George Soros fights back against populist foes and conspiracy theories
Billionaire investor doubles down on his project to foster growth of pluralist democracies
George Soros, founder and chairman of the Open Society Foundations. He believes Russia is the source of much of the attacks against him, and that it’s personal. “Putin doesn’t like me,” he says. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/AFP/Getty Images
Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban. He has instructed intelligence agencies to investigate a “Soros empire” that he claims threatens national interests. Photograph: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has publicly backed Viktor Orban’s criticisms of George Soror’s Open Society Foundations. Photograph: Ronen Zvulun/AFP/Getty Images
Fame brings nothing but trouble, George Soros’s father warned him. By concealing his family’s Jewish identity, Tivadar Soros helped save them from deportation from Hungary to Nazi death camps. The younger Soros – now aged 87 – has taken a different approach, embracing public prominence as a billionaire investor and later as a liberal philanthropist. But it has come at a cost.
Over the past year, Soros and the Open Society Foundations (OSF) he founded have become the target for an escalating – and at times orchestrated – campaign of vilification by opponents of the liberal agenda that he promotes.
Among countless conspiracy theories circulated by rightwing critics, Soros has been accused of staging chemical weapons attacks on Syrian children, toppling the government of Macedonia through psychological warfare and engineering the migration of millions of Muslim migrants to Europe.
But some of the attacks have been more serious. In Hungary, he was the subject of a state-funded, multimillion euro campaign of negative advertising. One MP from the ruling Fidesz party in December posted a picture on Facebook of a burnt carcass of a pig with the words “This was Soros” carved into its skin. In December he conceded that Central European University, the elite research university he established in 1991, may be forced to leave Budapest in the wake of new laws seen by critics as an attack on academic freedom.
Meanwhile, in Romania, the leader of its ruling party saw Soros’s hand in anti-corruption demonstrations, saying he had “financed evil”.
The attacks on Soros are one of the most striking manifestations of shifting political sands, especially in central and eastern Europe. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soros’s foundations epitomised the optimism about the spread of western-style democracy in the former Soviet bloc. Yet the same foundations have now become a lightning rod for the nationalist and at times authoritarian voices that are exerting a much greater influence across the region amid the wilting appeal of liberalism.
“It’s déjà vu all over again with one big change – the dominant ideology in the world now is nationalism,” Soros said in a Financial Times interview in his home in upstate New York. “It’s the EU that’s the institution that’s on the verge of a breakdown. And Russia is now the resurgent power, based on nationalism.”
A Jewish billionaire is a convenient enemy for leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, according to historian Anne Applebaum: “They don’t want to be openly anti-American or anti-EU so they’ve identified [Soros] as a bogeyman figure that represents the parts of the west they dislike,” she says, adding that critics play on anti-Semitic tropes. “It’s a neat tactic because it avoids criticism of the EU and the US. And it’s a simpler, older kind of message.”
Within OSF, there has been an anguished debate about whether responding to the campaign would only spur further efforts to demonise Soros. Some wondered whether publicising the endowment would invite even more attacks on the groups he supports.
But Soros insists he will fight back. He had originally planned to wind down OSF before his death. Instead, he is doubling down on his project to foster the growth of democracies where governments encourage pluralism and accountability.
In November, he confirmed he had handed over an additional $18 billion (€14.7 billion) – the bulk of his personal wealth – to OSF, which he leads as chairman of the global board, turning it into one of the largest charitable foundations ever. His total transfers now amount to $32 billion.
“I think you can say I’m quite lucky with my enemies,” he says brightly of the attacks. “It makes me feel more than ready to fight back and stand up for what is right.”
OSF is arguably a new kind of international actor, with a scale of resources more commonly associated with international relief organisations such as the Red Cross, but deployed in the service of an unashamedly liberal worldview.
It has spent nearly $14 billion over the past 35 years – much of it on education and health programmes. In the 1990s, OSF helped reconnect water supplies and electricity for the besieged Bosnian capital Sarajevo and gave grants to struggling Russian scientists. Today it advocates for healthcare and economic opportunities for groups on the margins, including Europe’s 10 million-strong Roma community, people with disabilities and drug users.
Active in 140 countries, it also supports groups that challenge governments, the kind of pro-democracy efforts from which other donors shy away. Soros, through his personal donations, is also one of the US Democratic Party’s biggest backers.
That worldview has always made him controversial on the right, but in recent years his activities have prompted accusations – which he denies – that he has helped topple governments in Georgia, Ukraine and most recently Macedonia.
The foundation has been expelled from Russia and Uzbekistan and Soros says those who have received grants are also now facing threats in Hungary, an EU member, where Orban has instructed intelligence agencies to investigate a “Soros empire” that he claims threatens national interests.
Nearly 20 semi-autonomous boards decide how OSF’s money is spent and recipients report donations publicly. But critics claim Soros directs its every move, making it into an unaccountable liberal superpower. Breitbart News, the alt-right website, calls it the “Death Star”.
Zoltan Kovács, spokesman for the Hungarian government, says the debate over OSF springs from “two clashing visions of democracy”. While Soros believes civil society should act as a check on executive power, Kovács argues that only elected representatives can legitimately “do politics”.
“Mr Soros has never been elected by anyone, the organisations – NGOs, human rights groups and so on – have never been elected by anyone,” he told the FT. “[They are] clearly engaging in determining how political decisions should be made. And this is wrong.”
An official at OSF counters that populist politicians think they “own” politics: “If you support local people expressing contrary views, they see it as trespassing on their territory.”
Soros believes Russia is the source of much of the attacks against him. And it’s personal. “Putin doesn’t like me,” he says, describing a grudge he believes was stoked by his criticism of the Russian leader and his early support for Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president who rose to power after the 2003 Rose revolution.
Russia urged neighbouring authoritarian leaders to forestall a domino effect of revolutions by clamping down on civil society and pressuring OSF, according to Alisher Ilkhamov, who ran the OSF office in Uzbekistan before it was forced to close down in 2004. In 2015 Russian authorities followed suit and OSF was forced to leave Moscow, after authorities restricted its funding activities, citing security risks.
In May 2017, Macedonian recipients of OSF grants had their windows smashed as government supporters blamed them for the collapse of the rightwing government led by the VMRO party, which had been accused by an EU report of “massive invasion of fundamental rights” including illegal wiretapping and judicial interference.
Opponents’ ties to Israel
Cvetin Chilimanov, founder of the Stop Operation Soros organisation launched by supporters of the ousted Macedonian government, claims OSF, aided by western diplomats, helped engineer its demise, using fake wiretap recordings and civil society stooges.
“I don’t advocate limiting the right of dodgy billionaires to fund media outlets or activist groups to push their political peeves, but I reserve the right to point out these connections and criticise them,” he says.
OSF officials are reluctant to portray the attacks as part of a co-ordinated plan. However, the leaders in Hungary, Romania and Macedonia have close bilateral contacts. They have even taken their case to US senator Mike Lee – one of six US Republican senators who in 2017 requested an investigation into the US state department’s grants to OSF projects. He made the demand after meeting delegations from the three countries separately, a spokesman confirmed to the FT.
The ties also extend to Israel. Eli Hazan, foreign relations director for the ruling Likud party, says he gave Orban information on Soros’s Israeli grantees weeks before the Hungarian premier unveiled his anti-Soros billboard campaign. Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, later publicly backed Orban’s criticisms before making a three-day visit to Budapest. Likud members have proposed tighter rules on funding by groups such as OSF and accuse Soros of shielding terrorists by supporting Palestinian NGOs.
Fighting Soros’s activities is “a pleasure”, Hazan told the FT. Soros cannot win in national elections, Hazan says, so he chooses to promote his ideas through other means. “If I can help other organisations or governments to work against Soros, I will do it with pleasure because it is a struggle of ideas that may shape the future in the world,” he says.
Soros concedes he has made mistakes. Saakashvili, the former Georgian leader he championed, “turned out to be much less of a paragon of open society values than he was in opposition”, he wrote in 2011. Soros’s relationship with Saaskashvili, who was later exiled to Ukraine, where he became governor of Odessa but is now also under criminal investigation, taught him a “painful lesson”, he says, to “keep a greater distance from the internal politics of the countries where I have foundations”.
That is easier in theory than in practice, he admits. His grantees were involved in the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine, although he insists OSF had no direct role. “We were not involved in the actual fighting – that’s against our guidelines and principles. But we were supporters of the fighters and that was also during Maidan.”
Patrick Gaspard, OSF’s new president, says the organisation has procedures for allocating funding that are independent of Soros. Political mis-steps have been exceedingly rare, he adds: “Every effort has been made to wall off grant-making from partisan political campaigns,” he says.
But errors are inevitable, especially with the group funding activities in 140 countries. “One has to be comfortable with that [the risks] but also learn from the mistakes that occur,” he says.
OSF officials concede the Soros name and the foundation are inextricable in public minds. This suits critics, who portray OSF as a mere tool of its founder, despite its decentralised structure.
“Most foundations and donors want to fade into the background and let the work of groups they fund speak for itself,” says one OSF-backed campaigner. “But that is harder when you have a vocal founder and he is subjected to a vile smear campaign.”
Rather than adopting a defensive posture, Soros says he will remain chair of the global board for another five years, or perhaps longer, as long as his health allows. But OSF will outlast him. Gaspard’s appointment offers clues to future plans. A former Obama White House political director, he brings a sharper political background than his predecessor Christopher Stone, a former Harvard academic.
Gaspard’s list of priorities suggests OSF will not shy from political controversy: corruption, the challenges posed by mass migration, the abuse of technology by autocrats and ensuring voting rights “from Cleveland to Kinshasa”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018