Lauded to loathed: Who’s afraid of George Soros?

(AFP) – The world has a new puppet master.

From his New York home, US financier-cum-philanthropist George Soros has manufactured Europe’s migration crisis, backed a coup in Macedonia and sponsored protests in Hungary.

At least that’s what his detractors say, and there are many.

From the Kremlin via Skopje to the power corridors of Washington, the Hungarian-born Jewish emigre is the favourite bete noire of nationalists around the globe.

Listed by Forbes magazine as the world’s 29th richest man, Soros and his Open Society Foundations (OSF) stand accused of political meddling by seeking to push a liberal, multicultural agenda.

Nations like Poland that once bestowed the 86-year-old with their highest civilian honours are now calling him an enemy of the state who wants to destroy their sovereignty.

The attacks have been particularly virulent in his birth country Hungary, which on Tuesday is set to pass a controversial anti-NGO bill seen as directly targeting the OSF.

“To go on what you read and hear these days, Soros seems to be responsible for every political upheaval,” said German political analyst Ulf Brunnbauer.

“He makes an excellent scapegoat for increasingly authoritarian regimes as someone who’s invested a lot of money into philanthropy and represents capitalism.”

Another Hungarian law hastily approved in April threatens to shut down the Soros-founded Central European University (CEU) in Budapest.

Across Hungary, government-backed billboards have popped up showing the magnate as a puppeteer pulling the strings of an opposition politician, a motif associated with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

“His (religious) background is irrelevant to the central issue, which is that an increasing number of governments… see Soros’s networks as a threat to democracy,” Zoltan Kovacs, the spokesman of populist premier Viktor Orban, wrote in a recent blog post entitled “Myths and facts about Hungary and George Soros”.

Orban — a one-time recipient of a Soros scholarship — has accused his former benefactor of using “predator” NGOs to flood Europe with Muslim refugees and create a “transnational empire”.

‘Gift to my enemies’

Born in Budapest in 1930, Soros survived both the Nazi and Soviet occupation before eventually moving to the US where he made his fortune from hedge funds.

His dealings were not without controversy.

In 1992, the Wall Street trader became known as “the man who broke the bank of England” when his aggressive speculation against the sterling sent it crashing out of the European exchange mechanism.

He also has a 2002 conviction of insider trading in France, a verdict he described as a “gift to my enemies”.

Marked by his experience of totalitarian regimes — “I have seen the damage done when societies succumb to the fear of the ‘other’,” he wrote in The New York Times in March — Soros created his foundation in 1984 to help countries move from communism toward democracy.

Since then, he has poured billions of euros (dollars) into ex-Soviet satellite states for programmes ranging from finance, health and justice reforms, to promoting the rights of minority groups and keeping tabs on government corruption.

He also backed pro-democracy groups in the colour revolutions in central and eastern Europe, and vowed to spend US$1 billion (RM4.26 billion) in Ukraine to help save it from “Russian aggression”.

Moscow’s “concept of government is irreconcilable with that of open society,” Soros said recently.

This kind of “interference” has earned him powerful enemies.

Earlier this month, Orban likened Soros’s description of Hungary as a “mafia state” to a “declaration of war”

The Kremlin has accused Soros of fermenting violent uprisings and banned the OSF in 2015 as part of a massive NGO clampdown.

Europe’s migration crisis, which erupted that same year, has also deepened the rift between the pro-refugee OSF and anti-immigration nationalists.

Call for ‘de-Sorosisation’

Macedonia in January saw the emergence of a “Stop Operation Soros” movement, spurred on by the authoritarian ex-premier Nikolas Gruevksi calling for the country’s “de-Sorosisation”.

The head of Poland’s governing right-wing party Jaroslaw Kaczynski said Soros wanted to create “societies without an identity”, while Romania’s ruling party leader alleged the tycoon had “financed evil” by sponsoring recent mass protests.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the far-right news website Breitbart — whose co-founding member Steve Bannon is an aide to US President Donald Trump — runs almost daily anti-Soros stories.

A petition signed by nearly 60,000 Americans called for the philanthropist — who backed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential race — to be arrested “for standing in the way of making America great again”.

While hostility to Soros is not new, its intensity is unprecedented, said OSF’s Eurasia director Leonard Benardo.

“The OSF as an institution and George Soros as a person condemning corruption have always faced pressures from governments that have an illiberal cast,” he told AFP.

“What is different about now is the ferocity and tenacity of the response.”

Incidentally the attacks come at a time when the OSF only spends a faction of what it used to.

“What we’re witnessing is that democracy is not only about institutions, that you can have largely free and fair elections and yet still have great anxieties and problems when it comes to forms of open society.”