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American way grows less foreign to Fellows

 

For some of them it is the richest gift life may ever offer, for others it is just an interesting story. Most see it more practically - as a chance to develop their skills in a free and open society.

So they came to the Washington area to learn more about the American way. They temporarily joined the staffs of congressional offices, the print and electronic media and other private businesses.

They fretted over how to get by on $20 a day, struggled to negotiate the city by bus and subway, worried about fitting in. But they also enjoyed rounds or parties and receptions and evenings together talking about their experiences and impressions over tea, Coke and bourbon whiskey.

They are highly educated, self-determined, slightly self-proud. They are 17 young pro­fessionals, most in their 20s and 30s, visitors from seven nations in East and Central Europe. All are "Visiting Fellows" in an internship program organized by the National Forum Foun­dation, a Washington-based think tank that promotes democratic and free-market values.

"We are all concerned of how America views the transition in Eastern Europe," explains Istvan Ijgyarto. 27, an intern who is a chief counselor to the Hungarian prime minister in the Department of Hungarian Minorities Abroad. "The expectations make us believe stronger in our possibilities.”

National Forum Foundation has sponsored more than 80 Visiting Fellows since January 1990. These 17, who arrived May 8, make up the fifth group to visit the United States - different personalities but out of the same political past and, they trust, moving toward the same de­mo­cratic future.

Their number includes Yugoslavians, Romanians and Czechoslovaks, but it took just days for them to become friends. They don’t understand each other's language but do know, and even feel, what each other is talking about.

For the first half of the three-month internship, Mr. Ijgyarto was assigned to the office of Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat - "who, by the way," he offers, "is from Hungary.”

"I am gaining some very useful experiences in legislation," Mr. Ijgyarto says. "I was sur­prised at the hard work in the office, which is a well-organized group, to help Mr. Lantos keep in touch with his voters"

Of course, the close study of American-style legislating and constituent services is an unusual experience for Eastern Europeans, Their own legitimate Parliaments have been es­tablished only recently.

But it is of no less importance to start new business in that economically underdeveloped part of Europe.

Aleksandras Levinsonas, 37, is an economist who heads his own management consulting firm in Vilnius, Lithuania. He is looking for more knowledge at the International Advisory Services Group, a private consulting and trade firm on L Street NW.

„The new laws in Lithuania now allow people to run their own business as well as make investments in other ventures," Mr. Levinsonas explains, "Unfortunately, the knowledge of economics, law and management issues of common people in Lithuania is on a quite low level. "I am lucky here to study not only the literature of these subjects and see the everyday work of a small, efficient firm but also to be involved in its activities," he says.

"On the other hand, I have the opportunity to inform people here about the changes in law and economic environment in Lithuania, the Baltic States and Eastern Europe… The fact, for instance, that half of the American capital in Eastern Europe has been so far invested to Hungary, enforces the trust and belief in our going in the right direction."

"The same is with Bulgaria," adds Nadja Nicolova Michaylova, 28, director of the De­partment of International Relations and Protocol for the Bulgarian Radical Democratic Party. "The latest steps we have made [are] highly welcome in the U.S. It was reflected just recently in an article in The Washington Times: A U.S. official called Bulgaria's economic reform plan in some ways even more drastic than [that of] Poland."

For the first six weeks of the program, Mrs. Michaylova was assigned to the office of Rep. David Dreier, Republican from California. She says she attended hearings on the floor, met with "people of political importance," surveyed newspaper stories and did a report on Bulgaria for Mr. Dreier, who is to visit Eastern Europe.

Wanda Zwinogrodzka, 31, a full-time theater critic for Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest independent newspaper, was assigned to Gannett News Service and USA Today.

"In Poland, we are also facing that problem with circulation figures," she says, "so it was interesting to see the efforts of this daily for more readers.

"Of course, we don’t want to copy what we see here, because there is a great difference between our cultures. But these experiences help us to find the best solutions."

A six-week stay in one place means more than taking just a tourist’s approach to a city.

The 17 visitors took up residence at the huge Woodner Apartments on 16th Street NW, near Mount Pleasant. They cooked group meals together after trips to the local Giant, used the building's laundry, fitness room and swimming pool and often gathered at night in one of their rooms.

"You know, I really like Washington, its large green parks, but at first it was difficult to be here." Miss Zwinogrodzka says. "Everything is so different even from Western Europe: the numbering of the streets, the advertisements during movies, the laws, etc.

"1 was told this is not a typical American city. It is very beautiful, but I would look for more life in downtown. The neoclassical buildings remind me of those in Warsaw built by the communists in the '50s. Of course, there is a difference in the quality of the material, but the colossal walls, the huge columns, fountains, the wide avenues carry the same idea, i.e. to be impressive, to reflect the power of the state and the city.

"That brings the idea of the Roman Empire to my mind, that artificial beauty,” the visitor from Poland says.

Aleks Levinsonas is impressed by Washington work habits.

"Well, at home I used to work very hard - let's say from 9 am to 10 pm - but work here is really the focus of life," the Lithuanian says. "They just live their work. Everything is con­centrated on the office. Their first question is what I am doing.

"In our countries, profession is of no basic importance in judging someone, we talk more in terms of politics and culture. But I don’t doubt this pragmatism and concentration is the condition to the well-known American productivity"

Istvan Ijgyarto, worried about ethnic conflict at home, says he was taken by signs of an integrated society.

"I haven't noticed signs of discrimination,” the Hungarian visitor says. "Quite on the con­trary to previous communist ideology that tried to mirror the problems of colored and white people as a typical and antagonistic offshoot of American imperialism, they seem to work well together.”

"Of course, there are tensions, but on both sides you can see the willingness to find suitable solutions."

Gabor Turi is a journalist, political commentator and jazz critic for Naplo (Diary), a newspaper in Debrecen, Hungary. A Visiting Fellow at The Washington Times for six weeks, he moved on Tuesday to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk.

(The Washington Times, July 4, 1991)