Belarus turns on Soros

May 9, 1997

THE SOROS Foundation of Belarus has been fined US$3 million for alleged tax offences following an interim report on its activities from tax inspectors commissioned by the Belarusian Security Council.

The tax authorities decided that 19 projects supported by the foundation are not eligible for tax concessions, and ruled that the back tax on them must be paid forthwith, together with penalties for not having paid previously.

Under the present Belarusian tax regulations, programmes promoting science, education, culture, health care and environmental protection do not have to pay tax or customs duties. But the inspectors say that not all the foundation's programmes fall into these categories.

The report cited, for example, the creation of "Chernobyl archives" and "documentaries" entitled The history of small towns in Belarus as not qualifying for tax relief.

Tax inspections - and the subsequent fines - are rapidly developing into one of the main weapons of the authoritarian regime of President Alaksandr Lukashenka against the democratic opposition. The tax regulations are so ambiguously worded, and change so rapidly, as to leave considerable loopholes for prosecution. The audit of the foundation (which officials maintain contravenes the current Belarusian law on public associations) was ordered by the Security Council in March after allegations that the foundation had made grants available to well-known opposition figures and their families. Veranika Behun, head of the foundation's information service in Belarus, issued a denial.

The foundation, she said, had never given personal financial support to opposition figures, although it had given money to certain organisations in which they were active. The foundation, Ms Behun stressed, supports "interesting ideas and projects, rather than individuals - whatever their political views".

Simultaneously, with the start of the audit, Peter Byrne, director of the Soros Foundation's office in Belarus, was expelled from the country for "meddling in the affairs of a sovereign state". It was alleged that he had helped organise opposition rallies - but the only "proof" offered by the official Belarusian media was a film-clip showing his presence at a demonstration last November.

To date, the Soros Foundation has given Belarus $13 million towards educational, health and environmental programmes.

In the central Asian republic of Kirghizstan the foundation has also been accused in the government press of interfering in the internal affairs of the country by financing only opposition newspapers.

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