Updated at 14:54,16-10-2020

Inside the plot to topple Europe’s last dictator

Wired

Inside the plot to topple Europe’s last dictator
Credit: Getty Images / Kieran Walsh
On May 8, Belarussians awoke to rare news. Valery Tsepkalo, an architect of their nation’s tech industry, was calling for a revolution. “I dream of a country,” Tsepkalo wrote on Facebook, “where people own property. Where people openly, freely and without fear can express their opinion. A country where vulgarity and rudeness will be eliminated from the political leadership.”

“To wealth and prosperity!”

Thousands of people liked the post. Three months ahead of Belarus’ presidential election, Tsepkalo – a diplomat, entrepreneur, exiled apparatchik – was entering the race. Someone different would take on the incumbent president, Alexander Lukashenko. That is an unenviable task. In power since 1994, Lukashenko has moulded the landlocked Eastern European country of 9.5 million people into the most Soviet-shaped of any in the former bloc. Media is censored, dissent crushed at the hands of his KGB. Lukashenko won his fifth ballot, in 2015, with 84 per cent of the vote.

But a sixth may not be so easy. In the past few years, Lukashenko has grown weak, as the coronavirus crisis and strife with neighbouring Russia have clipped his wings. Lukashenko is still locking up some opposition leaders, but Tsepkalo isn’t so easy to handle. And Belarus’ burgeoning tech industry will play a bigger role than ever, in deciding whether “Europe’s last dictatorship” can be toppled.

Tsepkalo, a 55-year-old politics grad, began his diplomatic career as Lukashenko’s ambassador to the US and Mexico from 1997 to 2002. Enchanted by America’s tech scene, Tsepkalo founded incubator Hi-Tech Park (HTP) in a quiet corner of Minsk, Belarus’s capital city, in 2005. Local entrepreneurs, enticed by massive tax breaks, flocked. In 2009 Tsepkalo told Der Spiegel he believed a “Belarusian Silicon Valley” was emerging.

He was right. Today, HTP is home to a quarter of Belarus’ thousand-plus startups. Technology and science products now constitute over a third of the country’s exports. In the past five years, Belarus’ software exports grew by a staggering 20 times. EPAM Systems Inc., an outsourcing firm founded in 1993, has revenues of £2.3 billion and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Japan’s Rakuten bought Belarusian messaging app Viber for around £800m in 2014. Wargaming, maker of the hit World of Tanks video game series, has almost 4,000 employees globally.

All three passed through HTP. Today, alumni – like period tracker Flo, workflow solution PandaDoc and Apalon, a mobile app developer– are winning clients worldwide. Techies are Belarus’ new elite: they can expect to earn far beyond the average £325 (980 Belarusian rubles) salary. “Try to find a well-paid job here that’s not in high tech,” John Roseman, a Minsk-based software entrepreneur, tells me. Over 100,000 Belarusians work in technology.

They have often chafed with Lukashenko, a former farm director with a boxer’s arms and a bushy moustache, who won his first election in 1994 on a bid to roll back post-Soviet privatisation. Lukashenko called the Internet “garbage,” and entrepreneurs “lousy fleas.” He struggled to pronounce “iPhone”. But the sector’s success has forced him to U-turn, and in recent years Lukashenko has been ‘hello fellow kids’-ing an industry now worth around 6.5 per cent of his GDP.

“[The] creation of an IT state is our ambitious but reachable goal,” Lukashenko told bureaucrats in 2017. That year, he granted visa-free entry to citizens of 79 countries, and legalised transfers in cryptocurrency – a move designed to attract blockchain startups. Rich Belarusian tech entrepreneurs started travelling all over the world, bringing back enviable tales of democracy and free media.

But those who hoped this west-facing, English-speaking techerati could coax political change from Lukashenko were naive. That same year he declared a “law against social parasites” that fined the unemployed. Around 400 of the 700 people who took to Minsk’s streets to protest the law were beaten and bussed away. Baton-wielding cops raided the human-rights groups that reported on the violence.

When I visited Minsk that year, venture capitalists and founders said they were still hampered by delphic tax regimes and a system reliant on personal connections and bribes. Many of Belarus’ top tech firms quickly shifted their headquarters abroad.

“The economic power of IT does not make a difference in the way Lukashenko handles internal or external affairs in Belarus, because he’s not a consulting man,” Laksiej Lavoncyk, a civic tech expert, tells me. Tech was “popular, fashionable. It’s an image thing for him, a huge sales pitch.” Lukashenko was techwashing his dictatorship.

That year Lukashenko also sacked Tsepkalo as head of HTP. Tsepkalo – slim, bald, perennially besuited – then wandered the former USSR, teaching governments how to build their own Silicon Valleys. In 2018 he founded Prabook.com, a biographic library that looked a lot like Wikipedia.

On May 8 2020, Tsepkalo suddenly returned to Belarusian politics. The announcement that day, to run against his former boss, left little room for pleasantries.(He would not comment on the reason behind the breakdown with Lukashenko). A revolution of “personal freedom...has bypassed Belarus,” Tsepkalo wrote. “The businessman was criminalised and the citizen ‘sterilised.’” He has championed corporate connections, sounding more like a startup founder than a presidential candidate. Knowing how many hens a rooster can impregnate may not be a useful skill, Tsepkalo recently told a journalist - taking a swipe at his ex boss’s farming background.

“I would like to see the country as a normal European country, where the parliament will reflect the interests of the constituency of their people, not reflect the vision of only one person,” Tsepkalo tells me. “I would like to make Belarus a normal European country; a normal democratic country. My vision is to make Belarus the high-tech park,” he adds. “To make a good salary for the whole economy.”

He faces an incumbent as brittle as he has ever been in decades. Lukashenko’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been slow and tin-eared. He refused to cancel a huge World War II victory parade, and allowed Belarus’ Premier League to continue. When a famous actor died from the virus on March 31, Lukashenko commented on the man’s weight. The country has now registered over 52,000 cases and around 300 deaths - though experts agree the true figure is far higher.

Lukashenko has strangled media coverage of the crisis, refusing journalists access to hospitals and patients. Some have drawn comparisons with the Soviet politburo’s cover-up of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, whose fallout still prevents EU nations from buying Belarusian produce.

But Lukashenko’s censorship has been less successful online. A handful of banned pro-opposition sites are easily accessible via VPN. And Lukashenko’s tech-cheerleading means he can’t construct firewalls like his counterparts in Moscow and Beijing. Outsourcing comprises two-thirds of Belarus’ IT sector: it requires an open web. “They can’t [build firewalls] and keep this high-tech sector alive,” says Roseman.

Recession has already hit Belarus, reliant on oil and machinery exports, hard. Lukashenko joked morbidly that compatriots would come at him “with pitchforks” if the economy worsens. It will. The World Bank says Belarus’ economy will shrink by 4 per cent this year. Lukashenko’s refusal to enact a 1999 pact with Russia, which would unite the two countries under Kremlin rule, has worsened his ties with Vladimir Putin, who in December halted vital energy supplies to Minsk. Belarusians are overwhelmingly in favour of keeping their national sovereignty, and now fear a Ukraine-style Russian invasion.

All this should be fertile ground for Tsepkalo, whose message of economic liberalisation and personal freedom may chime with an electorate hemmed in by fiscal entropy and a bullying, autocratic neighbour. But the success of his pitch is far from evident. A recent poll showed up to 50 per cent of voters favour Victor Babariko, a philanthropist and former banker with close ties to Moscow, who, like Tsepkalo, supports sweeping privatisation and a two-term limit on the presidency. Just ten per cent went for Lukashenko. But even fewer chose Tsepkalo, who “comes across to many as a geek,” Grigory Ioffe, a professor of human geography at Radford University, tells me. “His candidacy is not top-notch in terms of popular perception.” Tsepkalo has maintained a high presence on the Web and social media. But just two-thirdsof Belarusians are online - one of the lowest rates in Europe.

Moreover, says Ioffe, techies do not exactly have popular appeal. “[They are] earning much less money than their colleagues abroad, but much, much more than their fellow countrymen. So they’re not that universally loved.”

Minsk may be the country’s powerhouse, with over a fifth of its citizens and 53 per cent of its wealth. But it is often cut off from the rest of the nation’s voters. That might hamper attempts to beat Lukashenko at the ballot box: his popularity in Belarus’ towns and forested hinterlands – where many call him “batka”, or “daddy” – is still strong. Journalist Iryna Vldanava puts it more simply: “Tsepkalo is a Minsk candidate, not a Belarus candidate.”

When I ask Tsepkalo about Russia, he tells me that creating a knowledge economy would reduce Belarus’ dependence on Moscow. But he was vague about the 1999 pact. “As ancient Romans say, you should follow treaties that were signed,” he tells me. “And I think it would be wrong if we would just ignore the treaty that we had with Russia.” When asked what that would look like politically, he laughed. “I need to talk to Russian partners about how they see the future of Belarus, and explain to them that we cannot live without good relations from the West,” he says.

Some even suggested to me that Tsepkalo was a plant by Lukashenko – an attempt by his former boss to tech-wash this year’s election with a younger, more liberal foil (Tsepkalo denies the claim). Both he and Babariko must collect 100,000 signatures by June 19 to get their names on the ballot - a task made more difficult by Belarusians’ hesitation to open their doors during a coronavirus pandemic.

If he does somehow reach that goal, Tsepkalo faces an even greater challenge. He may have created a tech industry almost from scratch, but beating his former employer in an election most expect to be rigged appears sisyphean. “People want change - and that’s a challenge to Lukashenko,” Vldanava tells me. “Whether he will give in, I really doubt. And that’s why I think the next couple of months will be really interesting.”

Updated 17.06.2020, 12:00 PM GMT: This article has been amended to remove a sentence saying that Valery Tsepkalo had rejoined the Belarusian government in early 2020. That was based on an incorrectly dated government release. Tsepkalo stopped working for the government in 2017.