Soros Ponders Greater Slovak Role
Philanthropist Takes 'Fact-Finding' Tour of Embattled Country
United Press International, September 21, 1993
In the wake of recent concerns over Slovakia's treatment of minorities, billionaire philanthropist George Soros has expressed renewed interest in supporting the new country's democratic structure.
Soros, a Hungarian-born financial speculator who gives millions of his Western currency devaluation winnings to the poor countries of the formerly communist East, kicked off a two-day "fact-finding" visit Monday with a discussion with Slovak intellectuals and journalists at a local movie theater.
Soros hinted that the Slovak government has impeded his non-profit work here in the past. Many Slovaks have been suspicious of Soros's motives because he is Hungarian and Jewish. At the meeting, Soros expressed interest in supporting several Slovak pgrograms, and said he believed the government would not stand in his way.
"I don't think that there is a real problem, because the government is not very powerful these days," he told the gathering, drawing applause. "It is in the process of disintegration."
Slovakia has had to deal increasingly with tensions among Slovaks, the country's ethnic Hungarian minority, and the Romanies or Gypsies. Relations between Slovakia and its neighbor Hungary have become increasingly strained over the Gabcikovo dam complex on the river Danube, which forms the border between the two countries.
In the latest incident, the Slovak government in August ordered Hungarian language roadsigns to be removed from Slovak highways because they were not the proper color.
This happened only weeks after the government had guaranteed to keep the signs in exchange for membership of the Council of Europe, the pan-European body that deals with minority rights and other issues. The government had said it would allow the 600,000-strong Hungarian minority, about 11 percent of the country's population, to use Hungarian language surnames and roadsigns.
In July, the Slovak Parliament had to overturn a curfew law passed by an eastern Slovakia town council. The proposed law was designed to keep Romanies off the streets, a measure the town council said would cut down on crime. There are about 500,000 Romanies living throughout Slovakia, about 9.4 percent of the population.
Slovak premier Vladimir Meciar ignited an international controversy Sept. 3 when he called for a sharp reduction in government benefits. He was quoted as saying the reduction was needed in part to combat the high "reproduction rate of the socially unadaptable population" of Romanies.
Meciar responded to foreign outrage by suing the Czech news agency (CTK) reporter who wrote about Meciar's comments in a story that was picked up by international wire services. Meciar suggested that an international anti-Slovak campaign was deliberately blackening the new country's image.
Soros, who was scheduled to meet Meciar and President Michal Kovac Tuesday, was reluctant to criticize the Slovak government.
"I am happy I'm unqualified to comment, because I would be criticized for interfering," he said.
Soros's foundations plan to support the free press, education for children under 7 years old, environmental programs and several other areas in the fledgling nation.
With the economy declining, unemployment hovering at 13.5 percent and the privatization process ground almost completely to a halt, Slovakia could be fertile breeding ground for the darker side of nationalism, Soros suggested.
"There's only one cure for this feeling of insecurity, inferiority and being threatened, and that is success," he said.