Belarus blasts its way up technology ladder
WORLD Of Tanks, one of the five most popular PC video games in Europe and the United States with 100 million players joining virtual battles in World War II-era tanks, started in a kitchen in the capital of Belarus.
In a country better known for its Soviet-era collectivised farming and run by President Alexander Lukashenko, seen by some as "Europe's last dictator", the software industry is thriving, thanks to highly-educated and low-cost engineers.
Despite its international success, World Of Tanks developer Wargaming has kept a major operation at the high-tech park in Minsk, along with a dozen other companies including US-based EPAM Systems, founded by two Belarusians in 1993.
Belarusian software engineers are also behind Japanese-controlled Viber messenger and the MSQRD selfie app bought by Facebook earlier this month.
The sector has flourished despite a wider economic slump, raising hopes that it could set an example for an overhaul of the mostly state-run economy.
World Of Tanks software developer Andrei Safronov's hobby is drawing 3D models of tanks.
"I was noticed, invited and now I work here," the Russian said.
World Of Tanks, owned by Cyprus-based Wargaming, is the fifth most popular PC gaming title behind League Of Legends, Counter-Strike, World Of Warcraft, all produced by US publishers, plus Minecraft, the Swedish game now owned by Microsoft.
Companies at the capital's high-tech zone contribute 1.5 per cent of Belarus' GDP, employ 24,000 people and last year had exports worth US$700 million (S$944 million).
Such growth has been helped by the low levels of government interference.
Mr Lukashenko, who once called the Internet "garbage", has left the tech sector alone and now seems proud of his country's IT prowess.
Commenting on an episode when Belarusian hackers stole hundreds of thousands of dollars, he told Parliament: "Of course, it is a disgrace. But sometimes you look and you are proud that our people know how to do this."
Initially, Belarusian software specialists won business from Western companies by offering cut-price programming services for businesses and websites.
Now, they are making headway developing brand-name products.
Belarus has a strong tradition of science and engineering education, as do many other former Soviet states.
Tetris, the popular cube game, was invented by a Soviet programmer working at Moscow's Academy of Sciences in 1984.
EPAM has benefited from technology outsourcing by European companies, outpacing Indian and US rivals based on its proximity to Western Europe and its focus on new product development for customers, including investment bank UBS, Liberty Media and cosmetics brand Sephora.