AP/File
Passengers at a railway station in Minsk, Belarus, stand in line to board a high-speed train on May 28, 2021. Many people have sought to leave Belarus to avoid the growing repression under authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in recent years. Now concern about war-related economic sanctions is adding to the emigration trend.

War’s economic fallout: A tech-worker exodus from three nations

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 8 Min. )

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Yuliya was traveling abroad from her native Belarus and faced a wrenching choice: An opponent of the war, she wondered if she should go back to one of the few nations actively supporting the invasion.

She and her fiancé decided she should shelter in Poland instead of returning home as planned. Her employer, a Western information technology firm, had already agreed she could work remotely from Warsaw. But that meant leaving behind her parents, an apartment full of possessions, and her rescue dog named Amy.

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes hoped-for gains from warfare have unintended consequences. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a damaging outflow of talented workers from affected nations. The effects could be much more severe for Russia and Belarus than for Ukraine.

From Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, a steady trickle of highly educated migrants or refugees has turned into a flood. Tens of thousands of often technically trained workers are fleeing war (in Ukraine) or political repression and the fallout from Western-imposed economic sanctions (in Belarus and Russia).

For those last two countries, this brain drain appears likely to impose long-term damage on economic growth and diversification. The implications for Ukraine are less clear. Depending on how the conflict evolves, the talent outflow may prove more temporary or be mitigated as the diaspora results in new flows of knowledge and investment between Western nations and Ukraine.

Yuliya remembers vividly the day Russia invaded Ukraine. She was skiing with her fiancé in Germany, booked to return to her home in Belarus. An opponent of the war, she wondered if she should go back to one of the few nations actively supporting the invasion.

“It was like crazy, crazy emotion, day and night, sitting at the table and checking the flight,” recalls Yuliya, who like many people in this story does not want her last name used for fear of government retribution. “I understood that I can’t go back, because it’s not safe.” 

But that meant leaving behind her parents, an apartment full of possessions, and her rescue dog named Amy.

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes hoped-for gains from warfare have unintended consequences. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a damaging outflow of talented workers from affected nations. The effects could be much more severe for Russia and Belarus than for Ukraine.

The couple decided she should shelter in Poland instead. Her employer, a Western information technology firm, had already agreed she could work remotely from Warsaw. She would wait a week to see how things turned out.

From Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, a steady trickle of highly educated migrants or refugees has turned into a flood. Tens of thousands of often technically trained workers are fleeing war (in Ukraine) and political repression or the fallout from Western-imposed economic sanctions (in Belarus and Russia).

They are taking refuge in a great arc of nations from Lithuania to the north, Poland to the west, and Georgia and Kazakhstan to the south and east. A boom for these host nations, it is a brain drain for Belarus and Russia that appears likely to impose long-term damage on economic growth and diversification. The implications for Ukraine are less clear. 

“All three countries have had a vibrant technology sector,” says Oleg Itskhoki, an economics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “These are the most skilled workers.” 

Of the three countries, only Ukraine has the potential to join those nations for which a brain drain becomes, surprisingly enough, an economic boon. 

“One of thousands” in Belarus

The loss of such workers is most pronounced in Belarus because the flood of emigrants began there even before the invasion. The 2020 election of Alexander Lukashenko to a sixth term as president – an election widely viewed as fraudulent in the West – set off a chain of protests and heightened repression that caused a growing number of highly skilled workers to leave the country. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February with President Lukashenko’s active support, Western companies began urging their Belarusian employees to leave the country.

“Belarus is, mentally, further along” in the brain drain process, says Paul, a senior director of an international IT firm with programmers in Belarus as well as Russia and Ukraine. “When we suggest they should leave, they’re much easier to convince [than in Russia or Ukraine]. We are trying to get people to understand the world has really changed and you might want to think about relocating.”

So far, the company has successfully moved a quarter of its Belarusian programmers out of the country. But the conversations are difficult, says Paul, who also requested his last name not be used for fear of repercussions against his Belarusian colleagues. Employees often ask if the company is threatening to fire them if they don’t move. The message is more nuanced, he says. “If you stay, it’s our intention to employ you for as long as we can. But we can’t be responsible for future sanctions” that nations, including the United States, may impose on production linked to Russia or Belarus. 

Even before the 2020 election and crackdown, many educated Belarusians were prime movers of protest against the regime.

“I always knew my country was a dictatorship,” says Kristina, who spent some of her college years in the West. Although she got an invitation to stay on and teach in the West, she went back home to use her new skills to help Belarus. “I was a little bit naive, thinking that at this stage of my life I’d rather change things from the inside.” 

It lasted a year. Her superiors, though supportive, told her they didn’t understand what she was talking about and asked her to make her conclusions more optimistic in her reports. 

Czarek Sokolowski/AP/File
Pavel Latushka (left), a Belarusian dissident in Poland; and Belarusian Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya (right), who came to Poland fearing reprisals at home after criticizing her coaches at the Tokyo Games, talk to journalists in Warsaw, Poland, on Aug. 5, 2021. Both Russia and the allied nation of Belarus have been seeing an outflow of people to other nations – which has accelerated due to the war in Ukraine and resulting economic sanctions.

When she protested the 2020 election, she was arrested and imprisoned for two weeks. “The conditions are unbearable,” she says. She was moved from cell to cell – the last one with 10 women in a cell. “They didn’t beat girls. At least physically, I wasn’t tortured in this sense,” Kristina says. But she describes seeing the guards brutally beat male detainees. “It not only affects you; it really affects your family. ... The toughest part, at least on my part, was to see the bad condition my mother was in” after Kristina’s release.

Now living and working in the West, she estimates that half of her high school graduating class has also left Belarus.

Belarusian businesses are also leaving. Igor has pulled his software development company out of Belarus and relocated temporarily to Kazakhstan. He’s scrubbed his website of all mention of Belarus and relocated about 40% of his Belarusian workforce to Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Poland, and hopes eventually to relocate 75% of them.

“I’m one of thousands of businessmen from Belarus whose companies are relocating,” he says. “We stand with Ukraine and we want to stop the war.”

The impetus for people to leave is often corporate as well as personal. Western sanctions aimed at squeezing Mr. Lukashenko’s regime are making it nearly impossible for Igor’s Western clients to pay him. One huge U.S. customer has dropped the firm completely because it’s Belarusian. 

Places like Almaty, Kazakhstan, have become so crammed with digital refugees that apartments are scarce. In Tbilisi, Georgia, rents have doubled since the war began.

The backdrop: shrinking populations

Formal asylum numbers following the Russian invasion of Ukraine are not yet available and do not capture the flight of high-skilled Belarusians to non-European Union countries. And they are tiny compared with the mass exodus of war refugees from Ukraine. For the last quarter of 2021, some 1,200 Belarusians and 1,370 Russians applied for EU asylum. By contrast, an estimated 4.3 million Ukrainians have fled the war, most of them to neighboring EU countries, according to the United Nations.

Nevertheless, the outflows from Belarus and Russia are significant, because the asylum-seekers represent some of these nations’ best and brightest, and also because the emigration is taking place in the context of long-term population decline in both countries. 

In five waves of emigration starting with the pogroms in the late 19th century, Russia could replace the lost population by natural increase. In the latest wave, which a 2019 Atlantic Council report dubbed the “Putin Exodus,” the nation no longer has that population buffer. Instead, a population decline of 20 million is predicted by the end of the century. By 2019, an estimated 1.6 million to 2 million Russians had left since Mr. Putin’s rise to power, according to the report, not quite the level of departures in the decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

However, the war in Ukraine appears to have sped up that exodus. Some 50,000 to 70,000 IT specialists have already left since the war began, the head of the Russian Association for Electronic Communications told Russia’s parliament last month. Up to another 100,000 could be gone by the end of April, he warned.

Long-term effects are economic – and political

The Putin exodus is likely to have serious economic effects long term. The Atlantic Council report cited talent outflows as one main factor behind Russia’s economic stagnation. (Other analysts point to the declining quality of Russian education as a bigger long-term problem than brain drain.)

So far, neither Mr. Lukashenko nor Mr. Putin has seriously cracked down on emigration, although Belarus instituted limits on ground transportation last year, purportedly because of the coronavirus. 

They may have their reasons for letting highly skilled workers go. Such workers “are more entrepreneurial and willing to push for political change,” says Giovanni Peri, director of the Global Migration Center at the University of California, Davis. Their departure may mean less political opposition at home. 

Even in democracies, such migrations can slow political change. When highly skilled workers left portions of Italy during an emigration wave a decade ago, “it was harder to see political change” in the regions losing those workers, Professor Peri says. “Leaving generates less change and more of a reinforcing cycle of stagnation, even from a political point of view.”

At some point, however, the outflow may become so large that neither Belarus nor Russia can continue to ignore it. “Clearly, that’s something that the Kremlin will be concerned about,” says Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “The reason I think that they’re watching very closely is that Belarus has lost a huge part of its tech community, which has left for Poland. ... And Russia doesn’t want that.”

For more than a decade after World War II, East Germany allowed some 2.5 million of its citizens, many highly educated and skilled such as doctors, to leave the country before it began building the Berlin Wall in 1961. Today, “it’s not feasible for any country to build a wall, but you can try to keep your citizens from leaving the country in other ways,” Ms. Braw says.

A potential plot twist for Ukraine

Ukraine is a different story. Its brain drain is perhaps far more temporary, at least as long as it remains an independent country. For one thing, under certain circumstances, brain drains can create a brain gain, even for a nation that’s losing people. “That effect has been documented all over the world,” says Michael Clemens, director of migration, displacement, and humanitarian policy at the Center for Global Development in Washington. 

Some emigrants return, sharing their expertise and capital to form businesses in their native land. Even if emigrants don’t go back, often their investment and remittances, knowledge, and products do flow back, research shows. 

Paul, the executive at the international IT firm, has observed something else: The diaspora from Ukraine so far has been matched by remarkable productivity – 90% of normal – among the firm’s workers remaining in the war-riven nation. 

“We were just shocked, flabbergasted. And then gradually we began to understand this sort of human dimension,” he says.

First, they need to make money. Second, making money is patriotic because it supports the Ukrainian economy. And third, “when you’re in hell, having a distraction is very valuable,” he says. “There’s a picture someone gave me of an employee sitting in a bomb shelter with a laptop working away. It’s an amazing picture.”

Nearing the two-month anniversary of the invasion, Yuliya, the professional from Minsk, is still in Poland and is applying for a work visa to continue working there until she and her fiancé can get married. Slowly, visiting friends have brought her clothing and other possessions across the border as they leave Belarus. She was able to find a Belarusian pet transportation service to bring her dog, but protests by anti-Belarus activists turned what should have been an eight-hour car trip into a three-day ordeal, with Amy kept in a cage the whole time.

Would she go back to Minsk if Mr. Lukashenko were no longer in power? “Definitely yes! It’s my homeland,” she says. “But I don’t know when it will happen and who will be the next president.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to War’s economic fallout: A tech-worker exodus from three nations
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/Business/2022/0421/War-s-economic-fallout-A-tech-worker-exodus-from-three-nations
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe