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Brain-drain in Belarus: do dreams come true abroad?

According to a report on May 22 by TUT.by, 31.3% of Belarusians would consider moving permanently to another country. The study, conducted by Belarusian Analytical Workroom, surveyed 1,063 people and demonstrates that more and more Belarusians are willing to...

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A graduatiion ceremony at EHU. Photo: Kilimas Arts

According to a report on May 22 by TUT.by, 31.3% of Belarusians would consider moving permanently to another country. The study, conducted by Belarusian Analytical Workroom, surveyed 1,063 people and demonstrates that more and more Belarusians are willing to leave the country.

According to official statistics, Belarus is among the few countries in the Post-Soviet region with more people coming to the country than leaving. Nevertheless, sociologists point to a discrepancy between official statistics and reality.

The economic crisis, political pressure, and stagnation of education are just several reasons Belarusians are leaving the country. Neighbouring countries, however, are trying to attract more Belarusians. For example, on 30 May the Lithuanian newspaper Delfi reported that the amount of IT specialists arriving from Belarus is increasing.

Although they spend large sums on security and defence, the authorities do little to influence Belarusians to stay in their country. The alternative to this is for Belarus to adapt to brain-drain by stimulating an exchange of capital and improving conditions for young specialists.

How Many Belarusians Emigrate?

Belarusians continue to emigrate in search of a better life. The state's official statistical agency, Belstat, reports that around 13,000 Belarusians left the country in 2016. This is 3,000 more people than the year before. Meanwhile, in 2017, emigration has increased even more. In the first two months of this year, 1,839 Belarusians have already moved to Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Turkmenistan.

Despite the fact that the majority of Belarusians emigrate to Russia, many would prefer to move to Europe. Anastasia Barysava, a member of the National Academy of Science, told Thinktanks.by that ‘the flows of economic migrants have been re-directed from Russia to the EU countries’.

At the same time, official statistical information provides a dubious picture of the true number of emigrants. According to Eurostat, Belarusian citizens were among the top-10 countries receiving EU citizenship. Moreover, Rosstat estimates that 83,000 Belarusians immigrated to Russia in 2016. Thus, the real number of Belarusian emigrants remains unclear, especially given the number of illegal residents.

The economic situation in the country is triggering more and more Belarusians to leave. GDP continues to fall and the average salary (currently $377,8) has failed to reach $500 per month, as promised by the Belarusian government. Additionally, authorities continue to think up new taxes, such as the social parasite tax which taxes unemployment.

Why do Belarusian Students Emigrate?

Belarusian students constitute a large portion of emigrants. Due to cultural similarities and the absence of a language barrier, Russia remains the most popular destination for workers, including constructing workers and service-industry employees. The EU, however, attracts more students from Belarus. Despite the fact that Belarus has now joined the Bologna Process, educational flow from the country continues to grow. From 2001 to 2015, the total number of those studying abroad increased fivefold.

It seems that until the principles of the Bologna process are truly implemented, rather than simply formally, brain-drain will continue to grow. However, such changes are unlikely happen given the insignificant achievements of the country as a part of the Bologna process and the position of officials.

On 17 November 2016, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka told the Russian media at a conference: ‘We followed…the Bologna process to some extent…But a time may come when we will sacrifice the quality of our education in order to please the West. They come here and envy us: we have a good education’.

Besides shallow educational achievements, which is reflected in insufficient academic freedom and ideologisation, Belarus discourages a significant amount of students for political reasons. In February-March, during the protests against the social parasites tax, many students fell victim to threats and expulsion.

European countries attract Belarusian students via programmes and scholarships. For instance, Poland offers the Kalinowsky Scholarship to Belarusians and has simplified the process for obtaining the Pole's Card.

UNESCO reports that 37 out of every 10,000 Belarusian students study abroad. In comparison, in Russia the number is 3.4; in Ukraine it is 9.3.

Currently, around 35,000 Belarusians are studying abroad. They also have opportunities to obtain a number of international scholarships, such as German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the Swedish Institute's Visby Scholarship, and the Muskie Graduate Fellowship. Meanwhile, Belarus forces students to pay for missed classes and work for the state for at least two years after graduating; this often leads to protests.

Attracting Belarusians

Instead of economic reforms, the authorities are offering new taxes and full control over businesses. By wasting money on secret services and military parades, the regime is neglecting to invest in the development of the educational system.

Although Belarusians are less likely to take part in political protests than their neighbours in Ukraine or Russia, a significant amount of demonstrators appear to be young people. Suppression of activists leads to even more Belarusians leaving the country, as happened in 2006 and 2010 when oppositional activists and students protested the elections results.

Political analyst Aliaksandr Klaskoŭski believes that Belarusian youth mainly move to the West as they can't imagine ‘opportunities for self-realisation’ in Belarus, as well as for political reasons, reports gazetaby.com.

Since 1993, Belarus has maintained a system in which scholarship students must stay in Belarus for a certain amount of time to work off their 'debt'; this theoretically works to prevent brain drain. This compulsory work placement often means that students must work in small villages for low salaries. The unfavourable conditions of this two-year repayment scheme forces Belarusians to either pay for their education out of pocket or study abroad.

Belarus would benefit significantly from cooperation with the diaspora. The state, however, has failed to introduce a coherent and constructive policy regarding the diaspora. Successful academics, businessmen, and artists living abroad could promote the country and bring more money into Belarus. At the same time, Lukashenka seems to fear this strategy, as he perceives most representatives of the diaspora as belonging to the opposition.

Stopping the brain drain from Belarus is a challenging task, especially given that neighbouring Lithuania or Poland face many of the same problems, despite the higher quality of life there. Nevertheless, the state could adapt to brain drain. For instance, Belarus could promote the flow of capital from those who have left home by lowering taxes on the transfer of money from abroad, cooperating with the diaspora, and providing more educational opportunities for young Belarusians.

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Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik is an analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre and MA student at Stockholm University.
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