Fame brings nothing but trouble, George Soros’s father warned him. By concealing his family’s Jewish identity, Tivadar Soros helped save them from deportation from Hungary to Nazi death camps. The younger Mr Soros, now aged 87, has taken a different approach, embracing public prominence as a billionaire investor and later as a liberal philanthropist. But it has come at a cost.

Over the past year, Mr Soros and the Open Society Foundations he founded have become the target for an escalating — and at times orchestrated — campaign of vilification by opponents of the liberal agenda that he promotes.

Among countless conspiracy theories circulated by rightwing critics, Mr Soros has been accused of staging chemical weapons attacks on Syrian children, toppling the government of Macedonia through psychological warfare and engineering the migration of millions of Muslim migrants to Europe.

But some of the attacks have been more serious. In Hungary, he was the subject of a state-funded, multimillion euro campaign of negative advertising. One MP from the ruling Fidesz party in December posted a picture on Facebook of a burnt carcass of a pig with the words “This was Soros” carved into its skin. In December he conceded that Central European University, the elite research university he established in 1991, may be forced to leave Budapest in the wake of new laws seen by critics as an attack on academic freedom.

Meanwhile, in Romania, the leader of its ruling party saw Mr Soros’s hand in anti-corruption demonstrations, saying he had “financed evil”.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses a press conference after attending a plenary session at the European Parliament on the situation in Hungary, on April 26, 2017 in Brussels. The EU launched legal action against Hungary on April 26 setting up a major confrontation with Prime Minister Viktor Orban who accused Brussels of backing US billionaire investor George Soros instead of his country. Orban has sparked deep unease over legislation that could force the closure of the highly regarded Central European University in Budapest, founded by Soros. / AFP PHOTO / EMMANUEL DUNAND (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban © AFP

The attacks on Mr Soros are one of the most striking manifestations of shifting political sands, especially in central and eastern Europe. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mr Soros’s foundations epitomised the optimism about the spread of western-style democracy in the former Soviet bloc. Yet the same foundations have now become a lightning rod for the nationalist and at times authoritarian voices that are exerting a much greater influence across the region amid the wilting appeal of liberalism.

“It’s déjà vu all over again with one big change — the dominant ideology in the world now is nationalism,” Mr Soros said in a Financial Times interview in his home in upstate New York. “It’s the EU that’s the institution that’s on the verge of a breakdown. And Russia is now the resurgent power, based on nationalism.”

A Jewish billionaire is a convenient enemy for leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, according to historian Anne Applebaum: “They don’t want to be openly anti-American or anti-EU so they’ve identified [Soros] as a bogeyman figure that represents the parts of the west they dislike,” she says, adding that critics play on anti-Semitic tropes. “It’s a neat tactic because it avoids criticism of the EU and the US. And it’s a simpler, older kind of message.”

Within OSF, there has been an anguished debate about whether responding to the campaign would only spur further efforts to demonise Mr Soros. Some wondered whether publicising the endowment would invite even more attacks on the groups he supports.

But Mr Soros insists he will fight back. He had originally planned to wind down OSF before his death. Instead, he is doubling down on his project to foster the growth of democracies where governments encourage pluralism and accountability.

A poster with US billionaire George Soros is pictured on July 6, 2017 in Szekesfehervar, Hungary. The Hungarian government announced on July 12, 2017 that it would end its billboard campaign targeting the US billionaire George Soros which is considered by Jewish organizations as likely to fuel anti-Semitic sentiments. / AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK (Photo credit should read ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images)
One of the billboards targeting George Soros in Hungary in July 2017 © AFP

In November, he confirmed he had handed over an additional $18bn — the bulk of his personal wealth — to OSF, which he leads as chairman of the global board, turning it into one of the largest charitable foundations ever. His total transfers now amount to $32bn.

“I think you can say I’m quite lucky with my enemies,” he says brightly of the attacks. “It makes me feel more than ready to fight back and stand up for what is right.”

OSF is arguably a new kind of international actor, with a scale of resources more commonly associated with international relief organisations such as the Red Cross, but deployed in the service of an unashamedly liberal worldview.

It has spent nearly $14bn over the past 35 years — much of it on education and health programmes. In the 1990s, OSF helped reconnect water supplies and electricity for the besieged Bosnian capital Sarajevo and gave grants to struggling Russian scientists. Today it advocates for healthcare and economic opportunities for groups on the margins, including Europe’s 10m-strong Roma community, people with disabilities and drug users.

Active in 140 countries, it also supports groups that challenge governments, the kind of pro-democracy efforts from which other donors shy away. Mr Soros, through his personal donations, is also one of the US Democratic party’s biggest backers.

That worldview has always made him controversial on the right, but in recent years his activities have prompted accusations — which he denies — that he has helped topple governments in Georgia, Ukraine and most recently Macedonia.

TOPSHOT - People hold a placard dipicting billionaire George Soros during a demonstration against a deal between Social Democrats and the Albanian Democratic Union for Integration, about a law making Albanian the second official language, on March 30, 2017 in Skopje. / AFP PHOTO / Robert ATANASOVSKI (Photo credit should read ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators hold a placard depicting Mr Soros in Skopje, Macedonia © AFP

The foundation has been expelled from Russia and Uzbekistan and Mr Soros says those who have received grants are also now facing threats in Hungary, an EU member, where Mr Orban has instructed intelligence agencies to investigate a “Soros empire” that he claims threatens national interests.

Nearly 20 semi-autonomous boards decide how OSF’s money is spent and recipients report donations publicly. But critics claim Mr Soros directs its every move, making it into an unaccountable liberal superpower. Breitbart News, the alt-right website, calls it the “Death Star”.

Zoltan Kovács, spokesman for the Hungarian government, says the debate over OSF springs from “two clashing visions of democracy”. While Mr Soros believes civil society should act as a check on executive power, Mr Kovács argues that only elected representatives can legitimately “do politics”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on January 3, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Tsafrir ABAYOV (Photo credit should read TSAFRIR ABAYOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, publicly backed criticisms of Mr Soros made by Viktor Orban © AFP

“Mr Soros has never been elected by anyone, the organisations — NGOs, human rights groups and so on — have never been elected by anyone,” he told the FT. “[They are] clearly engaging in determining how political decisions should be made. And this is wrong.”

An official at OSF counters that populist politicians think they “own” politics: “If you support local people expressing contrary views, they see it as trespassing on their territory.”

Mr Soros believes Russia is the source of much of the attacks against him. And it’s personal. “Putin doesn’t like me,” he says, describing a grudge he believes was stoked by his criticism of the Russian leader and his early support for Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president who rose to power after the 2003 Rose revolution.

Russia urged neighbouring authoritarian leaders to forestall a domino effect of revolutions by clamping down on civil society and pressuring OSF, according to Alisher Ilkhamov, who ran the OSF office in Uzbekistan before it was forced to close down in 2004. In 2015 Russian authorities followed suit and OSF was forced to leave Moscow, after authorities restricted its funding activities, citing security risks.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 18: Patrick Gaspard, Vice President of The Open Society Foundations, speaks at The 2017 Concordia Annual Summit at Grand Hyatt New York on September 18, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)
Patrick Gaspard, OSF’s new president, says the organisation has procedures for allocating funding that are independent of George Soros

In May 2017, Macedonian recipients of OSF grants had their windows smashed as government supporters blamed them for the collapse of the rightwing government led by the VMRO party, which had been accused by an EU report of “massive invasion of fundamental rights” including illegal wiretapping and judicial interference.

Cvetin Chilimanov, founder of the Stop Operation Soros organisation launched by supporters of the ousted Macedonian government, claims OSF, aided by western diplomats, helped engineer its demise, using fake wiretap recordings and civil society stooges.

“I don’t advocate limiting the right of dodgy billionaires to fund media outlets or activist groups to push their political peeves, but I reserve the right to point out these connections and criticise them,” he says.

OSF officials are reluctant to portray the attacks as part of a co-ordinated plan. However, the leaders in Hungary, Romania and Macedonia have close contacts. They have even taken their case to US senator Mike Lee — one of six US Republican senators who in 2017 requested an investigation into the US state department’s grants to OSF projects. He made the demand after meeting delegations from the three countries separately, a spokesman confirmed to the FT.

The ties also extend to Israel. Eli Hazan, foreign relations director for the ruling Likud party, says he gave Mr Orban information on Mr Soros’s Israeli grantees weeks before the Hungarian premier unveiled his anti-Soros billboard campaign. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, later publicly backed Mr Orban’s criticisms before making a three-day visit to Budapest. Likud members have proposed tighter rules on funding by groups such as OSF and accuse Mr Soros of shielding terrorists by supporting Palestinian NGOs.

Fighting Mr Soros’s activities is “a pleasure”, Mr Hazan told the FT. Mr Soros cannot win in national elections, Mr Hazan says, so he chooses to promote his ideas through other means.

“If I can help other organisations or governments to work against Soros, I will do it with pleasure because it is a struggle of ideas that may shape the future in the world,” he says.

Mr Soros concedes he has made mistakes. Mr Saakashvili, the former Georgian leader he championed, “turned out to be much less of a paragon of open society values than he was in opposition”, he wrote in 2011. Mr Soros’s relationship with Mr Saaskashvili, who was exiled to Ukraine where he became governor of Odessa but is now under criminal investigation, taught him a “painful lesson”, he says, to “keep a greater distance from the internal politics of the countries where I have foundations”.

That is easier in theory than in practice, he admits. His grantees were involved in the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine, although he insists OSF had no direct role. “We were not involved in the actual fighting — that’s against our guidelines and principles. But we were supporters of the fighters and that was also during Maidan.”

Patrick Gaspard, OSF’s new president, says the organisation has procedures for allocating funding that are independent of Mr Soros. Political mis-steps have been exceedingly rare, he adds: “Every effort has been made to wall off grant-making from partisan political campaigns,” he says.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony to bestow state awards on military personnel who fought in Syria, at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 28, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)
According to George Soros, Russian President Vladimir Putin 'doesn’t like me' © AFP

But errors are inevitable, especially with the group funding activities in 140 countries. “One has to be comfortable with that [the risks] but also learn from the mistakes that occur,” he says.

OSF officials concede the Soros name and the foundation are inextricable in public minds. This suits critics, who portray OSF as a mere tool of its founder, despite its decentralised structure.

“Most foundations and donors want to fade into the background and let the work of groups they fund speak for itself,” says one OSF-backed campaigner. “But that is harder when you have a vocal founder and he is subjected to a vile smear campaign.”

Rather than adopting a defensive posture, Mr Soros says he will remain chair of the global board for another five years, or perhaps longer, as long as his health allows. But OSF will outlast him. Mr Gaspard’s appointment offers clues to future plans. A former Obama White House political director, he brings a sharper political background than his predecessor Christopher Stone, a former Harvard academic.

Mr Gaspard’s list of priorities suggests OSF will not shy from political controversy: corruption, the challenges posed by mass migration, the abuse of technology by autocrats and ensuring voting rights “from Cleveland to Kinshasa”.

Hacking: Ireland abortion debate affected by email leaks

Months after the Open Society Foundation was expelled from Russia, its email network was targeted in a cyberattack by the Kremlin-linked group known as Fancy Bear, according to a report from FireEye, a US cyber security company, which has been seen by the FT. OSF emails later appeared on DCLeaks.com — a website now linked by US authorities to Russian military intelligence, which also leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

As soon as the documents were posted, hundreds of Facebook and Twitter accounts began posting links to the leaked emails online, in patterns that appeared to be automated.

The impact of the document leak in June 2016 is still being felt in unexpected ways. One document related to a €137,000 donation from OSF to Amnesty International Ireland, to advocate for loosening the country’s laws on abortion, which are among Europe’s most restrictive. Ireland will vote on changes to its ban on abortion in 2018.

Amnesty says it had already published details on its website of the 2016 grant, which attracted little attention at the time, and received approval from Dublin. But in October 2017, pro-life groups began targeting Irish voters with social media ads claiming Mr Soros was bankrolling the pro-choice campaign. Within weeks, Amnesty said authorities instructed them to return the donation.

The decision represents a tightening of Ireland’s campaign finance laws, indicating some foreign donations to civil society groups are not permissible, even outside of official campaign periods. “We knew of the official pressure on civil society in Russia and other places, but we did not anticipate that Ireland would come into this picture,” says Colm O’Gorman, director of Amnesty International Ireland, which has refused to return the donation.

Get alerts on George Soros when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article