Belarus cannot objectively be described as a country of private entrepreneurs; in 2015, the economic contribution of small businesses in Belarus amounted to 24 % of GDP , although the government had planned for a higher figure . We talked with Irina Zimnevoy, the founder and a director of The Center for Slavic Languages and Cultures, a private school in Minsk. She spoke about some of the advantages and disadvantages of doing business in Belarus.
You are now 27 years old, and you are the director of a language school. How and when did it all start?
I know the Polish language very well. At first I worked as an individual entrepreneur – I gave private lessons. Soon, I had heaps of students. I started offering students to other teachers. Then, 3 years ago, my husband and I opened the company Slavic Languages and Cultures. We put the emphasis on Slavic languages because virtually no specialized schools of this type existed. We teach a total of nine languages including Polish, Czech, Slovak and Serbian. Now we have 500-600 students, and we employ about 30 people.
Did you take out a loan to start the school ?
We decided to use our personal savings. We had money gifted to us for our wedding, and some more that we had saved.
Does the government support small business in Belarus?
The main thing is that the government does not interfere. Since the founding of the school, we have paid high taxes: 34% from the salary of each employee, 16% on dividends, and many others. I know that in other countries, for the first year or two of the business, there is a tax exemption. That would be a big help, but it is something we do not have yet.
What other challenges do you face?
Red tape and paperwork. Soon we will bring in a specialist from the Czech Republic, and we’re not sure what this will entail.
There is a very big difference between renting private and public property. If you’re renting from private owners, you just regularly pay them money; with government offices, you need to fill out a ton of paperwork, navigate through different parts of the city to go to various offices. Another difficulty is that information on new laws or decrees often does not reach us in time. We employ an experienced accountant, and she once even missed a change in the law: I had to pay a fine.
Your school is the first in Minsk specializing in Slavic languages. Does this mean that it is possible to find an unfilled niche business if you want?
You can always come up with something new, or borrow a business idea from the United States or another country. Especially in the service sector, which in Belarus is still insufficiently developed, huge opportunity remains. In our case, for exexample, we both felt that Belarus had developed an interest in languages. It’s nice that people come to us to learn languages for self-development, and not only those who want to study abroad or intend to emigrate.
Rather than starting a business in Belarus, some young Belarusians go abroad to try their luck. What is missing in Belarus to encourage the youth to invest their talent at home?
I would not say the problem all lies in the business climate of Belarus. The problem primarily lies in the potential businessmen themselves. Some think that it is too hard. Some have said that they need too large an initial capital. Some just like to complain that nothing can get done in our country. There is not enough self-confidence, discipline and creativity. Truly, first a person should have an inspiration, then work on that idea, and then the money can be found. If we were able to do it, that means others can too.
Why might foreign investors be interested in Belarus?
We have a lot of smart and creative people, and they are ready to work 100 per cent, even for relatively little money. With our workforce, you really could implement any idea.
By Julia Barilo