Based on data from two recent waves of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), we demonstrate that the Coronacrisis gave birth to many new necessity-driven entrepreneurs who will likely alleviate the current challenges of unemployment and income losses in the short- and medium-term. The readiness and willingness of Belarusians to become entrepreneurs in a harsh business environment could be considered a good sign for the economy and society. However, such businesses may fail to deliver a positive long-term impact on the economy, while the detrimental consequences of the war in Ukraine undermine the potential and sustainability of growth-driving businesses with international and innovative orientation.
Crises and Entrepreneurial Activity in Belarus
During the past 15 years, the Belarusian economy and, in particular, Belarusian entrepreneurs have experienced several crises of different scopes, nature, and origins (in 2009, 2011, 2015-2016, 2020). During these periods, Belarusian private enterprises responded faster to both negative and positive trends in the economy compared to state-owned firms. This has for instance manifested itself in private sector firms being swifter in decreasing or increasing the size of the work force in recessions or recoveries (IMF, 2019). Stagnating demand also led to deteriorating business opportunities that in turn incited a decrease in the number of both nascent and matured entrepreneurs. In line with Cowling et al. (2015), these circumstances suggest the presence of a procyclical trend in the entrepreneurship development in the country. In the same vein, the period of economic growth brought new entrepreneurs to the market to pursue business opportunities.
However, results from two waves of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), conducted in May-June 2019 and June-July 2021 demonstrate that notwithstanding the Coronacrisis, political unrest, and worsening business climate, the Belarusian economy experienced an influx of entrepreneurs (not necessarily officially registered as a firm or sole proprietor). These findings contribute to the discussion on the motivation, potential, and effectiveness of this wave of entrepreneurs for the economy.
Belarusian Context for Entrepreneurs in 2019-2021
After the 2015-2016 economic crisis, 2019 represented the third consecutive year of moderate economic growth in Belarus. The gradual liberalization of the economic activity, as well as the give-and-take relationship with Eastern-European neighbors and the West, fueled the enthusiasm of Belarusian entrepreneurs, especially in the medium- and high-tech sectors. The year 2019 was supposed to be highly conducive to entrepreneurship. These conditions were captured by the GEM Belarus 2019/2020 (2020).
However, as in most other countries, small businesses were more affected by the pandemic than large enterprises in Belarus. Moreover, many of them were left to fend for themselves in dealing with COVID-related challenges, as only a small portion of enterprises benefitted from state support measures (Marozau et al., 2021). The recovery period was abrupted by the political crisis that broke out after the presidential elections in August 2020. This political unrest resulted in increased pressure on the private sector and NGOs as well as tensions with EU countries and Ukraine. Many famous entrepreneurs were forced to immigrate and re-locate their businesses. Consequently, GEM Belarus 2021/2022 (2022) captured a new reality of the Belarusian entrepreneurial ecosystem.
How the Entrepreneurship Indicators Changed
According to the GEM 2021/22 survey, Belarus experienced an increase in the percentage of the adult population (18-64 years old) involved in all stages of the entrepreneurial process (Figure 1). Nevertheless, the level of the total early-stage entrepreneurial activity (which includes nascent entrepreneurs – up to 3 months old businesses and baby businesses – 4–42 months old) is still lower than one might predict based on the country’s level of economic development (Figure 2).
These positive changes are paradoxical because, according to the survey, Belarusians were not enthusiastic about the opportunities to start a business – respondents reported a high level of fear of business failure, and that the entrepreneurial framework conditions had deteriorated.
Figure 1. Percentage of the adult population involved in the entrepreneurial process
Figure 2. Early-stage entrepreneurship rates and GDP per capita.
Moreover, the GEM survey reveals that the profile of early-stage entrepreneurs changed between 2019 and 2021 – the educational level of early-stage entrepreneurs increased, while their income level followed a negative trend. A plausible explanation for these changes could be that a relatively well-educated part of the population, employed in the sectors that were harshly hit by the pandemic (HoReCa, Sport & Leisure, etc), decided to start a business out of necessity due to wage shrinkages or layoffs. Therefore, neither a low level of opportunity perception nor an aggravating business climate kept them from starting an enterprise.
Support for this argument can be found if we examine the reasons why Belarusians started businesses in 2021 (Figure 3). The shares of both nascent entrepreneurs and owners of baby businesses that report ‘earning a living because jobs are scarce’ increased by about 20 percentage points. This phenomenon, when a depressive market reduces employment opportunities and forces individuals into becoming entrepreneurs, is regarded as necessity-driven entrepreneurship (Gonzalez-Peña et al., 2018).
Figure 3. Reasons to start a business
Keeping in mind that the unit of analysis in the GEM is on the individual and not the enterprise level, we can suggest a cautious hypothesis that the trend in entrepreneurship development in Belarus has changed from being pro-cyclical to countercyclical in the short term.
It is already obvious that the negative impact of the pandemic and political unrest on Belarusian businesses cannot be compared with the devastating effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In this context, the countercyclical trend or, in other words, the readiness and willingness of Belarusians to become entrepreneurs against all odds, could be considered a good sign for the economy and society. However, such necessity-driven entrepreneurs are more focused on achieving a sufficient standard of living than on expansion and innovation. It is known that the growth and innovative orientations of businesses (product and process innovation, activity in technologically intensive sectors) are important predictors of technological change and total factor productivity (Erken et al, 2018). From this perspective, according to the GEM 2021/2022, Belarus is still doing relatively well in terms of impactful early-stage entrepreneurship (international and innovative orientation, growth expectations, and technological intensity). However, businesses with these characteristics are usually led by opportunity-driven entrepreneurs and are more sensitive to changes in the external environment. Therefore, the detrimental consequences of the Russian aggression against Ukraine (difficulties with payments and logistics, export/import restrictions, and tarnished reputation of Belarus) have already undermined the potential and sustainability of most such businesses and jeopardized the socioeconomic development of the country.
So, the answer to the question of whether Belarusian entrepreneurs will be able to reactivate the economy is rather ‘no’. Based on GEM 2021/2022 data, we argue that the augmented entrepreneurial activity rate will plausibly alleviate the problems of unemployment and income losses in the short- and medium-term, but may not have a strong and long-lasting effect on the economy as a whole.
The 2021 wave of the GEM survey has documented an increase in the share of the population involved in the different stages of the entrepreneurial process in Belarus. This, however, appears to be the outcome of the pandemic-related economic crisis, which manifests itself in income losses and layoffs. As a result, the crisis produced new necessity-driven entrepreneurs with vague prospects.
In this regard, policymakers should realize that stimulating self-employment and small-scale entrepreneurship may indeed be a temporary solution to unemployment issues. If this is the aim, the toolkit to support such businesses is well elaborated and accessible to the government (it includes educational & consulting services, easy access to finance, etc.).
As for impactful entrepreneurship, hardly anything can be done by the current government to retain innovative and international business in Belarus against the backdrop of the consequences and global reactions to the war in Ukraine.
- Cowling, M., Liu, W., Ledger, A., & Zhang, N. (2015). “What really happens to small and medium sized enterprises in a global economic recession? UK evidence on sales and job dynamics”, International Small Business Journal, 33(5), 488-513.
- Erken, H., Donselaar, P., & Thurik, R. (2018). “Total factor productivity and the role of entrepreneurship”. The Journal of Technology Transfer, 43(6), 1493-1521.
- GEM Belarus 2019/2020, (2020). “Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report GEM Belarus 2019/2020”.
- GEM Belarus 2021/2022. (2022). “Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report GEM Belarus 2021/2022”.
- González-Pernía, J. L., Guerrero, M., Jung, A., & Pena-Legazkue, I. (2018). “Economic recession shake-out and entrepreneurship: Evidence from Spain”. BRQ Business Research Quarterly, 21(3), 153-167
- Hill, S., Ionescu-Somers, A., Coduras, A., Guerrero, M., Roomi, M. A., Bosma, N., … & Shay, J. (2022). “Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2021/2022 Global Report: Opportunity Amid Disruption”.
- IMF. (2019). “Reassessing the Role of State-Owned Enterprises in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe”, 19/11.
- Marozau, R., Akulava, M., & Panasevich, V. (2021). “Did the Government Help Belarusian SMEs to Survive in 2020?” FREE Network Policy Brief Series.
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