Russian tech workers are looking for safer and more secure professional pastures.
An estimated 70,000 computer experts have been alarmed by the sudden snowfall in the business and political climate since Russia invaded Ukraine five weeks ago. Many more are expected to follow.
For some countries, Russia’s losses are seen as an opportunity to gain potential and bring new skills to their own high-tech industries.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has noticed a brain drain during a war that, according to the UN refugee agency, has displaced more than 4 million people from Ukraine and displaced millions more inside the country.
This week, Putin responded to the emigration of technology professionals by approving legislation to eliminate income tax by 2024 from now on for those who work for information technology companies.
Some people in the huge new pool of high-tech exiles say they are in no hurry to return to the country. An elite crowd, equipped with European Union visas, has relocated to the Baltic states of Poland or Latvia and Lithuania.
A larger group has returned to the countries where Russians do not require visas: Armenia, Georgia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. In normal times, millions of low-skilled workers move from those economically shaky countries to relatively more prosperous Russia.
Anastasia, a 24-year-old freelance computer systems analyst in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, chose Kyrgyzstan, where her husband has a family.
“When we heard of the war (February 24), we thought it might be time to leave, but we can wait and see. On February 25, we bought our tickets and left, ”said Anastasia. “I didn’t think of doing much.”
Like all Russian staff contacted for this story, Anastasia asked to remain anonymous. Even before the Ukraine invasion, Moscow was cracking down on dissent, and people living outside Russia still fear retaliation.
“As far as I can remember, there was always fear around expressing one’s opinion in Russia,” said Anastasia, adding that the war and “noise in the background of patriotism” have made the environment even more taboo. “I left a day before they started searching and questioning people at the border.”
The scale of the apparent brain drain was unveiled last week by Sergei Plugotarenko, head of the Russian Association for Electronic Communications, an industry lobbying group.
“The first wave – 50,000-70,000 people – is already gone,” Plugotarenko told a parliamentary committee.
Only the high cost of flights outside the country prevents an even larger mass exit. Another 100,000 tech workers could leave Russia in April, Plugotarenko predicted.
Konstantin Siniushin, a managing partner at Untitled Ventures, a Latvia-based technology-centric venture capital fund, says there is no option but to relocate Russian technology companies to international customers as many foreign companies are rapidly distancing themselves from Russia-related ventures.
“They had to leave the country so that their business could survive, or, in the case of research and development workers, they were relocated by their headquarters,” Sinuschin wrote in an emailed comment.
Untitled Ventures is helping with migration; The airline chartered two flights to Armenia with 300 tech workers from Russia, Sinyushin said.
Some nearby countries are interested in deducting dividends.
Russian talent is prime for hunting. A 2020 Global Skills Index report has been published by Coursera, a leading online course provider that has given the Russian people the highest score for proficiency in technology and data science.
With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan has drastically facilitated the process of obtaining work visas and residence permits for IT professionals.
Anton Philipov, a mobile app programmer in St. Petersburg, and the team of freelancers he works with moved to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, where he grew up, even before those incentives were published.
“On February 24, we woke up to this horrible reality,” Philipov said. “We are all young, under the age of 27, and so we feared we might be called upon to take part in this war.”
Technology workers explore their options on demand, their diaspora like a roaming caravan. Some countries, such as Uzbekistan, have been selected as stepping stones because Russian citizens do not need a visa for short-term stay. But young professionals like Philipov do not plan to stay where they first landed.
“If the conditions they find differ from their promises, they will only move forward,” he said.
In many cases, entire companies want to relocate to avoid the effects of international sanctions. Another Russian neighbor, a senior diplomat from Kazakhstan, made a naked request this week to flee foreign enterprises to come to his country.
Kazakhstan is keeping a close eye on high-tech investors as the country seeks to diversify its economy, which relies on oil exports. In 2017, the government set up a technology park in the capital, Nur-Sultan, and provided tax breaks, preferential loans and grants to anyone ready to set up shop there.
Eclipse has been moderate so far, but it is expected that the Russian brain drain will give the initiative a big shot in the arm.
“The accounts of Russian companies are being frozen and they are not transacting. They are trying to retain customers, and there is an opportunity to move to Kazakhstan, “said Arman Abdrasilov, chairman of Zerde Holding, an investment fund in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s business center.
Although not all countries are so interested.
“Russian companies or startups cannot go to Lithuania,” said Inga Simannite, an adviser to the Baltic economy and innovation minister. “We are not working with any Russian agency on their possible relocation to Lithuania, and the ministry has suspended all applications for startup visas since February 24.”
Security concerns and suspicions that Russians may be spying abroad or engaging in cyber-crime warn some governments about welcoming the country’s economic refugees.
“Russia’s IT sector is closely linked to security services. The problem is that without a very strong verification process, we risk importing parts of Russia’s criminal system,” Lithuanian political analyst Marius Lorinavicius told The Associated Press.
Sinushin, managing partner of Untitled Ventures, is urging Western nations to open their doors so that their employers can take advantage of the unusual recruitment opportunities created by the war.
“The more talent Europe or the United States can take from Russia today, the more benefits these new innovators, whose potential will be fully realized abroad, will bring to other countries,” he said.