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From Code to Conflict: The Impact of War on IT Professionals in Eastern Europe

As the war in Ukraine is getting near its first anniversary, the past 12 months have shown how the conflict has had many far-reaching consequences, one of them being the effects on IT professionals.
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As the war in Ukraine is getting near its first anniversary, the past 12 months have shown how the conflict has had many far-reaching consequences, one of them being the effects on IT professionals.

While Russia’s aggression created an unstable and unpredictable environment in Ukraine, it has also made life difficult for tech experts across the country and the region. The constant fear of violence, loss of internet access, and lack of necessary resources have all combined to make their daily operations a challenge – and all of this is just one part of the difficulties faced by the IT talent out there.

However, the effects of the conflict in Ukraine are not limited to tech professionals from within the country’s borders. IT professionals from neighboring Belarus and Russia are also feeling the consequences, as the war creates a ripple effect across the region.

Globally, the IT community is incredibly cohesive, so such developments are also a testimony to how the IT community in both sides of the conflict is adapting to the war.

While Ukraine has more than 250 thousand IT professionals, that number is significantly higher in neighboring Russia, which in 2022 was estimated to be around 1,7 million. Belarus itself has more than 80 thousand IT specialists.

The reasons for wanting to escape the region vary – while for Ukrainian IT talent this is mostly due to their safety and having the necessary working conditions, for Russian and Belarusian IT professionals there are effects of living under authoritarian regimes, Western sanctions, and subsequent calls for partial mobilization such as the one in Russia.

Some of these IT professionals have used the various relocation packages that IT companies have been offering since the war started, while there are also those that have benefited from the so-called Blue Cards for non-EU talent.  Others, however, are yet to find their right option and continue their careers elsewhere.

Russian IT talent turns elsewhere as it looks to escape war consequences

Among them are Russian IT professionals, which are increasingly looking to flee the country.

While more than 1,000 companies reduced their operations in Russia since the war began, the country has also seen a decrease in the number of IT professionals.

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According to data from the Russian Ministry of Communications, about 10 percent of the IT workforce, or more than 100 thousand people, left the country in 2022 and did not return. And there are a lot more that are looking to do the same.

Ksenia Kurganova is one of them – as a former marketing manager for Google, she talks about the difficulties that professionals in the industry are faced with.

“In 2022, the amount of IT specialists who left Russia and moved abroad has increased exponentially. Some of them continued to work remotely for Russian companies, but in the light of potential legislative changes it is hard to predict for how long they will be able to maintain their positions there. Those specialists who decided to completely reorient themselves to the western market and find work in the EU or US, are facing numerous difficulties such as the language and cultural barrier,” Kurganova explains.

Another big challenge is bureaucracy and difficulties in obtaining a residence permit – even though countries like Canada or UK openly welcome Russian tech specialists and try to lure them with special types of visas or easier application processes, some employers are still hesitant to invest extra budgets in employee relocation and paperwork, she says.

“At the same time, from the employer’s point of view, Russian IT specialists have a number of advantages. For instance: product marketing of innovative tech products and services, a more creative approach to work, multitasking, and ability to work under pressure – the skills they developed while working in the complex and dynamic Russian IT sector,” Kurganova tells The Recursive.

While most Russian IT specialists prefer to go to countries that don’t require working visas, such as Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, Serbia and Kazakhstan, or have already migrated to the US, Germany or the Netherlands, an investigation by The Bell shows.

Physical space is nothing, but people are everything

This is the ideology behind Imaguru, a startup hub originating from Belarus. Founded in Minsk in 2013, Imaguru helped create the country’s startup ecosystem and was working in developing the landscape for a good part of the decade.

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However, in 2021 and the subsequent political crisis, the hub was shut down by Belarusian authorities in a widespread crackdown against pro-democracy supporters across the country.

After that Imaguru continued to develop a Belarusian community online, and it opened new hubs in European capitals – like Madrid, Vilnius, and Warsaw.

“It was the development of entrepreneurial freedom, international communication, and global thinking – these values turned out to be close to many people, especially young ones, while the external environment remained hostile: hierarchy, state business, closeness have always characterized Belarus,” Tania Marinich, founder and CEO of Imaguru, tells The Recursive.

Now, the Imaguru community has thousands of people all over Europe and keeps growing, bringing together the talents, the opportunities, the expertise, and the funds.

Following the beginning of the war in Ukraine and Belarus’ involvement in it, Imaguru also sought to help entrepreneurs from the crisis region to find opportunities and continue to run their businesses.

“At first we saw it in Belarus, now we see it in Ukraine. The IT community is incredibly cohesive. People can be very busy with their businesses, but they still devote some of their time to work for charities and solidarity projects. Standing up together with all those who fight for freedom, dignity, and human rights, we also launched the Solidarity Program, which was originally focused on Belarusian businesses in exile, and now works for Ukrainian refugees as well. We hold hackathons, organize mentoring sessions, provide our premises for free, organize programs to help relocators, etc. Solidarity and support helps to survive even the most terrible times,” Marinich explains.

The consequences of the conflict in Ukraine for the IT talent is also connected to the sanctions that the West has imposed on Russia and Belarus. The sanctions have made it more difficult for tech companies to conduct business in the region, as they limit access to critical technology, equipment, and resources.

The IT sector in Belarus also has its strengths – during the first half of 2022,  the sector grew by more than 8 percent as other sectors of the economy stagnated or decreased. However, as the war continues and Belarus’s role in it expands, there aren’t too many options left for those IT professionals that are in the country.

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High demand for Ukrainian IT talent

The past year has also shown a high demand for Ukrainian IT talent – and academies across the country are doing their best to enable students and young people across the country to acquire the necessary skills and break into the IT industry.

For the past eight years, edtech startup Mate academy has helped more than 2,000 Ukrainian students find work in the industry by providing courses in programming, quality assurance, UI/UX design and recruiting.

The startup’s model is based on an Income Share Agreement (ISA) model — a student does not pay for tuition but is required to share 12 percent of the graduate’s monthly salary for three years after students get a job.

According to the Mate academy, during 2022 the number of their graduates has significantly grown, as they have been getting a great amount of offers from all over the world. In September 2022, the company also launched offices in Poland.

From Code to Conflict: The Impact of War on IT Professionals in Eastern Europe,
Anna Apostol – co-founder of Mate academy

“The number of Mate academy graduates abroad is growing. Most often, our graduates receive offers from employers in Canada, the US, Baltic States, Poland, and Germany. Also, there are cases when graduates are in one European country but work remotely for an American company, for example. In this case, Ukrainian IT specialists are willingly hired, because there is no worry for employers about blackouts or war affecting job processes,” Mate academy’s COO and co-founder Anna Apostol tells The Recursive.

However, there are still some obstacles when hiring Ukrainian IT talent – and currently the biggest one is the language barrier, Apostol adds.

“The main obstacle that deters people in their employment processes for a foreign or international company is the language barrier. I can not say there is a strict rule when employers prefer candidates from their own country to Ukrainians. But there are still a small number of companies (usually small local ones) that prefer people who know the language of the country and not only English,” she concludes.

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Bojan is The Recursive’s Western Balkans Editor, covering tech, innovation, and business for more than a decade. He’s currently exploring blockchain, Industry 4.0, AI, and is always open to covering diverse and exciting topics in the Western Balkans countries. His work has been featured in global media outlets such as Foreign Policy, WSJ, ZDNet, and Balkan Insight.