Soros pulls out of Belarus

September 26, 1997

GEORGE Soros, the Hungarian-born financier who since the collapse of communism has been funding educational, cultural and pro-democracy initiatives in the former communist bloc, has announced the closure of all operations in Belarus, writes Vera Rich.

It is the first time that the Soros Foundation has terminated its activities in a post-communist country. Mr Soros said the closure was due primarily to the systematic pressure placed on it by the Belarusian authorities, including a $3 million fine for alleged offences against the country's ever-changing tax laws.

According to the foundation, the "last drop that overflowed the cup" was the contradiction between the official statements by leading officials about their claimed desire to support the foundation's activities in Belarus, and their real actions to destroy its activities.

If the authorities change their stance and provide guarantees for the normal functioning of the foundation's work, Mr Soros said its activities in Belarus could recommence immediately.

However, senior employees of the foundation say that they have been told By the Belarusian foreign ministry that if the foundation pulls out, Mr Soros should not count on any dialogue for its resumption in the future.

The closure means the end of Soros funding for a wide range of educational, healthcare andenvironmental projects, which have little chance of continuing.

The tax authorities decided that 19 projects supported by the foundation did not fit into the tax-free categories of science, education, culture, health and environmental protection and were not eligible for tax concessions. They ruled that back tax must be paid immediately, with penalties.

It also means an end to support for pro-democracy initiatives that were seen by the authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenka as a challenge to his regime.

Tax inspections and heavy fines have become a major weapon against the democratic opposition, or organisations that officials believe support it.

The regulations change so often and are so ambiguously worded that the authorities haveconsiderable scope for bringing a prosecution.

Mr Soros said that although this is the first time that an office of the foundation in a post-communist country has had to close down, earlier this year it came under attack in Kyrgyzstan, where the government press accused it of meddling in internal affairs by funding only the opposition media.

The remaining communist world still remains hostile: an offer by Mr Soros to China to fundprojects was rejected by the authorities who consider the foundation to be an arm of United Statesintelligence.

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