By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
George Soros has been a thorn in the side of east European nationalists for years. They hate him with a passion.
Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1930, Soros is one of the world's most successful investors and richest men. He made his fortune running a hedge fund and is now a full-time philanthropist, political activist and freelance statesman.
In the United States, he is a major donor to Democratic candidates and progressive groups.
Elsewhere, his Open Society Foundations (OSF) financially supports civil society groups around the world, with a stated aim of advancing justice, education, public health and independent media.
Since its establishment in 1993, the OSF, headquartered in New York and with branches in 37 countries and some 1,800 employees, has reported expenditures in excess of $11 billion.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Soros has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the former Soviet-bloc countries to promote civil society and liberal democracy. This has not endeared him to many who prefer right-of-centre nationalism to globalist multiculturalism.
Soros is reviled by, among others, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Victor Orban of his native Hungary.
In 2015, Putin expelled Soros’s philanthropic organization, the OSF, from Russia, claiming it was a security threat, and Russian state media churn out a steady flow of anti-Soros content.
Orban, during the April Hungarian election, which he won handily, ran a campaign in which he accused Soros, who is an American citizen, of plotting to overwhelm Hungary with Muslim immigrants in order to undermine its Christian heritage.
He attacked Soros during campaign rallies, and his government plastered the country with anti-Soros billboards. In the aftermath of the election, the OSF announced that it was closing its Budapest office because of concerns for the safety of its employees.
The fate of the Soros-founded Central European University, based in Budapest, and run by Canada’s Michael Ignatieff, is also problematic, as Orban wants it gone.
“We can’t go into another academic year like this. We’re in a holding pattern but it’s not going to go on too much longer,” Ignatieff, CEU’s rector, told the London-based Guardian in May.
When Soros, who survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary as a child, moved to New York in 1956 to take a job on Wall Street, his goal was to make enough money to allow him to quit finance and turn to scholarly pursuits.
He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams and was within two decades a very wealthy man. He then turned to making a political impact.
He created his philanthropic organization in 1979 and turned his attention to Eastern Europe, where he started financing dissident anti-Communist groups. He funneled money to the Solidarity strikers in Poland and to Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia.
The eventual fall of Communism was not for Soros, the “end of history” and the triumph of western democracy.
This part of the world had little tradition of liberal democracy, and this needed to be nurtured, Soros reasoned, if it was to avoid reverting to other forms of autocracy. (Today, he considers his fears to have been well-founded.)
He provided his native Hungary with money and resources in the 1990s, including millions to modernize Hungary’s health care system and endowing the Central European University, which has since graduated more than 14,000 students drawn from across Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
But though Orban was himself initially a young recipient of money from Soros, as prime minister his politics moved to the right.
When the European refugee crisis hit, and tens of thousands of refugees arrived on Hungary’s border Orban’s government erected a fence in order to keep them out, and refused to comply with a European Union quota plan to take in asylum-seekers.
Groups that received financial support from the OSF were providing assistance to the refugees massed along Hungary’s border, and this became a further reason for Orban’s attacks on Soros.
The Hungarian Parliament enacted legislation aimed at Soros requiring his organizations to register with the government and making it a crime to assist illegal immigrants. His Hungarian helpers were called “mercenaries.”
Soros told a New York Times reporter in July that democracy was in trouble there and elsewhere because in many countries it had become sclerotic, insufficiently responsive to the public’s needs.
“It’s losing out,” he said. Illiberal democracy, of the sort that Orban had fashioned in Hungary, was proving to be “more effective,” for the time being at least.