Entrepreneurship in Belarus
Background & History
Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, with Russia to its east and north east, Poland to its west, Latvia and Lithuania to its north west and Ukraine to its south. In terms of land-area it is the thirteenth largest country in Europe with a land area of approximately 200000 square kilometers, and twentieth most populous in Europe with a population of approximately 9.4 million. Minsk is the capital and the largest city in Belarus.
The current borders of Belarus were formed in 1939, prior to which it was much larger in land-area, losing most of its land to the neighboring countries, during Russian Revolution, the Polish Soviet war, and the Civil war. Belarus was ruled by various states and was part of the Soviet Union, gaining its independence on 25th August 1991. The government is authoritarian, ruled by a President and the National Assembly. It is known to be authoritarian due to President Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian style of leadership since 1994.
Most media outlets describe Belarus as “Europe’s last dictatorship”. Having won the elections for the 6th time, President Lukashenko faces protests internally and also globally, with Russian and EU leaders warning of interfering in its internal affairs, neighboring Lithuania and Poland providing support to the opposition parties and imposing of sanctions by the EU and the USA for rigged elections and political oppression.
Belarus is the world’s 72nd largest economy by GDP and 37th as per the World Bank’s Doing Business 2019 ranking. Belarus was one of the most industrially developed states at the time of dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, since the dissolution, the government has maintained control over key industries and discouraged large scale privatization. Russia is its major trading partner in terms of exports and imports of goods and services.
The main products exported by Belarus are petroleum oils other than crude, mineral or chemical potassium fertilizers, cheese and curd, motor vehicles for the transport of goods, petroleum oils. The IT sector contributes only 5% of the total GDP and 3.25% of total exports. Moving the economy that is less dependent on oil based revenue is a challenge. The economy is influenced by both internal crisis and by external imbalances with Russia, Ukraine and the European Union.
Entrepreneurship and Startups
Although the government likes to have control over major commercial enterprises, President Lukashenko has encouraged entrepreneurship. In 2005, he established an economic safe haven in High-Tech Park (HTP). Approximately 200 companies, 80% of them IT concerns, generate revenue of €800 plus million and are shielded from corporate income taxes. Some noted HTP alumni are: EPAM Systems, a software maker and the first Belarusian company listed on the New York Stock Exchange; Viber Media, an instant messaging and VoIP app acquired by Japanese retailer Rakutan; MSQRD, a social app bought by Facebook; and AIMatter, a mobile photo neural network snapped up by Google.
Great Stone is the brainchild of Kirill Koroteev a multi-billion-dollar joint venture between Belarus and China, which owns 68%. At 91 square km, Great Stone is the nation’s largest economic free zone; resident companies in electronics, chemicals, biomedicine, new materials, and engineering don’t pay income, property, and land taxes or customs duty on equipment imports.
With the attractive reforms to encourage entrepreneurs to startup in the special economic zones, entrepreneurs still prefer to work independently without any government support as they find that the government support is more like an interference that hinders their working styles, operations and growth. Ivan Shumsky, director and cofounder of Regula, which makes devices to authenticate documents, securities, and banknotes, says – “The main thing we ask of the state is not to interfere.” Imaguru a startup hub coworking space since 2013 in Belarus is run independently without government support, and they find it better to face the challenges in finding partners for running their events and the space than to have any government support. Having helped approximately 300 startups and attracting over 100 millions dollars in investment, Imaguru has had to shut down its center recently, due to its lease termination, however that story is a face off, and the events are probably led by political interference. The company plans to continue its activities in digital or online mode.
Considering the global pandemic and the local economic environment in Belarus, the Tech sector is set to attract stronger growth going forward. The Government must extend undue support towards developing Entrepreneurship wholistically, which will help in creating a stable economy and a better image of the country.