30th anniversary of the George Soros Foundation in the former Yugoslavia
This year, the Open Society Foundations, founded by George Soros, mark the 30th anniversary of its activities in the territory of former Yugoslavia. The first foundation in the region was established in 1991 in Belgrade, when the SFRY still existed. Its purpose was to support the processes of democratization throughout Yugoslavia. After the disintegration of the socialist federation, George Soros opened foundations in each of the new countries, and soon afterwards in Albania as well.
On the occasion of the 30th anniversary, we recalled memories to the work of the Soros Foundations in the region, reflected the efforts made at the time, and discussed how the principles of an open society could be reenforced in the current situation. Therefore, between April and June 2021, the Soros Foundations and their partner organizations are organizing online events in eight countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Slovenia, and Serbia. At the same time, a book will be published presenting data on the foundation’s work over the past 30 years in these countries, as well as essays by over twenty renowned authors. More information is available at: https://30yearsinitiative.com/.
In Slovenia, an online discussion on the legacy and work of the Open Society Foundations was organised by the Peace Institute on 6 May 2021.
In the online discussion we focused on two sets of questions when presenting our memories, views, and reflections:
- first, how the efforts for an open society were conceived and implemented in the 1990s, when the foundation was still operating in Slovenia, what impact the foundation’s activities had on civil society, culture, media, education, science, and art; which achievements and approaches left traces, what is worth remembering and what is good to know about this period;
• and second, how the idea of an open society resonates in Slovenia today, what is left of the visions, ideas, organizations, and projects that the foundation advocated and supported in the 1990s, where are the potentials today, which processes and actors look up to when we think about the state and future of democracy and open society in Slovenia.
The following speakers took part in the online discussion:
- Rastko Močnik, sociologist, former professor at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana,
• Tanja Rener, sociologist, professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana,
• Lev Kreft, philosopher, former professor at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana,
• Vlasta Jalušič, political scientist, a researcher at the Peace Institute,
• Slavko Gaber, sociologist, professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Ljubljana,
• Anica Mikuš Kos, pediatrician, psychiatrist and humanitarian, president of Slovenian Philanthropy,
• Barbara Borčić, art historian and curator at SCCA-Ljubljana, Institute for Contemporary Art,
• Sandra Bašić Hrvatin, communication scientist, professor at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Primorska,
• Danica Purg, political scientist, founder and director of the IEDC-Bled School of Management.
Beka Vučo, who was the regional director of the Open Society Foundations in New York for foundations in the countries of former Yugoslavia until December 2020, also took part in the online discussion.
The event was moderated by Brankica Petković, researcher at the Peace Institute.
The participants were addressed by Iztok Šori, director of the Peace Institute.
Summary of the online discussion
Iztok Šori pointed out that the Open Society Foundations played an important role in the development of civil society and democratic standards in Slovenia. In addition to direct support through the Open Society Institute – Slovenia in the 1990s, it provided institutional support to the Peace Institute for its work in the field of human rights and equality between 2001 and 2014.
Rastko Močnik, who was the chairman of the board of the Open Society Institute – Slovenia, pointed out that Open Society Foundations operated in the countries of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s in a war-torn situation. At the same time, the collaboration between people and the programs in these foundations was most harmonious. Gratitude goes especially to the people who worked in these foundations and in the bodies of the foundations. He pointed out Živko Pregl, president of the board of the Open Society Institute – Slovenia, whose tolerance and constructiveness are still missed today. He highlighted the East-East Program, which was established as a program of cooperation between individuals, organizations, and institutions from different countries of Eastern Europe, ie. among the former socialist countries. It was based on self-initiative, horizontal integration, and direct action. Močnik also emphasized that the power of the alternative in the former Yugoslavia had been demonstrated through the work of the Open Society Foundations. This alternative was not only able to survive the war, but it was also creative and very productive. It continued its development, which began in the 1970s and 1980s, in the time of Yugoslavia. According to Močnik, the operation of the George Soros Foundations in these countries has significantly contributed to this development.
Tanja Rener, who was a member of the board of the Open Society Institute – Slovenia, pointed out that several people who were part of the social movements in the 1980s participated in the work of the Open Society Institute in Slovenia and this influenced the work of foundations. “We did three things: first, the institute was entering the place of a disappearing socialist state, and that position was thoroughly schizophrenic. I remember vigoruos arguments over whether to provide support to certain things that really needed to be supported or not. And that ‘no’ went to the scruff of the country, which should have supported certain things, but somehow it didn’t … Second, civic initiatives and the remnants of the movements from the 1980s could be preserved. Without a foundation, it would be significantly harder. Some are still alive today, more resilient than if there were no foundation. And third, some organizations and programs were initiated by the foundation, at the time they did not yet exist and are still developing relatively well and successfully today,” said Tanja Rener.
Anica Mikuš Kos and Slavko Gaber emphasized the importance of programs to help the education and psychosocial development of refugee children from Bosnia and Herzegovina in Slovenia, who were supported by the Open Society Institute – Slovenia in the 1990s. In addition to supporting the programs of non-governmental organizations that helped refugee children and schools, George Soros during his visit to Ljubljana provided funding to the government’s program of educating refugee children with 500,000 US dollars, and Slavko Gaber was then Minister of Education.
Anica Mikuš Kos recalled that “at that time, those of us who were working to help refugees were officially not very nicely portrayed. There was a lot of sympathy for the refugees among people, but on a formal level things were not very favorable.” The support of the Open Society Institute – Slovenia was extremely important in such circumstances: “It was really very important to have not only someone who solely finances something, but also gives support, “said Anica Mikuš Kos.
Slavko Gaber recalled the visit of George Soros and the effort to make it public that he had given half a million dollars for the education of refugee children. It was not only a significant financial aid but also a counterbalance to the extreme nationalist voices, which ranged from parliament to threats on the streets aimed at those who helped refugees. The donation and the visit of Soros were “an important message.” Gaber himself took part in the effort to make the public in Slovenia aware of the donation and emphasized the importance of the fact that national television reported on it at the time and made it known that there are people who care and help us as communities in Slovenia. It enabled to maintain fundamental dignity and allowed refugee children to have the opportunity to live ahead.
Danica Purg, who was a member of the board of the Open Society Institute – Slovenia, pointed out that the institute’s operations were marked by a great variety of projects and a great diversity of people. “Soros helped us get started with the Academy for Management Professors,” she said. She emphasized that through her participation in the work of the Open Society Foundation she learned a lot and gained a lot, and she is still engaged in the board of Slovenian Philanthropy.
Barbara Borčić, who was first a member of the team and then the head of SCCA – Center for Contemporary Art, at that time still within the Open Society Institute – Slovenia, said that SCCA had much better production conditions at that time which they could also offer to artists. The projects they were able to produce were very complex and demanding. She highlighted the Urbanaria project, which brought art into spaces not intended for art, and established many unforeseen connections and collaborations. She also mentioned the Video Document project, which was the first project that started documenting video production. They set up training for curators – World of Art. They collaborated with Ljudmila in connecting art and the Internet, “so that artists began to understand the Internet as a tool, as their means of expression.” It was certainly important to equip schools and non-governmental organizations with computer equipment, Barbara Borčić pointed out.
Sandra Bašić Hrvatin, who participated in the media program of the Open Society Institute – Slovenia, in the Media Watch project and the magazine Medijska preža, and later also participated in the editorial board of the magazine within the Peace Institute, said that Medijska preža was “the best magazine in the field of media in Europe “. She expressed regret that the publication of Medijska preža, when the financial support of the Open Society Foundations for the publication of the magazine at the Peace Institute had dried up, was not taken over by any other institution, e.g. one of the faculties. “Even today my students use many of the texts that were published there. The books in the Media Watch collection are among the most read and are still distributed, shared and read among students today.” She also emphasized the role played by the media program at the Peace Institute with the financial support of the Open Society Foundations in designing and implementing a number of regional, comparative research on the functioning of media systems in the Balkans and wider Eastern Europe. This has established and strengthened a network of media researchers in the region who have developed into key and independent researchers and who are not just data collectors for research conducted outside the region.
Vlasta Jalušič, who was the director of the Peace Institute when the institute took over three programs of the former Open Society Institute – Slovenia in 2001 and began receiving institutional support from the George Soros Foundation, pointed out that the institute was completely independent and autonomous in its operation. At the same time, she emphasized the impetus given to the Peace Institute and other non-governmental organizations by the support of the Open Society Foundation: “An incredible development has happened to us, both mentally and professionally. I’m talking about all the organizations, from the whole spectrum, that came out of that first mover. We have become extremely professional, capable, effective as researchers, as NGOs, and as a civil society. We have capacities that are exceptional in my opinion. What has happened in society at the same time is the complete opposite trend in the field of so-called professional policy. There has been a complete degradation, a complete deprofessionalization and this is catastrophic at the moment. We are ruled by the most unprofessional people we can imagine. In short, we have a complete imbalance between civil society and professional politics. ”
Lev Kreft was the president of the board of the Peace Institute when in 2001 part of the programs of the Open Society Institute – Slovenia was transferred to the Peace Institute. At the same time, the institute began to receive institutional support from the Open Society Foundations. He highlighted the complexity of this transition and the challenges to make this integration work well and in favor of the principles upheld by both organizations.
Beka Vučo, regional director of the Open Society Foundations in New York for foundations in the countries of the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to December 2020, emphasized that the period of launching and operating Open Society Foundations in the region was a period of learning how to establish and run foundations. At the same time, this period was marked by connection and camaraderie among the people who worked in the foundations, mutual trust, and understanding in the difficult conditions of the war in the former Yugoslavia. She highlighted the diversity and richness of the programs developed by the foundation in Slovenia. The foundation thus contributed to the development of many areas – civil society, media, and journalism, higher education, education, culture and art, publishing, libraries, environmental protection, health (including the launch of a palliative care program), gender equality, the work of Roma organizations, East-East exchanges, and cooperation, individual travel fellowships for study visits abroad for scientists, artists, journalists… This has resulted in several spinoff programs and non-governmental organizations – PIC, Ljudmila, Pina, Kibla, SRCe, Step by step, Pro et contra… She described the transfer of part of the programs of the Open Society Institute – Slovenia to the Peace Institute in 2001 and the cooperation between the Peace Institute and Open Society Foundations as groundbreaking and very positive.
Alja Brglez, who was the director of the Open Society Institute – Slovenia between 1995 and 1998, emphasized the openness of the then foundation for various topics and programs and the willingness and diligence of colleagues for complex and diverse tasks. Aldo Milohnić, who was the director of the Open Society Institute Slovenia at the time of the foundation’s closure in 2000 and had previously led several programs, emphasized the important role of Rastko Močnik in the start-up, management, and operation of the institute. Bojana Skrt, who heads the Pro et contra – Institute for the Culture of Dialogue, which was established with the support of the Open Society Institute – Slovenia, recalled the difficult period after the closure of the foundation in Slovenia and pointed out that almost all organizations, which received the support of the Open Society Institute – Slovenia, managed to survive and are still active today. Tatjana Vonta, who led the Step by Step program for kindergartens in Slovenia, described how, after the foundation closed, they found support for the program in the Network for Professional Development of Educators and Teachers and in the Center for Quality in Education. In today’s crisis situation for education, she sees another challenge for democratic approaches to education, which are very difficult to implement due to the dominance of the health paradigm during the pandemic. “It will probably be necessary to find ways that will help the current generations to establish democratic values and be able to enforce them. It is high time that we dedicate ourselves to this very intensively again, “said Tatjana Vonta.