Can Belarus Benefit from its Brain Drain?
Although Belarusians have enjoyed the same rights in hiring, pay and social benefits as Russian citizens since 1996, migration from Belarus to Russia more than tripled since 2010.
According to the traditional view on high-skilled migration or brain drain, the home country bears only negative costs as, after investing in their education, the best workers leave to contribute to the economy of more developed countries.
However, it is often the case that highly qualified workers can better fulfill their potential working abroad, increasing their salary, while sending generous remittances and signaling the home government to create more favourable conditions for people to stay. In the case of Belarus, the increased outflow of high-skilled workers puts at risk the country’s future economic and human development, if no adequate mechanism for cross-country collaboration is introduced.
Having learned its lesson, neighbouring Russia has already started investing in higher education reforms to foster a culture of entrepreneurship and build on the potential of the Russian diaspora abroad. Minsk should also create opportunities for educated Belarusians abroad to contribute to the local economy and increase its competitiveness by investing in collaborative research projects, creating joint business initiatives and fostering a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Between East and West
The case of Belarus is particularly interesting due to the country's location between two big job markets: the EU and Russia. Although EU countries offer higher salaries and a friendlier work environment, for the average Belarusian graduate holding a bachelor’s degree it is not that easy to compete with the EU citizens who are prioritised for job opportunities. At the same time, going to Russia does not require the knowledge of a foreign language, a work visa, dealing with border control or any other barrier that could prevent Belarusians from easily flowing to another country.
The attractiveness of Russia’s job market has grown dramatically since 2011. While Belarusians have enjoyed equal rights in hiring, pay and other social benefits as Russian citizens since 1996, after the presidential elections of 2010, which marked Lukashenka’s fourth consecutive term in power, and along with the corresponding financial crisis of 2011, Belarusian migration to Russia more than tripled.
From Brain Drain to Brain Exchange
Neither charging people for crossing the border nor hindering the emigration of educated people by other means can promote growth and development. If Belarusians cannot go to the West, they will easily leave for Russia, attracted by its higher salaries and broader range of career opportunities.
In an increasingly globalised world, a small country like Belarus may benefit from adopting policies that transform brain drain into brain exchange. However, the government has to be more flexible, allowing emigrants to contribute to the home country’s economy without a change of residence.
The results of the survey of more than 60 Belarusians currently residing in the U.S. show that 97 percent of respondents were willing to engage more actively with Belarus, given the existence of appropriate conditions, such as the introduction of dual citizenship, political liberalisation, and higher standards of living.
The story of Iryna, a 26-year old Belarusian illustrates this point. Having graduated from the prestigious University of Geneva with a master’s degree, Iryna spent a few years in Belarus working for a human rights NGO, bringing her skills and knowledge to serve her home country. Today, however, she is considering emigrating to the U.S. She explains, ‘… in Belarus I do not face the kind of competition that would help me achieve more in my profession. Currently, I have better prospects abroad, but regardless of my residence I want to be involved in short-term research projects with local universities and NGOs in Belarus.’
Policies that Matter
An ambitious Skoltech project, the initiative of the Russian government to reform the national economy, foster entrepreneurship and bring back the best human resources, has been often in the news since the inception of the project in 2011, both for good and bad reasons.
Some criticise the project for reasons ranging from embezzlement of money by corrupt individuals to the stereotype of not being able to make profit in Russia in fair ways. But the program has attracted bright students from Europe, Asia and North America and faculty members, including from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to work collaboratively on the project.
Furthermore, Skoltech has already attracted Russian researchers and professors who worked abroad to join the project. If the project lives up to expectations, it will jumpstart a brain exchange between developed countries of the West and Russia.
the government can encourage innovation and entrepreneurship and utilise the resources of talented Belarusians who currently live abroad Read more
Because the annual budget of Belarus is much more modest than that of Russia, Minsk cannot count on signing a multi-year collaboration agreement with a university of the MIT’s calibre. However, the government can encourage innovation and entrepreneurship and utilise the resources of talented Belarusians who currently live abroad.
A new strategy of the government should involve maintaining ties with the high-skilled Belarusians who left and provide them with flexible opportunities to contribute to the development and growth of their home country. Such contribution can take a variety of forms, from collaborating on research initiatives to launching businesses in Belarus.
Additionally, the government should build on its successful programmes such as the Belarusian High-Tech Park and introduce policies, such as tax exemption, that will enable entrepreneurs to choose Belarus over Russia or another foreign country.
Such measures will not only allow the country to benefit from the brain drain Belarus has been experiencing in the last decades, but will also attract high-skilled workers from the former Soviet Union, the European Union, and the United States to work for the future of a more prosperous Belarus.
This article won the first prize among three other articles in a recent Belarus Digest contest for the best article.
Lukashenka Helps Ukraine Get Closer to the EU
On 8 October, Prime Minister of Ukraine Mykola Azarov completed his visit to Belarus. The Ukrainian top-official flew to Belarus to find common ground with Alexander Lukashenka, a possible advocate for Kyiv in its relations with the Kremlin.
Alexander Lukashenka, surprisingly, has reacted favourably to the European aspirations of Ukraine and has not joined in in Moscow's economic war against Kyiv. Economic relations between Belarus and Ukraine are developing rapidly; trade over the last four years has grown 2.5 times. The two countries, however, still have economic claims against each other.
With Kyiv's support, Lukashenka wants to show his significance to the Kremlin and get from the Russian leadership even more concessions.
However, Minsk and Kyiv will not continuously play against Moscow. The countries are developing in opposite directions, so their mutual interests are not often aligned.
How Lukashenka assisted Kyiv
Belarus and Ukraine have rapidly intensified their relations. Prime Minister Azarov`s most recent visit was the third high-level meeting between the two countries in the last six months. This time Ukraine needed a meeting more than Belarus. As Russia tries to prevent signing of the Association Agreement with the EU, Ukraine is trying to come to an understanding with Belarus.
Despite the reputation of being the Kremlin`s vassal, Lukashenka has been showing respect towards the European aspirations of Ukraine. Lukashenka called the Russian reaction to Ukraine's signing of the Association Agreement too politicised and assured the Ukrainians that he does not see any issues in Ukraine's movement towards cooperation with the European Union. Moreover, Lukashenka said that even if Ukraine joins NATO, it will change nothing in the relationship between the two countries.
Alexander Lukashenka himself has removed one barrier to Ukraine's integration with Europe. Following the restoration of their respective independence in 1991, the two states had not agreed on their borders until a few months ago. Belarus refused to ratify the State Border Treaty and demanded from Ukraine repayment of a $134m debt.
It seems that Ukraine has not returned this loan, yet the parties have found another solution. This summer Belarus' head of state gave Yanukovych the ratified treaty. Thanks to this ratified document, Ukraine has solved all of its problems with its borders and may move forward with its visa liberalisation plans with the EU. Belarus will establish its first border demarcation sign with Ukraine in November of this year.
Belarus has also not been participating in the Kremlin`s war against Ukrainian products. At a time when Chief Sanitary Inspector of Russia Gennadiy Onishchenko “found” carcinogens in Ukrainian candies from the confectionary company Roshen, the Belarusian authorities stated that the Ukrainian candies met Belarusian standards.
Doing business with Ukraine
Lukashenka is not the kind of person to help someone without getting something in return. Some of the political support he is offering is largely due to the economic success of Belarus in its relations with Ukraine. This country remains the third largest economic partner of Belarus, and the positive trade balance of Belarus in its relations with Ukraine increased eight-fold from 2009 to 2012. Petroleum products and agricultural equipment remain the main strong points of the Belarusian export to Ukraine.
Foreign Trade between Belarus and Ukraine ($ millions)
In 2012 Ukrainian businessmen invested more that $350m in Belarus. Motor Sich's purchase of a controlling stake of the Vorsha aircraft repair plant remains the most substantial bargain reached between the two countries. During Azarov's visit, the Ministries of Industry of Belarus and Ukraine signed a roadmap for cooperation for 2013-2015.
Generally, the economic relations between the states are rather unclear, since each country is liable to launch a trade war against the other at any moment. A further point to consider is both countries' black markets, where each country competes with the other.
With the help of Ukraine, Lukashenka's regime protects Belarus' access to Ukrainian markets. Belarusian petroleum products occupy about 40 per cent of the market. Ukrainian authorities planned to begin an anti-dumping investigation against Belarus, but in the end decided not to open it. It could be speculated that the trade-off came in the form of receiving the official border demarcations or the political support of Minsk in Ukraine's dealings with Moscow.
Belarus and Ukraine will not unite against the Kremlin
This time around Lukashenka showed his geopolitical flexibility and did not openly oppose European integration of Ukraine. This is not necessarily a part of some anti-Russian policy, but rather an attempt to increase Belarus' own value to Russia. Even the possibility of the emergence of good chemistry between Belarus and Ukraine causes a nervous reaction from the Kremlin.
Political scientists often discuss a potential alliance between Minsk and Kyiv against the imperialist policy of the Kremlin. However, such an alliance today looks impossible. Each country has taken very different geopolitical paths, while economic relations have led to many conflicts, and the political elites of these countries are not well connected to each other. Just this year Lukashenka called the Ukrainian leadership "a lousy one.”
Belarus built the best political ties with Ukraine during its dialogue with the EU in 2008-2010. At that moment, Belarusian state media ceased slinging mud at former President Viktor Yushchenko and Lukashenka even had several meetings with him. However, that relationship quickly ended.
Russia has always been a third invisible party in relations between Belarus and Ukraine. Thanks to Ukraine's anti-Kremlin policy, Russia was often more willing to make concessions to the Lukashenka regime. Today, these relations are going through changes. If Ukraine signs this Association Agreement with the EU, Belarus will become the last bastion of Russia in Europe. This is precisely the reason why the Kremlin will do its best not to lose Belarus and its own imperial status by continuing to bankroll Lukashenka`s dictatorship.