The avant-guarde of Belarusian hi-tech industry
Agreements concluded in May of this year between the Belarusian High Tech Park and Uber, along with the opening of an R&D centre for the Israeli company Gett, demonstrate the growing success of the Belarusian IT industry.
Dave Waiser, Gett’s CEO, compared Belarus to Israel in terms of its small domestic market for retail business, but big opportunities for IT export for worldwide use.
Over the past decade, Belarusian IT services have grown by almost 50, with export reaching $900m – a number which is growing at a rate of 20 per cent and currently constitutes 12 per cent of Belarusian export.
Out of the 1,000 IT companies in Belarus, only 24 belong to the state. The largest IT companies, which operate in Belarus’s most promising industry and do most of their business abroad, put continuous effort into ensuring the industry continues to grow.
While the authorities support the increasing contribution of the IT sector to Belarus’s declining economy, it is Belarusian IT companies themselves which play the largest role in boosting IT education, expanding the sector’s size and regional reach, and cautiously influencing changes in legislation.
High Tech Park – Belarus’s hub for IT
It’s been 12 years since High Tech Park opened in Minsk, after the president signed the decree ‘On High Tech Park’ in 2005. Before the park’s opening, Belarus’s IT export constituted $15.2 million.
In 2009, HTP had already reached $121.5m worth of export. In 2016 it reached $820.6 million, expanding its activities into the fields of nanoelectronics, mechatronics, data transmission, and other areas.
Currently, the park hosts 173 companies from 67 countries, producing 91% of its software for export and attracting $169m of foreign direct investment. Thanks to HTP, the export of Belarus’s IT services became the second most important contributing factor to the country’s current positive trade balance for foreign services.
The number of foreign companies entering HTP is increasing thanks to tax benefits and a pool of inexpensive and highly qualified specialists; this creates a perfect environment for outsourcing.
Four Companies with Belarusian roots (EPAM Systems, IBA Group, Intetics, and Itransition) are ranked among the world’s largest outsourcing companies in 2016 Global Outsourcing 100. Another ranking, SoftwareMag, includes EPAM, IBA and eight more HTP residents among the top 500 IT service providers.
Top outsourcing companies
EPAM Systems is the largest Belarusian IT company, registered in the US with 25 branches around the world. Arkadz Dobkin, a Belarusian immigrant to the US, founded EPAM in 1993. Today, EPAM employs 22,000 people, including 8,000 in Belarus, where the company has branches in all regional centres. With revenue of over $1 billion and IPO at the New York Stock Exchange, EPAM is the fastest-growing IT company in Belarus and among the fastest in North America. Over the past six months alone, the Belarusian branch of EPAM increased its staff by more than a third.
EPAM invests millions of dollars into real estate for Belarusian programmers, finances university training programmes, and runs start-up initiatives. Moreover, the company is listed among the winners of the ‘Best Exporters of 2016’ for its leading position in Belarus’s IT services export.
However, EPAM’s overall revenue structure shows that North America takes the largest share (59.2 per cent), while CIS receives 14 times less (4.2 per cent), and this gap is widening. Hence, most of EPAM’s revenue falls outside Belarus, the country with the most employees.
IBA Group, the third largest IT exporter and second biggest supplier to Belarusian market, is another major Belarusian outsourcing company. IBA owes its creation to the US company IBM, which established a joint venture with the Minsk Research Institute of Computers in the early 1990s. Today IBA is headquartered in Prague, while the Minsk-based office remains the key to the company. IBA has developed several projects for the Belarusian market, including an e-tax system for the Ministry of Taxes and Duties, a ticket system for public transportation, and budgeting systems for banks.
In August 2016, the media claimed that Belarusian police had detained IBA’s top managers. While IBA CEO Siarhiej Liaŭciejeŭ denied this information, he confirmed certain claims by national law enforcement agencies. Nonetheless, IBA, EPAM, and other top IT companies, such as Itransition, ISsoft Solutions, and iTechArt, remain among the top Belarusian IT service providers to this day.
Conquering the world with tanks and augmented reality
While the Belarusian IT industry largely focuses on services, product development continues to be the most profitable sector. Wargaming, founded in Minsk in 1998, is a primary example. Last week, the world’s fifth most popular PC gaming company held its 2017 Grand Finals in Moscow, gathering 12 teams to compete for a $300,000 prize. Officially registered in Cyprus, Wargaming garners international recognition for its game World of Tanks, played by 110 million users. The game turned the company into an international corporation.
Wargaming’s CEO Viktar Kisly became the first gaming industry billionaire from the CIS included in the Bloomberg index, which valued Wargaming’s business at $1.5 billion. However, since World of Tanks, no other game has had similar success. Stagnation of the business could have influenced the decision of co-founder Ivan Michnievič to leave Wargaming in 2014. While the Minsk-based Game Stream Studio continues developing new projects, recent games such as World of Warplanes and World of Warships have failed to take off.
Other fresher examples of Belarus’s IT development is the company Banuba Development, registered in Hong-Kong with a development centre in Minsk. Backed by $5m of funding from the Gutseriev family’s Larnabel Ventures and Viktor Prokopenya’s VP Capital, the team of 45 Belarusian programmers are currently developing augmented-reality-enabled mobile apps. Already boasting 11 US patents, Banuba expects to present its first application this year.
During Lukashenka’s visit to several IT companies, the president made clear that the state has given a green light to the development of the IT industry. Lukashenka praised the achievements of Belarusian IT companies, promising to expand state support for new projects.
The fact that Belarus already has EPAM and InterActiveCorp (IAC), which owns the HTP-registered mobile apps developer Apalon, shows that the right steps are being taken towards involving large corporations in Belarus’s IT sector. Nevertheless, further revenue growth requires a new legal system to support the IT product model and attract more public IT companies with traded shares on stock exchanges.
While Belarusian and Russia-oriented exports continue to shrink, the West-oriented IT industry is growing by leaps and bounds. The government supports Belarus’s high-tech achievements by asking for its 5 per cent share in GDP, while IT businessmen carefully push for reforms in economic legislation. As long as the interests of IT business and the government in making Belarusian economy more innovative coincide, HTP residents can expect production and revenue growth, as well as more IT corporations coming.
This article is a part of a series of publications on IT sector in Belarus supported by VP Capital.
Belarusian schools: modernisation or stagnation?
On 12 May, Alexander Lukašenka suddenly announced that starting in September, school children would start class at 9:00 am rather than 8:00. This reform would give children an extra hour of sleep. However, many maintain that the change would be just another formality, without actually improving the condition of school education.
Meanwhile, the increasing ideologisation of schools, the lack of funding, and low wages for teachers remain much more serious obstacles to Belarusian education.
The legacy of the Soviet Union is still obvious in Belarusian schools, and this factor hinders the development of general education. Instead of changing pupils' schedules, the authorities should focus on developing study programmes, guaranteeing more freedom for teachers, and opening schools up for civil society activism.
Preserving the Soviet Model
Belarusian schools still preserve many features of the Soviet education model. Textbooks on history focus on Belarus's Soviet past, devoting an inordinate amount of attention to the Great Patriotic War. Old-fashioned schoolbooks in other subjects need to be completely overhauled, as do testing and monitoring, believes Tamara Matskevich, Deputy Chairwoman of the Francišak Skaryna Belarusian Language Society.
What's more, the workload of pupils at Belarusians schools remains very high: This contrasts to many systems in other European countries.
Teacher status and salary is another post-communist remnant of the Belarusian school system. Since 2010, the wages of school teachers have declined from $341 per month in 2010 to $258 in 2017, reports Belstat, the Belarusian government's statistical agency. This number is much lower that in neighbouring Russia, where the average salary is $526 (Rosstat). What's more, the average salary of teachers in Belarus is still far from the $500 routinely promised by Lukašenka.
Another tradition the Belarusian school system has inherited from the USSR is the tradition of giving ‘gifts’ to teachers. As a member of a parents’ association of a Minsk school reported to Naviny.by:
We collect money for classroom needs twice a year for about 50 rubles (around $26 – BD) per year. I can name some of the expenses that we paid for: these are gifts for teachers for the holidays, matinees for children, and symbolic gifts for children's birthdays. Last year, we bought blinds.
As in Soviet times, when Russian was the main language of education, the status of the Belarusian language remains unequal. In the 2016-2017 academic year, only 13.3% of all pupils studied in Belarusian-medium programmes, compared to 86.6% who studied in Russian, according to a recent report by Belstat. Additionally, in some regions Polish schools regularly encounter obstacles created by the authorities.
This Soviet heritage, however, also has some advantages: nine years of schooling are universally obligatory. The literacy rate of adults in Belarus is 100% according to UNESCO.
Ideologisation of School Education
Ideologisation remains another problematic feature of Belarusian general education. To this day, pupils are required to join the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM): this is the successor of Soviet communist organisations such as the Young Pioneers or Komsomol . Members of BRSM receive academic and social benefits, including discounts at discos, certain stores, and hairdressing salons, reports the official web page of the organisation.
In December 2016, a representative of the communist party and former ideologist of the Minsk executive committee, Ihar Karpienka, was appointed head of the Ministry of Education. Sviatlana Matskevich, a pedagogy Ph.D., remarked to Belsat that this new leadership for the Ministry bodes ill for Belarusian education. However, according to Matskevich, the only silver lining might be that this could lead to such a complete stagnation of school education that modernisation would be inevitable.
Teachers also serve as tools for falsifying elections: school and university teachers often act as members of the election committees which count votes. The OSCE, PACE, and many independent international observers have refused to recognise Belarusian elections, pointing to the closed procedure of vote counting at polling stations.
A new reform and Mikalai Lukašenka
In a comment on the new reforms regarding changing the time school starts, Lukašenka mentioned that his son had expressed dissatisfaction with the idea. The name of Mikalai Lukašenka often appears in the Belarusian media, as he follows his father to many official meetings, including international ones.
However, due to the frequent absences of Mikalai at lessons, the media often doubt whether the younger Lukašenka visits school at all. Many believe that the president is preparing Mikalai as his future successor. During his last 'official' visit, which occurred during school time, Chinese journalists took a photo of Mikalai Lukašenka allegedly drinking champagne at the International Forum in Beijing.
According to Alexander Lukašenka, Mikalai studies in a small school with only 500 pupils. Observing his son's studies, the Belarusian president has many times expressed the need to simplify the school curriculum for children and shorten studying hours. In April, Lukašenka told Parliament: 'When we complicate the studying process' and introduce 'complicated textbooks at school, we discourage children from getting knowledge. Children start to fear'.
Modernisation of School Education
Low wages discourage people from becoming teachers. However, as they have been unable to improve working conditions, the authorities are suggesting two reforms. Starting next year future teachers will no longer sit a state examination (Centralised Testing), which is obligatory for all other disciplines. Moreover, on 31 May, the Ministry of Education announced the cancellation of mandatory reexamination of teachers which used to take place every five years.
Belarusian schools have already experienced certain reforms. In 2002, the Ministry of Education replaced the 5-point assessment scale with a 10-point one. In 2004, Belarusian schools changed the term of studies from 11 to 12 years. Later, after only four years, Lukašenka rescinded this reform, causing inconveniences for schools and pupils.
However, all these reforms, including the recent change of start time, seem to be little more than formalities. In order to enact real change, the state must seriously commit to tackling several problematic aspects of the system.
Rather than mobilising pupils to become members of official youth organisations, authorities could open more space for non-governmental and non-political initiatives. Cooperation with NGOs would develop international exchanges and local initiatives in which schoolchildren have the possibility to be proactive.
Belarusian schools would benefit significantly from improving working conditions for teachers. Paying them more and providing them more autonomy would help to modernise the Soviet-style education system in Belarus.
As Liavon Barscheuski, an activist and former chairman of the BNF party, told the publication Belarus Partisan: 'the educational sphere – , first and foremost, consists of human beings' and no reform can be effective as long as teachers struggle with paperwork and receive low wages.