Historical Background

In the late 1980s, at the time of the turbulent democratic changes in Eastern Europe, The Soros Foundation organized summer seminars for academics, lawyers and intellectuals from both Western and Eastern Europe at the Inter-University Center (IUC) in Dubrovnik. At that time, George Soros had already started his foundation in Hungary and was, after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, ready to continue his philanthropic activities in the countries of Eastern Europe, which had begun to build their democracies. Yugoslav intellectuals who attended those seminars approached George Soros and asked him to establish a similar foundation in Yugoslavia. Mr. Soros was not convinced that there was a need—the Yugoslav Prime Minister, Ante Marković, was doing a good job initiating economic reforms that would put the country, which had never been part of the Soviet Bloc, on the right path. The academics and intellectuals, however, argued that, economy aside, little else was moving in the direction of an open society—political practice in the country still took the form of the old authoritarianism. These intellectuals changed Mr. Soros’s mind and, with the help of many people, he began to sort out the myriad details of launching the foundation. On June 17, 1991, in Belgrade, George Soros signed an agreement with the local federal authorities establishing the Soros Yugoslavia Foundation. A week later war erupted in Slovenia, and Yugoslavia started to disintegrate.

The first Board of the Soros Yugoslavia Foundation comprised a number of intellectuals from all over the country: Žarko Puhovski (President of the Board), Rastko Močnik, Zdravko Grebo, Dragan Klaić, Janja Beč and Milan Popović. Sonja Licht was the Executive Director in Belgrade, and Beka Vučo led an office in New York. As Yugoslavia underwent its violent breakup, national foundations sprang up in each country that emerged from the conflicts. At the same time, the OSF extended its reach to Albania.

Today, 30 years after those unsettled times, the national foundations in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Serbia are still alive and active, promoting philanthropy and meeting the challenges of creating and maintaining an open society. The OSF also maintains strong ties and undertakes projects in Montenegro as well as in Croatia and Slovenia, the only two countries in the region that are members of the European Union.

History and war have certainly taken their toll in the region; the effects linger, but no longer paralyze. Much has been accomplished during these three long decades, but much still needs to be done—there is still unfinished business in the Balkans, many issues to take up, concerns to address, and problems to solve.