How Europe's last dictatorship became a technology hub
Over the past few years, Zyba has turned into an island in the middle of Minsk, the Belarusian capital -still mostly a sterile, utterly unfashionable city with long lines of Soviet buildings and people hurrying past, seemingly terrified of making any form of contact.
Many of those carousing belong to Belarus’s sprouting technology industry -young, savvy and forward-looking designers, bookish and shy engineers, and many others who aspire to belong. More than 30,000 tech specialists now work in Minsk, a city of about two million, many of them creating mobile apps that are used by more than a billion people in 193 countries.
One of the Minsk techies is Dmitri Kovalyov, 35, an artist who a couple of years ago worked for MSQRD, a smartphone tool that lets people superimpose various masks over their faces in selfie videos. In 2016, Mr. Kovalyov couldn’t imagine that his respect for Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting and environmental activism would get the company very far.But before that year’s Academy Awards, Mr. Kovalyov and his colleagues developed a tool for a mask that made people in video messages look like Mr. DiCaprio holding two Oscar statuettes.
Numerous celebrities tried it out, including on the red carpet, and even Mr. DiCaprio’s mother was in on the trick. When a journalist asked her about the app, she said her son had already shown her how it worked. Ten days after the awards, Facebook bought the company for an undisclosed sum.
One of the first masks the company developed was one resembling Aleksandr G Lukashenko, Belarus’s president, who has ruled for more than two decades.
Lukashenko’s mask featured his trademark comb-over hair and bushy mustache, but was not considered offensive. On the contrary, Lukashenko began to believe that the tech industry could become a magic wand to help him end the country’s chronic dependency on Russia.
Lukashenko, who once called the internet “a pile of garbage,“ began to utter improbable words for a former manager of a collective farm -about the need to develop artificial intelligence, driverless cars and blockchain technology, which allows multiple parties to keep shared digital records. His government has taken several steps to encourage the tech industry’s development, like granting visa-free entry to citizens of 79 countries, including all Western states, when entering through the Minsk airport.
Belarus produces top-level technical talent, an inheritance from its Soviet past, said Arkady M Dobkin, who immigrated to the United States in the 1990s and established a software company there.
Sergei Chaly, an outspoken economist and former government official, calls Belarus “a dying country with bitcoins.“
Vladimir Lipkovich, a popular blogger who made a career out of ridiculing Belarusian bureaucrats, said the only reason the tech industry had found some success in Belarus is that the government “cannot seize people’s brains“.
He joked: “If they want to capture an IT company, what would they get, computers?“