Two Czech citizens were recently deported from Macedonia for vandalizing historical monuments in the capital, Skopje -- at least, that's what one Macedonian news agency claimed.
According to an unnamed, high-ranking Macedonian police source quoted by the agency, the two allegedly admitted that they had been hired to carry out the vandalism by the U.S. billionaire philanthropist George Soros's Open Society Foundations.
"The people we see in Skopje vandalizing monuments are simply paid local and foreign mercenaries, who will be dispatched to another location tomorrow, depending on where their employer wants them," the police source was quoted as saying. The article also showed photographs of two Czech passports.
Needless to say, this little report caught my eye, not just because I live in the Czech Republic, but more importantly because I remember well the things Soros did to lift the spirits of Sarajevo's besieged citizens during the 1992-95 Bosnian war. As a journalist, I remember the support he gave to independent media and a fragile, nascent civil society in the aftermath of that conflict.
So I looked around a little. According to a spokeswoman for the Czech Foreign Ministry, the Macedonian Embassy in Prague had no knowledge of any Czech being expelled from Macedonia for vandalism.
The Macedonian news agency reported that "the two deported Czechs also admitted having been active in several other foreign-sponsored 'revolutions' on the European continent." However, a look at the Facebook page of one of the accused Czechs reveals he is rather more interested in music than in "regime change" anywhere. There is also no sign of any connection to Soros or the Open Society Foundations.
Over the past few weeks, Skopje has been rocked by waves of protests. Now it seems the authorities would like to portray this discontent as part of some nebulous foreign conspiracy. It's an old trick -- blaming foreign "enemies" to avoid responsibility for one's own malfeasance (in this case, issuing an amnesty for 55 politicians and their associates accused of election fraud, corruption, and illegal wiretapping).
A Popular Target
Soros is a favorite target of progovernment media in Macedonia. For any authoritarian regime, Soros's commitment to open society is a nightmare. Soros's support for independent media and civil-society organizations put him solidly in the crosshairs of many in the Macedonian establishment.
Which is why I think it is worth taking a moment to remember the hugely positive role Soros played in Bosnia during the early 1990s. Thanks in part to Soros, Sarajevo was able to keep its unique spirit alive and to preserve a semblance of normalcy during the prolonged siege it endured. In addition to humanitarian aid, Soros brought international artists, writers, singers, theater directors, and others who wanted to do something to relieve the terror of daily shelling and sniper attacks and the tedium of the numerous deprivations.
A friend of mine was working for Soros back then. I remember once how he told me without any particular enthusiasm that he was arranging for the U.S. folk singer and political activist Joan Baez to perform in Sarajevo. He was not happy to have to make the dangerous trip to the airport to pick her up -- a trip that involved crossing the front line separating the Bosnian Army from the besieging Serbian forces.)
It was April 1993. There was no running water or electricity in the city. Yet he was supposed to find a relatively safe place where Baez could perform. He had to arrange for a generator for the sound system. And so on. He didn't relish the responsibility of keeping Baez and her audience safe.
But I felt immediately that the appearance of an outside celebrity like Baez was perhaps even more precious to residents of Sarajevo than bread or information. It was a much-needed reminder that the outside world still existed and that isolated Sarajevo was not forgotten.
Baez was amazing. She quickly made friends throughout the city. She formed an instant connection with local musician Vedran Smajlovic. He became known as the Cellist of Sarajevo, because after the first "bread-queue massacre" in May 1992, he came to that spot every single day to perform Tomaso Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor. There was one amazing moment when Baez sat in his usual spot and sang a powerful a capella version of Amazing Grace.
Before her official performance, Baez learned the words of the popular local song Sarajevo, ljubavi moja (Sarajevo, My Love). By the time of her farewell party, my friend was desperately in love with her. He was ready to take her anywhere, even across the front line to the airport.
Since that time, I have seen Soros as a man devoted to repairing the injuries of the world, to bringing hope to places that so desperately need it. Which I guess is why his vision is not welcome in Macedonia these days.