George Soros Foundation’s Retreat From Europe Could ‘Turn Off the Lights’ for Human Rights

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Activists fear the billionaire’s legacy will be lost as his Open Society Foundations curbs its activities across the EU

He survived the Nazi occupation of his native Hungary, made a fortune on Wall Street and became one of the most steadfast backers of democracy and human rights in the eastern bloc.

But human rights activists and independent media fear the legacy of billionaire philanthropist George Soros, 93, could be about to be undone in his homelands, as his donor network announced it will curb its activities across the EU from 2024.

Several beneficiaries of Soros’s Open Society Foundations (OSF), chaired since the start of this year by his son Alex, told the Observer they would struggle without its support amid an authoritarian rollback.

“When the Open Society Foundations left Budapest under severe political pressure in 2018, they said they would lose their physical presence but not their focus on the region,” said Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a Budapest human rights NGO supported by the foundations.

But she added: “Has there really been such a positive shift in Europe over the last five years that that promise has become less relevant?”

In a July email to staff, the OSF management announced a “radical redesign to help us deliver more effectively on our mission”. “Ultimately, the new approved strategic direction provides for withdrawal and termination of large parts of our current work within the European Union, shifting our focus and allocation of resources to other parts of the world,” it said.

While 40% of the charity’s global staff will be laid off, cuts will be severest in Europe, with the 180 headcount at its Berlin headquarters cut by 80%. Staff remaining in the German capital will mainly administer the foundation’s funds in Switzerland.

Its Brussels offices will be downsized, while a branch in Barcelona will be closed by the end of the year. Of an erstwhile seven branches in the post-Soviet area only three remain in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Moldova.

Soros emigrated to Britain in 1947 and later the US. As a hedge fund tycoon, he became known as “the man who broke the Bank of England” in 1992 after making $1bn betting against the pound.

In 1984, Soros started channelling his immense fortune into foundations that advanced the idea of the “open society”, with an initial focus on Hungary and other totalitarian societies in the Soviet sphere of influence.

Many European NGOs, thinktanks and research groups working on issues ranging from media freedom and migrants’ rights to state surveillance and digital regulation rely on the foundations, which spent $1.5bn on philanthropic causes in 2021.

As traditional European media outlets have struggled to live up to their role amid a drop in advertising revenue, OSF has stepped in to support independent news projects including the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Forbidden Stories, an encrypted online platform that allows threatened journalists to securely upload their work and be continued by others.

Soros-backed funds swooped when independent media institutions were under threat from state-linked takeovers, buying an 11.2% share in the publisher of Gazeta Wyborcza after Poland’s governing PiS party launched legal proceedings against the centre-left newspaper and ordered state-owned companies to cancel their advertising. The Guardian too receives OSF funding on specific reporting projects.

But as the OSF influence has grown, so has their unwieldy bureaucratic structure. Under the leadership of Alex Soros, 37, elected to take over as chair from his father George last December, the foundations want to shift their focus to grants “organised around specific opportunities for impact”, a spokesperson said.

Alex Soros, who grew up and was educated in the US, said: “The Open Society Foundations is changing the way we work, but my family and OSF have long supported, and remain steadfastly committed to the European project.”

The foundations say they will continue support for European Roma communities. Even critical employees expressed confidence the foundations could commit more to longer-term projects, just fewer of them.

Yet while a profound change to the structure of the organisation has long been signalled by Soros senior, the decision to achieve this via drastically reducing its headcount seems to have only emerged has been a priority under its new board of directors. Once jokingly referred to by employees as Soros’s “reading group”, the board has been slimmed down to a tighter unit dominated by family members since the baton was passed to Soros junior.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Alex Soros said that while he shared his father’s values, he was “more political”. Staffers and grantees said they have been left guessing what that means for the organisation.

Eyebrows have been raised at the Berkeley history PhD’s Instagram account, which shows him with the Pope, Bill Clinton, Kamala Harris or his “brother from another [mother]”, Edi Rama, Albania’s prime minister.

“I am ignoring it for the sake of my own sanity,” said a foundations official, who asked to remain anonymous. Another staffer invited comparisons to Succession’s Roman Roy.

While western European grantees, such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, are used to juggling donors on a project-by-project basis, organisations in eastern Europe have fewer options.

NGOs working in areas where human rights and technology overlap, such as digital surveillance, cannot rely on funding from governments that may have a conflict of interest.

“The OSF is one of the few bodies that hand out unrestricted core funding,” said one grantee, who asked to remain anonymous amid uncertainty over the foundation’s future strategy. “It’s what keeps the light on for human rights defenders in Europe.”

Berlin has been the hub of the foundations’ European operations after the 2018 closure of the Budapest branch under pressure from the government of strongman Viktor Orbán, once a recipient of Soros’s support.

Last week the Hungarian prime minister’s political director Balázs Orbán (no relation) posted a message on social network X, formerly known as Twitter, in which he called the Open Society Foundation “the Soros empire”. “We only truly believe that the occupying troops are leaving the continent when the last Soros soldier has left Europe and Hungary,” he said.

“If you invest in democracy, you can never expect it to yield quick returns,” Márta Pardavi said. “The need for democracy-building never really goes away. And I think George Soros knew that.”

Source : The Guardian