus. Minsk locked them up in isolation cells and held them until they could identify their close contacts in their home countries. Then it contacted them through the representations and demanded money for the return tickets of their relatives, while the migrant was further held in the insulator room.

It jus demonstrates the ‘ease’ with which the Minsk regime is ready to exploit the migrants for its own ends, completely ignoring their interests. On the other hand, if it allows itself to treat its own citizens in a draconian way, some migrants from third countries… Nothing personal, just business.

That’s a small detail that remains after the de-digitalisation. Because/when human life is also a minor thing to the Belarusian dictator.

Arūnas Spraunius

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