March 20, 1997
Statement of OSI-NY Concerning Attacks on Soros Foundation Belarus and Civil Society

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 affiliation.

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 Soros.

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.

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