Who’s Afraid of George Soros?

How an octogenarian businessman became the bogeyman of Europe.

BUCHAREST, Romania — Last winter, in the middle of anti-corruption demonstrations, a television broadcaster accused George Soros — the Hungarian-born, Jewish-American billionaire philanthropist — of paying dogs to protest.

The protests in Bucharest, sparked by dead-of-night legislation aimed at decriminalizing corruption, were the largest the country had seen since the fall of communism in 1989. Romania TV — a channel associated with, if not officially owned by, the government — alleged the protesters were paid.

“Adults were paid 100 lei [$24], children earned 50 lei [$12.30], and dogs were paid 30 lei [$7.20],” one broadcaster said. 

Some protesters responded by fitting their dogs with placards; others tucked money into their pets’ coats. One dog stood next to a sign reading, “Can anyone change 30 lei into euro?” Another dog wore one that read: “George Soros paid me to be here.”

“The pro-government television, they lie all the time. In three sentences, they have five lies,” investigative journalist Andrei Astefanesei told Foreign Policy outside a gyro shop in Bucharest. “I told you about that lie, that Soros paid for dogs. ‘If you bring more dogs in the street, you get more money.’” He laughed.

Romania TV was fined for its false claims about Soros. But the idea — that roughly half a million Romanians, and their dogs, came to the streets because Soros made them do it — struck a responsive chord. It’s similar to the idea that Soros is personally responsible for teaching students about LGBTQ rights in Romanian high schools; that Soros manipulated the teenagers who led this year’s anti-corruption protests in Slovakia; and that civil organizations and what’s left of the independent media in Hungary wouldn’t exist without Soros and his Open Society Foundations.

The idea that the 87-year-old Soros is single-handedly stirring up discontent isn’t confined to the European side of the Atlantic; Soros conspiracies are a global phenomenon. In March, six U.S. senators signed a letter asking Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s staff to look into U.S. government funding going to Soros-backed organizations.

“Our skepticism about Soros-funded groups undermining American priorities goes far beyond Eastern Europe,” said a spokesperson for Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who led the initiative, when asked if there was some specific piece of evidence of Soros-funded activity in Eastern Europe that prompted the letter or if concerns were more general.

Soros has even been linked to former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality. “Congrats to Colin Kaepernick for popularizing the hatred of America. Good work, bro,” Tomi Lahren, a conservative commentator, tweeted during the controversy. “Your buddy George Soros is so proud. #istand.”

On Twitter, Soros has also been held responsible for the recent Catalan independence referendum and the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

But one of the places in which suspicion of Soros is most obvious is Central and Eastern Europe. There, Soros is not unlike the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter, except that while the fictional mirror shows what the viewer most desires, Soros reflects back onto a country what it most hates.

In Romania, where the head of the ruling party said Soros wants to do evil, the billionaire is not to be trusted because he’s Hungarian. In Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has reportedly declared that Soros will be a main campaign theme in next year’s general election, he’s a traitor. And everywhere, he is Jewish, his very name a nod to the anti-Semitism that runs deep throughout the region.

Now, Soros’s effectiveness as a bogeyman for conservative governments will be put to the test, literally. This week, Hungary is holding a “national consultation,” essentially a referendum designed to condemn Soros and his views on immigration. The government-funded questionnaire will be open to the country’s adult citizens and is meant to solicit their views on the Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor.

“George Soros has bought people and organizations, and Brussels is under his influence,” Orban said in a radio interview Friday in the run-up to the consultation. “They want to demolish the fence, allow millions of immigrants into Europe, then distribute them using a mandatory mechanism — and they want to punish those who do not comply.”

Soros declined an interview for this article, but a spokesperson for the Open Society Foundations, the main conduit for Soros’s philanthropic efforts, chalked up the backlash to his outspokenness. “He’s a man who stands up for his beliefs,” Laura Silber, a spokeswoman for the foundation, told FP. “That’s threatening when you’re speaking out against autocrats and corruption.”

Blame and hatred of Soros are, to borrow from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, a specter haunting Central and Eastern Europe. But how did an 87-year-old billionaire thousands of miles away become the region’s most famous ghost?

A man and his dog in Bucharest protest against corruption in February. (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)

Soros started his philanthropy not in Central and Eastern Europe but in apartheid-era South Africa in 1979. There, he gave scholarships to black South Africans to attend the University of Cape Town. Five years later, in 1984, he began the first Open Society in Europe in Hungary.

The name of the foundation was inspired by Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. Soros encountered Popper as a student at the London School of Economics decades before and was evidently so taken with the philosopher’s ideology that he named his organization after it.

Soros established a network of Open Society organizations across Central and Eastern Europe in part because he was worried about an intellectual exodus, according to Jan Orlovsky, the head of Slovakia’s Open Society, who spoke to FP in his office in Bratislava’s Old Town. Soros wanted the region to be a place where people could see themselves staying — and staying within liberal democratic societies. “’I don’t want people to feel like they need to leave,’” Orlovsky said of Soros’s thinking.

In some cases, paying for that taste of liberal democracy did take on a political flavor. In Slovakia, NGOs backed by Open Society ran the 1998 “Rock the Vote” campaign that encouraged voter turnout and ousted Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, who critics say had allowed the country to become a mafia state.

Paul Stubbs, a British academic based in Croatia, said one criticism of Soros from this time was that the philanthropist wanted to be a regional political player but that he achieved this by giving tremendous money to local elites. “The kinds of figures that he’s supported who have tended to run the local Open Society Foundations … were given an awful lot of autonomy” in the mid- to late 1990s, Stubbs said.

In the ’90s, the idea that Open Society and Soros held some political influence, albeit indirectly, was not strictly a figment of rulers’ imagination. Those given funding were local elites, sometimes opposed to those in power, and often what Stubbs, borrowing from the U.S. anthropologist Janine Wedel, calls “flex actors” — people who can say the right things to whomever they’re speaking if it means they get more power and influence.

However, Soros’s money also helped expose people to Western ideas, which weren’t always accepted back home. Roxana Marin, a high school teacher and Roma and LGBTQ rights activist, was personally backed by Soros in the 1990s, when she went on a one-month trip to Scotland on a Soros grant. Soros and his money were everywhere at that time. “Soros is actually an iconic name,” she said.

But it’s iconic to different people for different reasons. For those who went on a “Soros grant,” he was an icon because he let them get out of the country for the first time, sometimes with more money than they’d ever had before, and learn ideas they’d never encountered. But for those who didn’t, he was a mythical figure of Hungarian origin (in Romania, a nefarious thing) with incredible amounts of money responsible for the introduction of foreign ideas. He was not to be trusted.

Marin was only in Scotland for one month, around age 25, with more money from the grant than she’d ever had before. “It changed my outlook on teaching and society and crap. And it was the first time I ever left Romania,” she said. Which was true for a lot of people in the ’90s. “Everybody [who was on such a grant] goes, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember my Soros grant, my Soros trip.’”

Yet at least in his home country, Soros in the 1990s was popular. Soros was celebrated in Hungary, where he set up the Central European University, funded NGOs, and gave out student grants, including one that, in the 1980s, sent a young man named Viktor Orban to Oxford University.

A sign featuring a Soros quote outside of Central European University in Budapest on March 29. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

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.”

A billboard for the Soros plan government consultation in Hungary in July. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

Even as Soros was winding down his work in Eastern Europe, the political geography was shifting under his feet. In 2010, Orban, the onetime Soros beneficiary, once again became prime minister of Hungary as a member of the conservative Fidesz party. Two years later, Robert Fico reassumed the position of prime minister of Slovakia. In 2015, Liviu Dragnea took over as head of Romania’s Social Democratic Party. That same year, Poland’s conservative Law and Justice, led by backbencher Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who has accused Soros of trying to destroy traditional societies, returned to power.

Those leaders came to power on the heels of the global economic crisis, when people started to think that the European Union wasn’t all that had been promised and that maybe it was even a threat to their way of life. They came to power, Orlovsky, the Open Society head in Slovakia, said, because “liberal democracy is now perceived as evil.”

They didn’t storm in screaming about Soros. But in 2012, after disillusion with Orban started setting in and with no genuine political opponent, the prime minister turned his attention to the billionaire, according to the former Hungarian politician. In part, this was because Orban had once relied on Soros and his money.

“Orban, as he started his descent into more authoritarian and increasingly less liberal political personality started to resent Soros and denied that part of his past, when he was supported by someone who cares about open societies,” he said. “Part of it is personal.”

The Hungarian Embassy in Washington denied these assertions. “This presumption is complete nonsense,” a spokesperson said in an email to FP. “The Government of Hungary has a dispute with Mr. George Soros, because he is pro-immigration, while the Government of Hungary wants to stop immigration.”

But Soros is nevertheless portrayed as a Hungarian who would betray Hungary, a financier rich with dirty money, an American, and, critically, a Jew. Soros’s face has been plastered in profile at bus stops along with the tagline “Stop Soros,” as part of a government campaign. His mug is on ads for the national consultation in a variety of Hungarian papers. On Monday, parliamentarian Andras Aradszki delivered an address titled, “The Christian duty to fight against the Satan/Soros Plan.”

Orban himself does not come out and say that Soros is bad because he is Jewish. But many believe he doesn’t need to. Of Soros’s Jewishness, Stubbs said, “I would not understate that at all. It fits into a more general pattern of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.”

Hungarian Jews begged Orban in July to stop the “bad dream” of anti-Semitism. Orban, through a spokesperson, insisted that anti-Semitism is irrelevant to the campaign against Soros. More recently, after a journalist suggested anti-Soros measures were anti-Semitic, a government spokesperson said on television that the journalist was addicted to the drug of calling people Nazis.

The Hungarian ruling party has cracked down on NGOs that receive foreign funding, many of which do indeed receive money from the Open Society Foundations. The country’s parliament also passed a law against universities with foreign affiliations, which the government insists has nothing to do with Soros, who founded the Central European University in Budapest in 1991.

A similar situation is unfolding in Romania, where Dragnea and his ruling party blame their country’s problems on Soros. “For these guys in government, it’s obvious that Soros is not a threat,” said Petrescu, the head of the Serendinno Foundation. “But they are using it — you know, during the elections, the opposition parties were very weak.”

Petrescu says in order not to build the opposition up by treating them as an enemy, and therefore a legitimate threat to the ruling party’s power, they turn to Soros. Not Soros the 87-year-old man, but Soros the myth.

“They have to invent a ghost. That is inflated. You can have some proof of his involvement in the activities, and he has a story, and they discovered that Soros is the perfect candidate. This is what Orban did as well,” Petrescu said. 

Some of the NGOs that are accused of being Soros puppets are indeed funded by Open Society. But other NGOs accused of being tied to Soros have no connection. In Bucharest, Cosmin Pojoranu, who runs communications at an NGO called Funky Citizens that works to raise civic efficacy among Romanians, told FP that he has been called a Soros puppet.

“People don’t even know there’s a whole competitive procedure to get grants … going out and getting grants, filling out paperwork. It’s not like I have a phone somewhere and I can just call Soros,” he said. Pojoranu acknowledges receiving funding from abroad but says that shouldn’t be an issue.

Some people imagine “five guys in an apartment can just call Soros. Soros, I mean, he’s so old,” Pojoranu said. He’s exasperated with all the allegations that NGOs are being manipulated. “If you don’t have solid proof, then just fuck off.”

But in reality it doesn’t matter whether there is solid proof, because the work of NGOs is attacked either way. Soros the man may not have the same influence in the region as he once did, but Soros the myth, the ghost, the star of every conspiracy, looms larger than ever.

“NGOs’ most important value, and why citizens trust them and believe them, is their credibility,” said Sandor Lederer, an anti-corruption activist in Hungary. “The one thing is to ruin this [is] to show they’re only puppets of other interests.”

Yet Hungary has gone well beyond attacking Soros-supported organizations, focusing its energy on Soros the man. The Hungarian government’s national consultation is polling adult citizens on whether they agree or disagree with statements including: “Another goal of George Soros is to make sure that migrants receive milder criminal sentences for the crimes they commit” and “It is also part of the Soros Plan to initiate political attacks against those countries which oppose immigration, and to severely punish them.”

It is, by any measure, an odd political process, given that it’s essentially a referendum over a nearly 90-year-old man who does not live in Hungary, is not campaigning for office, and is not responsible for Hungarian immigration policy.

Orban “has really made this his personal campaign against George Soros,” said Silber, the Open Society spokeswoman. “And George Soros just doesn’t feel the same way.”

Photo credit: Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin