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Belarusian tech firms find new home in Lithuania

·3-min read

A few days after Belarusian startup hub Imaguru was kicked out of its office in Minsk this year, founder Tania Marinich received an unexpected phone call.

Lithuanian Economy Minister Ausrine Armonaite was on the other end of the line, inviting Imaguru to move to the neighbouring Baltic EU state.

"That meant a lot, and not just to us," Marinich told AFP at the launch of the company's new headquarters in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

"I think we have found a home here," she said.

Imaguru provides co-working spaces and organises workshops for dozens of Belarusian startups that have also made the move following a regime crackdown.

It is one of around 80 companies that have moved or are in the process of relocating their business to Lithuania since a contested August 2020 presidential election.

Eurozone member Lithuania played a key role in rallying international support for opposition protests against the disputed re-election of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

The Baltic state also granted refuge to hundreds of Belarusian opposition figures including their exiled leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who claims to have defeated Lukashenko in the presidential vote.

- 'Gateway to the EU' -

A month before Imaguru was kicked out, unidentified men wearing masks broke into their Minsk office, lined everyone up against a wall and took them to a police station.

Company staff were vocal supporters of the unprecedented mass protests against Lukashenko's regime.

"We were shut down because of our political position," said Marinich, who is the widow of a political prisoner.

She would not be drawn out on how many employees also made the move, concerned about their extended family left behind in Belarus.

For Armonaite, "Lithuania can become a gateway to the European Union" for companies like Imaguru.

To facilitate the process, the government has adopted several measures, including an easing of immigration rules.

"These are different companies. From those with 10-20 employees to large companies," said Gintare Baciuliene from the government agency "Invest Lithuania".

"The vast majority of them are from the IT sector. This sector in Belarus is generally well regarded in the world," she said.

Lithuania offers Russian-language services that appeal to Belarusian expatriates.

- 'Ready for change' -

Some foreign investors complain of difficulties in opening bank accounts, however.

Marinich said it took Imaguru four months to open their account in Lithuania.

"It's bureaucracy, it takes time, it takes paperwork and money, obviously. But compared to Belarusian bureaucracy, this is nothing," she laughed.

Marinich's late husband was former presidential candidate Mikhail Marinich, who was arrested in 2004 for siding with the opposition.

He spent three and a half years in prison, where he suffered a stroke.

He died in 2014, nine years after his release.

Marinich called her business a "continuation" of her husband's work.

"I believe in education, I believe in people and by changing the mentality of at least some people, I can contribute to the growth of a new generation, which will be ready for change."

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