Belarus’ 23-year President Doubles Down on Tech, as Domestic Confusion Reigns

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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has signaled his commitment to the country’s tech industry–just days after dismissing its leading light.

The autocratic leader, who this year will mark his 23rd year in charge of the former Soviet state, voiced his support for startups and IT, at an event staged at the Minsk office of Victor Prokopenya, founder of Cyprus-based VP Capital.

“Living in Belarus, it is necessary to build the future of a beautiful country,” said Lukashenko. “Yes to the future, but also to be honest and decent presently. (If so) you will be able to get everything we have agreed upon, in law.”

The remark was double-edged, sounding a commitment to technology that has grown in recent years, while warning entrepreneurs about their contributions to Belarus’ notoriously confusing tax system–something the government has tried, with varying degrees of success, to standardize of late.

So divisive have Lukashenko’s tax regimes been, that a recent “law against social parasites”, enacted this year, drew thousands to protest–something seldom seen on the streets of Belarus, whose human rights record have earned it the title “Europe’s Last Dictatorship”.

This week the government suspended that dictate–which punished those who could not prove to have worked more than 183 days per year–in order to “correct” it. But those inside Belarus’ tech industry say the government is stifling entrepreneurship.

“I think that it can managed, but that people have to make some special arrangements,” one tech worker tells Red Herring. “It’s not so easy like it was a year ago.”

The industry will not have calmed, either, by reports its chief tech professional, Valery Tsepkala, was fired from his role as head of Belarus’ High-Tech Park. The move surprised insiders, as Tsepkala has been one of the nation’s most vocal champions of building a tech hub in Belarus akin to Silicon Valley.

“Registration of companies got better, but as of the rest it is still a nightmare,” consultant Laksiej Lavoncyk says of Belarus’ current system. “What is worst, you need to have an informal network of contacts to run business after it grows above some threshold, which involves informal payments or concessions. It is a kind of corporate social responsibility which is Belarusian-forced.”