March 20, 1997
Statement of OSI-NY Concerning Attacks on Soros Foundation Belarus and
The Open Society Institute-New York, part of the Soros foundations network,
today called on the Government of Belarus to cease its intimidation and
harassment of the independent sector, including the Belarusian Soros Foundation
(BSF). In a letter to President Lukashenka, OSI President Aryeh Neier said
that Lukashenka’s government was trying to stifle independent civil society
in Belarus by orchestrating a campaign to force the foundation there to
close, in violation of its international commitments.
In the last two weeks, the government of Belarus has taken numerous
steps designed to prevent independent, nonprofit organizations from functioning
in the country. On March 10, the President unilaterally issued a decree
that calls into question some important tax exemptions previously granted
to the BSF by the Cabinet of Ministers.
On March 16, the Government illegally detained Peter Byrne, the director
of the BSF (an American citizen) for eighteen hours, prevented American
Embassy officials from seeing him for most of that time, and expelled him
from the country. The expulsion was well-orchestrated and filmed by Belarusian
State television. The television reports accused Mr. Byrne of participating
in "illegal mass meetings" organized by the political opposition.
The reports also accused the BSF of supporting "enemies of the authorities."
In fact, the BSF does not give any money to political parties or to partisan
political organizations, and does not make grants on the basis of political
On March 18, President Lukashenka announced that he would begin investigating
all non-governmental organizations in the country. On March 19, government
security officials arrived at the BSF office and demanded access to all
BSF records, and this investigation is continuing. Other nonprofit organizations,
such as the Chernobyl Children’s Fund, are also under investigation.
"Lukashenka’s intentions are clear; by intimidating the Belarusian
Soros Foundation he hopes to intimidate all of civil society in Belarus,"
Neier remarked. "Nevertheless, the Belarusian Soros Foundation intends
to remain open in these difficult circumstances and do whatever it can
to support civil society and democracy in Belarus."
The Belarusian Soros Foundation is an independent nonprofit organization
that provides grants to support a variety of civil society activities in
Belarus, in the areas of education and youth, medicine and health, media,
human rights, arts and culture and economic reform. In 1995 and 1996, the
foundation expended approximately $10,000,000.00 on these programs. The
foundation is one of twenty four established by the philanthropist George
The Open Society Institute-New York is a private operating and grantmaking
foundation that promotes the development of open societies around the world.
It provides technical assistance and programmatic advice to other foundations
in the Soros foundations network such as the Belarusian Soros Foundation.