Argument

Balkan Conspiracy Theories Come to Capitol Hill

Balkan Conspiracy Theories Come to Capitol Hill

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is mulling how to respond to a letter delivered March 14 by six senators urging him to investigate the activities of U.S. embassies, USAID missions, and diplomatic outposts working to support democracy around the world.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the lead signatory, and his fellow senators unquestioningly spread false allegations made in a pamphlet distributed to Congress by a Macedonian group, Stop Operation Soros, which was set up by Cvetin Chilimanov, the editor of Macedonia’s state news service and a former employee of the president’s office. The letter focuses on the efforts of two career U.S. ambassadors to support democracy in Macedonia and Albania, implying that their missions meddled in local party politics to “invigorate the political left.” It alleges that the Foundation Open Society Macedonia and the Open Society Foundation for Albania, which are supported by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, acted as middlemen in this endeavor.

Tillerson should ignore the letter, because there’s nothing to investigate. In addition to being littered with inaccuracies about the foundations’ work, the senators echo Kremlin talking points and support the agenda of corrupt and undemocratic elements in the region.

I know this because I am the director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe, which Soros founded. I am also Macedonian. In 2015, my country was thrown into political crisis after an opposition party published a series of intercepted audio conversations. One appeared to show then-Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski encouraging election officials to invalidate ballots cast against his party. Other recordings revealed rampant corruption and a mass surveillance program targeting 20,000 people. In response, hundreds of thousands of protesters against the government took to the streets across Macedonia in 2015 and 2016 and a special prosecutor launched an investigation against Gruevski, who was encouraged to step down by the European Union. Elections late last year left no party with enough seats to form a new government; Gruevski remains the most powerful force in a divided Macedonia.

Faced with a potential prison sentence, Gruevski is unwilling to admit responsibility for the crime and the political crisis caused by the ongoing investigation. Admonished by the EU and eager to shift the blame, he appears to be taking his lines from Moscow. He has parroted Kremlin propaganda that labels critical voices as enemies of the people. Soros, who co-funds independent organizations with other private donors and the EU, has become a convenient scapegoat.

It has been widely understood in the U.S. Congress that support for civil society organizations around the globe was not a partisan affair. Since the days of President Ronald Reagan, both parties have overwhelmingly supported work to help countries transition from communism to democracy. Yet in their letter, the senators ask Tillerson to shut down democracy promotion that is “disrespecting national sovereignty.” Such an interpretation assumes that governments are sacrosanct and sovereign, not the voters who elect them, and that a healthy civil society undermines a country’s development.

In pushing these claims, the senators have unwittingly ushered Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian narrative straight into the Capitol. In wording akin to Russian state media’s depiction of the crisis in Ukraine, which branded all popular dissent as fomented by the West, the letter accuses USAID of destabilizing Albania, a former communist state turned NATO ally, by pushing for justice reform there. They offer no proof to substantiate their claim beyond USAID funding the work of the Open Society Foundation for Albania, and even this is incorrect.

Contrary to the allegations leveled in the letter by unnamed “respected leaders from Albania,” the Open Society Foundation for Albania has never accepted or administered USAID funding. It did not create the Strategic Document for Albanian Judicial Reform as the letter claims; Albania’s multiparty parliamentary commission for judicial reform did. The foundation supported the process by funding the commission and its technical support team, but had no input in the document. The senators appear to have fallen victim to a political exercise to discredit the judicial reform process and the prime minister — ironic given their concerns about stability in the country.

Perhaps most alarming is that the senators’ letter equates pushing a “progressive agenda” with promoting “a political agenda.” They seem to forget that progress — in rule of law, democracy, and respect for human rights — is a human ideal enshrined in international law by governments from across the political spectrum. The senators argue that critical debate and reform aimed at realizing that ideal have had a “destabilizing effect” in the region.

History demonstrates that they’re wrong. It’s no coincidence that the most prosperous countries in the world (think of Germany or the Netherlands, not to mention the United States) play host to vibrant and diverse policy debates. Airing and addressing public concerns creates long-term stability, and suppressing them only feeds frustration and increases the likelihood of unrest.

It is not surprising that the senators have heard from entrenched leaders who view critical civil society as subversive. Politicians don’t like to be criticized. But the investigation they call for would target the work of pro-democracy organizations like the International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute, National Endowment for Democracy, U.S. Institute of Peace, and countless others around the world, based on what appear to be the comments of a few self-interested politicians in two countries. Agreeing to such an investigation would mark a dangerous departure from decades of American policy promoting democracy and human rights abroad, practiced by both Republican and Democratic administrations. It would mark the abandonment of the understanding that U.S. interests are best served by relationships with stable, peaceful countries that share the same democratic values.

The letter also ignores the fact that much of the foundations’ work is designed to support government institutions. Tillerson should take stock of this before he makes his decision. Since Soros founded the Open Society Foundations in 1979, our work has helped improve the lives of millions of people around the world.

The Foundation Open Society Macedonia’s support was vital to the country’s survival in its early years. Blockaded by its neighbors after declaring independence in 1991 during the breakup of Yugoslavia, the foundation helped keep Macedonia’s health care system alive, bringing medicine, lab equipment, ambulances, and sanitary supplies to 45 hospitals and clinics across the country. In 1994, it paid 50 percent of the costs for 40 massive airfreight flights to Slovenia so that Macedonian farmers could get their fresh produce to a European market.

To date, the Foundation Open Society Macedonia spent $171,500 more than the Macedonian government to provide the country’s poorest people with free legal aid. These projects offer legal assistance to any person or organization refused access to information about government activities, such as spending on a local infrastructure project. The foundation has provided free legal advice to 100 victims of domestic abuse. It even helped the government by paying for a new digital records system for the national health care system and funded the country’s justice ministry website.

The Foundation Open Society Macedonia has helped train more than 2,000 instructors to use interactive teaching methodologies and paid for refurbishing and equipping amphitheaters, hallways, toilets, multimedia libraries, and classrooms at eight teacher training faculties at four state universities. During the economic crisis from 2009 to 2011, it used emergency funds to disburse $1.9 million to organizations teaching farmers and small-business men financial management so they could keep their businesses afloat.

The Open Society Foundation for Albania has spent more than $57 million building 275 schools and kindergartens across the country. Seventy percent of its population has benefited from these schools, and children are still educated in them. Open Society’s internet program opened up Albania to the outside world, setting up the country’s first internet antenna in 1997 and helping to deliver free online services to libraries, universities, and NGOs.

The Open Society Foundations pride themselves on being transparent and nonpartisan. We advance human rights and fundamental freedoms for the long term, irrespective of the political leaders of the day. If leaders with authoritarian tendencies cut off support to the brave NGOs that question them, activists would be left increasingly exposed to harassment, intimidation, and violence. The world would become less stable.

The secretary of state should think long and hard about standing behind America’s international political commitments. Abandoning them would mean taking his country, and the world, in a different and far darker direction.

Photo credit: ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images