As geopolitical instability and conflict intensifies and governments increasingly find their hands tied in implementing real change, citizens are looking to the private sector to become stronger champions of economic development and reform. In the states of the former Soviet Union, the promise of a brighter future is increasingly reliant on a vibrant tech sector.
The post-Soviet region owes much of its transformation to the tech visionaries who created new ways for people to connect and communicate. But with global influence comes global responsibility. It is time for these leaders to take ownership of the changes they initiated.
My own experience in Belarus showed me just how drastically countries and economies can be transformed with the proper incentives. In 2005, Belarus began implementing special laws to boost its tech sector. I became an honorary counsel of Belarus in Israel soon after this, in 2009, and saw for myself how important this sector has become to the country.
Today, Belarus’s 124-acre Hi-Tech Park employs nearly 30,000 people and hit $1 billion in revenue in 2017. On March 1 of this year, Belarus went even further in developing its tech sector, passing a new law that is the first of its kind in the world. It creates a regulatory framework for blockchain technology, legalizes cryptocurrencies and allows initial coin offerings.
Belarus has learned much from its neighbors in Estonia, which is responsible for the invention of Skype and has recently adopted e-voting and e-residency. I’ve seen similar trends also starting to emerge in Ukraine, Georgia and Uzbekistan.
Social media and the internet reveal new possibilities – the fifth industrial revolution. Tech offers a future in which entrepreneurs can create for themselves, take more ownership of their lives, and reform citizen relationships to the state. The tech sector can help the region move from consumption to creation – a necessary transition in a digital world.
But for these trends to become truly transformative, tech leaders themselves must play a role. Digital pioneers created platforms that are open, connected, active, and mobile. These model the way societies themselves should function. Governments of course must play a role in making reforms, but the tech industry also has much to gain by spreading values of transparency, accountability and entrepreneurship.
With help from Western tech giants, these sectors can become catalysts for a more dynamic economic transformation in the former Soviet states. They can create a new generation of intellectual leaders. They can also move workers into a formal economy from the large, cash-based shadow economies that currently dominate. Young people will gain access to legal money and online payment systems, reaffirming confidence in local economies and enabling new growth and investment.
A stronger tech sector can also help improve transatlantic relationships, by creating new opportunities for cooperation with Western companies and governments. With the development of regional intellectual elites, countries will become more reliable partners.
I recommend three types of action tech leaders should take:
First, they can inspire, by sending leaders to the post-Soviet region. Young people in these countries need to be moved to take risks and innovate. Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Jan Koum are rock stars in this region. They form a group of “Global Minds” who exemplify the potential of tech. High-profile visits to universities, startups, and governments could help to develop local tech sectors, and are more valuable in some places than millions in investment.
Second, they can educate. Local entrepreneurs need to understand how Silicon Valley operates and how it interacts with government and citizens. Tech giants can offer trainings that help local officials and innovators understand best business practices, legal frameworks, and cooperation with authorities and regulators. These are the practical details that support innovation and help aspiring entrepreneurs become successful.
Finally, they can connect, by organizing programs for young tech leaders and government officials that build relationships with one another and their counterparts in the U.S. These networks will supply needed support and mentorship as tech leaders develop new industries and products, and as new political leaders look to promote stability and reform.
The region’s leaders will continue to push ahead with tech sector reforms that help to develop their countries. Western tech sector leaders should join this cause, and help these countries on a path to complete transformation and Western integration.
Anatoly Motkin is the founder and president of StrategEast, a strategic center for political and diplomatic solutions whose mission is to guide the states of the former Soviet region into a closer working relationship with the West.
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