As Russia sees the tech brain drain, other nations are hoping to capitalize on it

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Russia’s tech workers are looking for safer, more productive career pastures.

By one estimate, since Russia invaded Ukraine five weeks ago, up to 70,000 computer professionals have fled the country, startled by a sudden freeze in the business and political climate. Many more are to follow.

For some countries, losing Russia is viewed as a potential gain and an opportunity to bring fresh expertise to their own high-tech industries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has even noticed the brain drain in the turmoil of war. This week he responded to the exodus by passing legislation to eliminate income taxes by 2024 for people working for IT companies.

Many in the vast new pool of high-tech exiles are in no hurry to return home. An elite with EU visas has relocated to Poland or the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania.

A larger contingent has resorted to countries where Russians do not require visas: Armenia, Georgia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. In normal times, millions of less-skilled workers migrate from these economically troubled countries to comparatively more prosperous Russia.

Anastasia, a 24-year-old IT analyst from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, chose Kyrgyzstan, where her husband has family.

“When we heard about the war on (February 24) we thought it was probably time to go, but we could wait and see. On February 25, we bought our tickets and left,” Anastasia said. “There wasn’t much to think about.”

Like all Russian workers contacted about this story, Anastasia asked to remain anonymous. Moscow cracked down on dissent even before invading Ukraine, and people living outside Russia still fear reprisals.

“For as long as I can remember, there has always been a fear of speaking out in Russia,” Anastasia said, adding that the war made the environment even more forbidding. “I left a day before they started searching and interrogating people at the border.”

The extent of the apparent brain drain was revealed last week by Sergei Plugotarenko, head of the Russian Association for Electronic Communications, an industry lobby group.

“The first wave – 50,000 to 70,000 people – has already left,” Plugotarenko told a parliamentary committee.

Only the high cost of flights abroad prevented an even larger mass departure. Another 100,000 tech workers could still leave Russia in April, predicts Plugotarenko.

Konstantin Siniushin, managing partner at Untitled Ventures, a tech-focused venture capital fund based in Latvia, said Russian tech companies with international clients had no choice but to relocate, as many foreign companies hastily distance themselves from anything Russia-related.

“They had to leave the country for their business to survive, or in the case of R&D workers, they were relocated from headquarters,” Siniushin wrote in emailed comments.

Untitled Ventures helps with the migration; The company planned two flights to Armenia with 300 technicians from Russia, Siniushin said.

Some neighboring countries are eager to reap the dividends.

Russian talents are prepared for poaching. A 2020 Global Skills Index report published by Coursera, a leading provider of online open courses, found that people from Russia scored the highest in technology and data science skills.

Immediately after the start of the war in Ukraine, the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan radically streamlined the procedure for obtaining work and residence permits for IT specialists.

Anton Filippov, a programmer from St. Petersburg, and colleagues from his team relocated to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, where he grew up even before these incentives were released.

“On February 24, it was like we woke up to this other horrible reality,” Filippov said. “We are all young, under 27 years old, and so we were afraid that we might be called up to take part in this war.”

As in-demand tech workers explore their options, their diaspora resembles a roving caravan. Some countries, like Uzbekistan, are chosen as stepping stones because Russian citizens do not need a visa for short-term stays. But young pros like Filippov don’t plan to necessarily stay where they first landed.

“If the conditions they find differ from what they were promised, they will just move on,” he said.

In many cases, entire companies want to relocate to avoid the consequences of international sanctions. A senior diplomat from another neighboring Russian country, Kazakhstan, this week openly appealed to fleeing foreign companies to come to his country.

Kazakhstan is eyeing high-tech investors with particular interest as the country seeks to diversify its economy, which relies on oil exports. In 2017, the government established a technology park in the capital, Nur-Sultan, and offered tax breaks, concessionary loans, and grants to anyone willing to settle there.

Uptake has been modest so far, but the hope is that Russia’s brain drain will give this initiative a big boost.

“Russian companies’ accounts are frozen and their transactions are not carried out. They are trying to keep customers and one available opportunity is to go to Kazakhstan,” said Arman Abdrasilov, chairman of Zerde Holding, an investment fund in Almaty, the business hub of Kazakhstan.

However, not all countries are so eager.

“Russian companies or start-ups cannot move to Lithuania,” said Inga Simanonyte, adviser to the Baltic nation’s economy and innovation minister. “We do not work with any Russian company that may move to Lithuania and the ministry has suspended all startup visa applications since February 24.”

Security concerns and suspicions that Russians might be spying abroad or wreaking cyber havoc are making some governments wary of welcoming the country’s economic migrants.

“The IT sector in Russia is very closely related to the security services. The problem is that without an extremely rigorous vetting process, we risk importing parts of Russia’s criminal system,” Lithuanian political analyst Marius Laurinavicius told The Associated Press.

Siniushin, the managing partner of Untitled Ventures, is urging Western nations to open their doors to their employers to take advantage of the unusual hiring opportunities created by the war.

“The more talent Europe or the United States can take away from Russia today, the more benefits these new innovators whose potential is fully realized abroad will bring to other countries,” he said.

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