Who’s Afraid of George Soros?
How an octogenarian businessman became the bogeyman of Europe.
In the first decade of the 2000s, Soros enjoyed a relatively warm reception to his work in Central and Eastern Europe, and his organization’s goal, of open societies and Western integration, appeared to be going well. The Open Society Foundations throughout the region funded NGOs, student debating societies, and educational travel. In 2004, the Baltic countries, along with the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, joined the European Union. Romania and Bulgaria followed suit in 2007.
In other countries where Soros worked, the changes were even more dramatic. In Georgia, the Rose Revolution led to the ouster of Eduard Shevardnadze, whom Soros had criticized. The Open Society there funded some of the NGOs and civil actors who supported the revolution, and Soros paid for election monitors. In 2004, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, another country where Soros was active, led to fall of a Kremlin-backed autocrat.
Soros was regarded as a factor in both of the so-called color revolutions. “George Soros did a very good job in many places — he was supportive of the Rose Revolution, young groups,” said Mikheil Saakashvili, who became president of Georgia after the revolution. “It’s obvious that, at that moment, he was a natural ally.”
In fact, one of Saakashvili’s cabinet members, Alexander Lomaia, had previously been the executive director of the Open Society Georgia Foundation, an indication of the close links supporters of the Rose Revolution had with the Hungarian billionaire’s philanthropic works. Soros was good at fostering that sort of popular movement, according to Saakashvili. But the former Georgian president seems wary of Soros getting more involved than that. “When he starts to play politics, he’s not that good,” he added.
How much credit Soros gets for the Rose Revolution is up for debate. “The role of the foundation — and my personal [role] — has been greatly exaggerated,” Soros said in Georgia in 2005. “I think you here must know more than anybody else that the Rose Revolution was entirely the work of Georgian society.”
Yet even as Soros’s work appeared to be paying dividends, the political landscape of the countries he worked in was shifting. The global economic crisis, which started in 2008, created doubts about the financial benefits of being in the European Union and Western integration. This was the beginning of the end for open societies in Central and Eastern Europe, according to one former Hungarian politician, who asked to remain anonymous.
“Most of these countries have had very fragile democratic institutions,” he said. “Before they could solidify came the financial crisis that undermined the whole democratic setup.”
The crisis also made it easier to vilify anyone associated with finance, like a billionaire.
For his part, Soros responded by donating $100 million to Central and Eastern Europe to help people and NGOs recover. “The political risk is very severe and the rise of the chauvinistic, xenophobic far right is a disturbing development,” Soros told the Financial Times in 2009, explaining his donation.
Yet in 2012, the central Open Society Foundation decided that it would pull back from funding the local chapters in the region. The local organizations would receive funding to last for a few more years and then they could apply for individual grants from the central foundation. But they would no longer receive the sort of steady funding that they had been receiving in the past.
Soros pulled his funding from the organizations in the region because the mission had been accomplished in his eyes, Gabriel Petrescu told FP from his office in Bucharest, which overlooks the square where hundreds of thousands of people protested corruption this past winter and where the dogs with signs once stood.
“He said now we are members of the EU,” said Petrescu, who runs the Serendinno Foundation, which was once the Romanian chapter of Open Society. “He had accomplished his mission of opening up these countries.”