Updated at 18:30,22-11-2017

How Europes Last Dictatorship Became a Tech Hub

By IVAN NECHEPURENKO, The New York Times

How Europes Last Dictatorship Became a Tech Hub
The company Wargaming employs some of the more than 30,000 tech specialists now working in Minsk, Belarus. Credit Siarhei Hudzilin for The New York Times
On Friday nights, Zybitskaya street or simply Zyba, as locals call it turns into a vast party scene, filled with hipsters in bright shirts, tight dark jeans and black-rimmed glasses, showing how they can be carefree in a country that has been labeled the last dictatorship of Europe.

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 dominating Soviet buildings and people hurrying past, seemingly terrified of making any form of contact. On Zyba, a crowd of convivial youngsters migrates from one little bar to another, drinking Jack and Coke, smoking endlessly.

Many of those carousing belong to Belaruss 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, according to the local government.

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.

How Europes Last Dictatorship Became a Tech Hub

A popular Minsk bar, Kaljannaja No. 1, that forms part of the citys social scene. Credit Siarhei Hudzilin for The New York Times

In 2016, Mr. Kovalyov couldnt imagine that his respect for Leonardo DiCaprios acting and environmental activism would get the company very far. But before that years 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. DiCaprios 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.


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I like what Leonardo does, how he acts and how he tries to preserve the planet, Mr. Kovalyov said recently of the actor, who won that years Best Actor award. I was rooting for him.

Ten days after the awards, Facebook bought the company for an undisclosed sum. The founders, whose average age was about 25 at the time, moved to London and the United States. Together with some of those co-workers, Mr. Kovalyov is developing a new Minsk start-up, AR Squad, which creates augmented reality content.

One of the first masks the other company developed was one resembling Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, Belaruss president, who has ruled for more than two decades. He is prone to publicity stunts like picking potatoes at his estate or taking his teenage son, Nikolai, commonly referred to as Kolya, to sit at international meetings in a military uniform.

How Europes Last Dictatorship Became a Tech Hub

Dmitri Kovalyov, an artist in Minsk, helped develop a tool that lets people superimpose various masks in selfie videos. Credit Siarhei Hudzilin for The New York Times

Mr. Lukashenkos mask featured his trademark comb-over hair and bushy mustache, but was not considered offensive. On the contrary, Mr. Lukashenko began to believe that the tech industry could become a magic wand to help him end the countrys chronic dependency on Russia.

Creation of an IT state is our ambitious but reachable goal, Mr. Lukashenko said at a gathering of lawmakers and bureaucrats this summer. This will allow us to make Belarus even more modern and prosperous and will let Belarussians look into the future with confidence.

Mr. 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 industrys development, like granting visa-free entry to citizens of 79 countries, including all Western states, when entering through the Minsk airport. Mr. Lukashenko also wants to lift restrictions on currency transfers to encourage venture financing for start-ups.

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.

How Europes Last Dictatorship Became a Tech Hub

The Minsk office of Viber, the call and messaging app, whose space is in a former industrial zone that has gentrified. Credit Siarhei Hudzilin for The New York Times

Today, Mr. Dobkin is the chief executive of EPAM, which does programing for the worlds leading tech companies and is considered one of the fastest-growing public tech companies in the world.

EPAMs headquarters is in Newtown, Pa., but its main development hub is in Minsk, where more than 6,000 of its technology specialists work.

I think it was the absence of oil that made Belarus do this, said Mr. Dobkin, 57. Here, universities produce more highly qualified specialists than the internal market needs.

Many locals say the governments talk about growing as a tech hub is a comfortable distraction in a country that heavily depends on Russia for cut-rate fuel and political patronage.

Sergei Chaly, an outspoken economist and former government official, calls Belarus a dying country with bitcoins.

How Europes Last Dictatorship Became a Tech Hub

Employees at Wargaming, whose game World of Tanks has more than 200 million registered users, including the Belarusian presidents son. Credit Siarhei Hudzilin for The New York Times

Yevgeny 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 peoples brains. He joked, If they want to capture an IT company, what would they get, computers?

Politics doesnt seem a big concern for many in the tech crowd, even if young political activists use group chats on the call and messaging app Viber an Israeli company whose development hub is in Minsk to coordinate activities and plan rallies.

Mr. Lukashenkos son is a fan of World of Tanks, a multiplayer online game developed in Belarus in which people fight in tank battles. With more than 200 million registered users across the world, it is one of the top 10 games in terms of total digital revenue.

Tanks have an important cultural meaning for Belarus and other former Soviet states, where almost every family has an ancestor who fought in one.

He plays tanks, but this is controlled, Mr. Lukashenko said of his son at a televised meeting with schoolteachers.

One hour for tanks, 1.5 hours for music, the president added, explaining how he controls his sons time spent on the game. Two hours for tanks four hours for music.

Four hours is difficult, Mr. Lukashenko said, so he doesnt play for longer than one hour.