Latvia, Lithuania race ahead in bid to attract Belarusian IT companies ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Hundreds of people gathered to form a human chain in Tallinn to support Belarusians.
Hundreds of people gathered to form a human chain in Tallinn to support Belarusians. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

At the beginning of September, daily newspaper Eesti Päevaleht (EPL) wrote that while Lithuania and Latvia are working hard to attract IT businesses from Belarus, the 'digital nation' of Estonia is not. ERR News has looked deeper into the issue.

Since the Belarusian presidential election on August 9 and state forces' violence that followed it, the three Baltic states have emerged as the loudest voices in the EU in calling for change, and offering support to the Belarusian people.

The three states have agreed to implement sanctions against 30 officials and to keep the issue in the public eye. Estonia has even raised the situation at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), where it holds a non-permanent seat.

However, while Latvia and Lithuania have rushed to offer Belarus' flourishing IT sector relocation of companies and workers, Estonia does not seem to publicly be making the same sort of offers.

EPL wrote on September 1 (link in Estonian) that the Estonian government and state agency Enterprise Estonia (also known as EAS - ed.) are not doing anything special to attract Belarusian IT businesses and staff who want to leave the country, due to the ongoing unrest after the August 9 reelection of Alexander Lukashenko. IT Businesses have been raided and the internet turned off to try and hamper protesters.

In comparison, Latvia and Lithuania are advertising "fast-track" options to companies to relocate and simplifying visa processes for workers.

A statement issued by Enterprise Estonia quoted director Raido Lember as saying the agency is working with the Estonian embassy in Minsk, which has received more inquiries from local IT companies and interest in Estonia.

"In cooperation with the embassy, ​​two Belarusian IT companies have approached Enterprise Estonia, to which we have made value propositions," he said.

"Enterprise Estonia makes value propositions to companies for which there is a real possibility that they can create new well-paid jobs in Estonia. When bringing in foreign investments to Estonia, caution and certainty are required that these companies create added value for our country."

So far, 20 companies have expressed an interest in moving to Estonia, EPL wrote. 

ERR News asked the Ministry of Interior if Estonia is going to make applying for a visa easier than it currently is for Belarusians who want to leave the country.

Head the of Citizenship and Migration Policy Department Ruth Annus said there are no exceptions based on nationality in the visa application process provided by the Aliens Act.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment on the subject, instead referring ERR News back to the Ministry of Interior and Enterprise Estonia.

To ERR News' knowledge, no relocation plans or offers of help to the Belarusian IT industry have been made publically, or reported in the media.

At the end of August, 30 social and cultural figures published an open letter in EPL calling on the government to offer more help to Belarusians and mentioned supporting the IT industry.

What have Latvia and Lithuania done to attract IT companies?

Latvia and Lithuania are both actively looking to attract companies and their Enterprise Estonia equivalents have been vocal about the services they are offering.

Latvia is offering a "fast-track visa system" for businesspeople in Belarus to relocate to Latvia and bring their businesses with them, the Latvian Investment and Development Agency (LIAA) has said.

This was kick-started after the Latvian Minister of the Interior Sandis Girgens issued an invitation for businesses to relocate their operations to Latvia, LSM reported.

Spokeswoman for the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia Diana Bogrova told ERR News her agency said so far has provided public consultations to "more than 100 Belarusian companies that are seriously considering the possibility of relocating their operations to Latvia".

She said: "10 companies have already decided to partially or completely relocate their operations to Latvia." Each case is evaluated separately.

On Tuesday Latvia's Ministry of Economics announced 12 companies had decided to relocate to the country.

Last week Lithuania published its relocation guide, promising a three-day relocation if more than 20 jobs could be created in Lithuania. LRT English wrote: "The main challenge now is to streamline migration procedures, including allowing remote visa applications."

"We also shouldn't forget the questions of relocation and integration, especially in the cases when [the people] consider moving with their families," Invest Lithuania told the website.

A spokeswoman for Invest Lithuania told ERR News: "Currently, we are in contact with around 20 companies."

The Lithuanian government has also approved a support package which includes aid for victims of repression, treatment and rehabilitation, support for science and studies, civil society initiatives, media, high-value-added businesses, legal assistance and consultations, facilitated procedures for issuing national visas to Belarusian citizens.

On Monday, LRT English reported 60 companies and 2,000 workers are interested in moving to Lithuania, although legal issues are holding up the process.

Raik: Not surprising Lithuania has taken the lead

Kristi Raik. Source: ERR

Head of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute Kristi Raik said she did not know why Estonia is not taking a more active role in attracting IT companies, given the human rights aspect of the issue.

She added: "This is something I'd like to ask the Estonian government: Is it ready to accept political refugees from Belarus? It's a clear case of political repression and brutal human rights violations in a country very close to Estonia, so I think offering refuge to those fleeing violence and repression should be one way to help Belarusians."

She said it was not surprising that Lithuania had taken the lead because it "...has always been the most active and vocal among the three Baltic states in supporting the Eastern Partnership countries".

Raik explained: "Belarus has special importance for Lithuania as a neighbouring country. There were a number of Belarusian opposition activists residing in Lithuania even before the current crisis; also the European Humanities University was moved from Minsk to Vilnius in 2004, when president Lukashenka forced it to close in Belarus. Lithuania's previous close contacts with Belarusian civil society and opposition are helpful now for finding ways to support the Belarusian people."

When asked if Estonia has been slower to react than the other two Baltic nations, and if this is due to its position on the UNSC, Raik said: "I wouldn't say Estonia has been slower to react. It does not have the same level of contacts and ties to Belarus as Lithuania does, but in principle, it has been taking the same positions. The three Baltic states imposed sanctions on Belarusian authorities together, acting much faster than the rest of the EU."

Regarding the UNSC, she said: "Raising the situation of Belarus at the UNSC has huge symbolic importance, and was a strong step by Estonia. The UNSC is the highest international body to discuss matters of international security, and even though its members often disagree – like in the case of Belarus – it is a visible venue for expressing positions, having a debate and calling out those responsible for violations of international law and human rights."

"The UNSC as an institution does not have a direct impact on events in Belarus; unfortunately, the possibilities for the EU and other European and western organisations to influence the situation are also limited. However, international attention is hugely important."

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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