Back in the days when I worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, covering the politics and societies of a vast expanse of territory stretching from Belarus to Kyrgyzstan, hardly a day went by without my encountering the good works of George Soros. It was in Prague, my home base, where the Hungarian-born financier began as a backer of worthy causes by presciently supporting Charter 77, the pro-democracy movement led by the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel. My boyfriend at the time hailed from neighboring Slovakia, a country whose authoritarian leader, Vladimir Meciar, had been brought down in 1998, partly through the dedicated work of groups funded by Soros’ Open Society Foundations (OSF). Another ex took his graduate degree from Central European University, the Budapest-based institution founded by Soros and which is currently under threat of being expelled from the country by right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
By the time I finished my European tour of duty, it had become axiomatic that, were I to encounter a democracy activist in Baku, a lesbian-rights campaigner in Bishkek, or a press freedom advocate in Belgrade, more likely than not they would have been beneficiaries of a Soros grant, scholarship, or in his employ. To take but one example of his generosity and foresight usually overlooked both by his detractors and fans, he is by far the largest private benefactor to the cause of the Roma—those long-persecuted, socially excluded, forgotten people of Europe.
Soros was remarkably clairvoyant about the vast amounts of money, expertise, and political commitment that would be necessary to repair the damage Communism had wrought on Central and Eastern Europe. At a 1989 conference in Potsdam, just months before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Soros proposed a Marshall Plan for the region. He was, he later recalled, “literally laughed at.” So Soros did what he has since repeatedly done upon encountering a problem that no one seemed intent on fixing: He shelled out his own money.
Over the course of the subsequent three decades, Soros spent billions of dollars funding organizations and initiatives devoted to promoting liberal democracy, independent media, good government, transparency, and pluralism across the former Soviet space. It was all work that the United States and its allies in Western Europe should have been funding, but, as a consequence of the post-Cold War hangover, shortsightedly scrimped. A Holocaust survivor, Soros personally experienced the fragile nature of democracy, and rightly worried that the region could revert back to its dark traditions unless the West consolidated democracy, human rights, the rule of law and market economies. Almost 30 years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, his fears look evermore prescient.
“The system of robber capitalism that has taken hold in Russia is so iniquitous that people may well turn to a charismatic leader promising national revival at the cost of civil liberties,” Soros wrote in 1997, three years before a former KGB colonel named Vladimir Putin would be plucked from relative obscurity to become president of that benighted land. “As things stand, it does not take very much imagination to realize that the global open society that prevails at present is likely to prove a temporary phenomenon.”
Obviously, America could greatly use the steadfast defender of political inquiry and free thought that George Soros was, and continues to be, in Eastern Europe. But here in America, Soros chose another route, to support a team rather than a mission. And on that team are some of the forces of illiberalism that threaten to rip apart the open society here in the same way that those on the other end of the political spectrum are ripping it apart in Europe.
Soros’ advocacy of what his mentor, the Viennese philosopher Karl Popper, termed the “open society,” has made him a bogeyman of the nationalist European right and its current enabler in the Kremlin. Beginning in the early 1990s, when the right-wing prime minister of the Czech Republic (and present-day Putin pal), Vaclav Klaus, forced Central European University to decamp from its Prague campus to Budapest, Soros has been a thorn in the side of the provincial, the xenophobic, the illiberal, and the plain old corrupt of the post-Communist world. To this day, there are few better indicators of a European politician’s commitment to basic liberal democratic principles than the degree to which he blames Soros for his country’s woes. After a journalist who had been investigating a corruption ring around then-Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was murdered earlier this year, Fico blamed Soros for the crime, on the grounds that “we all know what he is doing in this region.” Former Reason editor Matt Welch recently wrote that, during his time covering Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, “The more a government criticized Soros, the lousier it was at meeting its citizens’ needs.”
As a wealthy Jewish financier, it is inevitable that many of the attacks on Soros from European quarters would be laced with anti-Semitic insinuations. Nowhere has this nasty phenomenon been more apparent than in his native Hungary, where, in the wake of the 2015 migrant crisis, Prime Minister Orbán and his Fidesz party have transformed Soros into Emmanuel Goldstein, the target of a nationwide Two Minutes Hate, replete with giant billboards of the grinning billionaire and photos of his face laminated onto the floors of trams. Soros, according to the Orbán propaganda campaign, seeks nothing less than to destroy Hungary from within by overrunning it with Muslim refugees; last year, a Fidesz MP invoked “The Christian duty to fight against the Satan/Soros Plan.” Weeks before the April parliamentary election, in a stemwinder calling upon Hungarians to “fight against what the empire of George Soros is doing to Hungary,” Orbán elaborated that the nation must:
fight against an opponent which is different from us. Their faces are not visible, but are hidden from view; they do not fight directly, but by stealth; they are not honorable, but unprincipled; they are not national, but international; they do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.
This unmitigatedly anti-Semitic tirade shows how a campaign ostensibly focused against a single man implicates Jews everywhere. After winning a third consecutive term, the Hungarian government pushed through a package of legislation aimed at curtailing the work of OSF (dubbed the “Stop Soros” laws) which has led the foundation to relocate its Budapest operations to Berlin. CEU is in the process of decamping to Vienna.
In the heady days of the 1990s, Soros, like the West in general, was riding high politically and financially. He had made billions of dollars betting against the British pound and his philanthropic projects in Central and Eastern Europe appeared to be bearing fruit as the region began the process of integrating into Western institutions. Michael Lewis, in a 1994 New Republic profile, applied the language of currency speculation to Soros’ investment in democratic liberalism, noting that he had taken “a large long position in Eastern European intellectuals,” a position that, at the time, appeared profitable. (At least one of Soros’ philanthropic investments—an Oxford scholarship for a young Hungarian law student named Viktor Orbán—did not pay off.)
The global rise of populism and right-wing nationalism over the past decade, however, has given Soros reason to reflect upon his record promoting the open society. This past summer, The New York Times Magazine published a sympathetic profile of Soros, festooned with a photograph of its droopy-eyed subject staring plaintively at the camera. “Soros is confronting the possibility that the goal to which he has devoted most of his wealth and the last chapter of his life will end in failure,” wrote author Michael Steinberger. “Not only that: He also finds himself in the unsettling position of being the designated villain of this anti-globalization backlash, his Judaism and career in finance rendering him a made-to-order phantasm for reactionaries worldwide.” In an approving tweet of the piece, Soros remarked, “I must be doing something right to look at who my enemies are.”
Pride in his enemies has been a constant refrain of Soros throughout his career, at times a smug confirmation of his own virtue. “I have by now a very great number of devoted enemies,” he told Lewis in 1994. “I am much happier with my enemies than I am with my friends.” In an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year, Soros boasted, “I’m proud of my enemies. When I look at the enemies I have all over the world, I must be doing something right.” After spending over three decades immersed as a player in the world of international politics, Soros has indeed amassed an impressive list of enemies, one that reads like a who’s who of tyrants, genocidaires and second-rate scumbags: Vladimir Putin, former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, and the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, to name just a handful.
In the United States, where he is one of the biggest donors to the Democratic Party and left-wing causes more generally, Soros has also collected a coterie of right-wing enemies, not least of them the current president of the United States. When, in the midst of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious Supreme Court confirmation battle, a pair of female sexual assault victims confronted Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake in an elevator and screamed at him for four minutes, conservatives pointed out that one of the women serves as executive director of an organization—the Center for Popular Democracy—which received $1.5 million from Open Society in 2016 and 2017 alone.
It was with this factoid in mind that, on the eve of the Kavanaugh confirmation vote the following day, Trump tweeted:
The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad. Don’t fall for it! Also, look at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others. These are not signs made in the basement from love! #Troublemakers
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 5, 2018