“Open Society Foundation” (OSF) often adorns the imprint of Eastern European NGOs and media websites that present government critical work. But these organisations’ existence is now at serious risk. Soros Senior has passed on the leadership of his foundation to his son, Alexander Soros, who is making changes. The OSF announced its withdrawal from the EU, explaining that European institutions already fund support for human rights issues. “Our work within Europe is extremely limited,” according to the wording of an OSF statement.
What does this message mean? Thankfully, the prominent OSF sponsored Central European University is not affected. The CEU currently resides in the tenth Vienna district after it had to leave Budapest due to a restrictive new Fidesz law on universities.
The budget cut could endanger the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a Hungarian human rights organisation that receives parts of its funds from the OSF and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021. It also puts the Budapest Cultural Centre Aurora, where Hungary’s LBGT scene meets, at risk. The independent online medium looking into corrupt practices Atlatszo.hu also receives OSF funding.
The society was founded by 93 year-old George Soros, billionaire and philanthropist. Soros survived the Nazi period as a Hungarian Jew, emigrated to the USA and accumulated a fortune on Wall Street. In 1984, he began to pump his money into the idea of an “open society”, into a democratic society, in order to undermine the then USSR authoritarianism in his native Hungary.
To this day, Soros sponsored almost all organisations that are not following Viktor Orbán’s right-wing conservative line. Otherwise, NGOs cannot survive as there is less and less state money, and restrictive laws increase. In a ping-pong effect, the OSF activity has therefore increased over the years – and led to a dependence of Hungarian civil society on its backing.
Politico writes in its article “Preparing for a post Soros Europe”: “Historically, no other foundation has done more to build and support European civil society. After initially encouraging dissent behind the Iron Curtain — including Soros’ native country of Hungary — today it’s difficult to find a well-established nonprofit (or public interest initiative) operating across the European Union that hasn’t benefited from the foundation’s support at some point.”
Anyone who drives through Hungary is familiar with Soros’s laughing face, used as a caricature on Fidesz posters. In my article https://kentandsurreybylines.co.uk/politics/democracy/the-hungarian-elections-a-rude-awakening on the Hungarian elections I analysed this anti-Soros political strategy. I also mentioned that Orbán himself benefited from a Soros funded student stipend to enable him to attend a UK university.
It was the American political adviser Arthur Finkelstein – who also advised Ronald Reagan and Benjamin Netanyahu – who invented Soros as a scapegoat in 2013. He thought it was not enough to rail against an anonymous, “globalist” elite. He recommended Orbán to give a face to the unwanted foreign power. Soros, the Jewish investor with a pro-Western agenda, was perfect for this.
But time flies by and George’s 37-year-old son Alexander Soros wants to do everything differently. He plans to withdraw the annual 1.5 billion dollars from EU countries. 40% of its employees are to be discharged.
The foundation wants to devote itself to “greater global problems,” said Alexander Soros. As a public supporter of Joe Biden he wants to get more involved in the US election campaign.
Michiel van Hulten, EU director of Transparency International, thinks that withdrawal from Europe is completely “counterintuitive.” We see that right-wing, populist parties are strengthening like never before. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Orbán has acted as a prominent Putin-supporter. He is tinkering with an authoritarian axis that spans the globe – up to the US Republicans and their candidate Donald Trump. Alexander Soros could have significantly miscalculated with his “global” reorientation.
Open Society Foundation’s (OSF) decision to end a large part of its European operations caught many by surprise — including many of its founder’s opponents.
Due to the absence of alternative funding, NGOs trying to counter online harms while advocating for AI regulation are at risk. So are groups focused on controversial issues like women’s, minority and migrant rights, and anti-racism.
The OSF retreat couldn’t come at a worse time for Europe, as it is being challenged by nationalist and populist parties challenging the EU’s “open” values. Holding these groups to account was many of the OSF-backed organisations’ main objectives.
“But there is more, as the gap left by OSF funding may soon be filled by conservative and religious-right donors. Such donors have already been moving in, notably in countries such as Poland and Italy, to support anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ organisations, and their giving has been normalised. Ahead of the next EU elections in June 2024, they will now have an easier time, thanks to the Soros withdrawal.” Politico.
It’s mostly the Liberal-minded EU civil society which will feel the pinch of the absence of OSF cash. No other philanthropic organisation has supported European NGOs like the OSF has. Maybe no other philanthropic organisation has the same resources.
In the meantime, Alexander Soros has made a statement, reported in Politico, that he is not withdrawing from Europe. He explains his decision to shift funding priorities. He states:
“We will not be abandoning allies who stand up for democratic rights in the face of autocrats and would-be dictators — neither in Europe nor the rest of the world.
But we need to be ready and able to respond to an uncertain and dangerous future.”
In his view, the danger of Trump being the Republican candidate for the US Presidency is not just a threat to the US but will impact on Europe as well. He describes his commitment and support to Ukraine and he expresses his admiration for the EU, which he shares with his father. He stresses that he is redistributing funds to areas which reflect the changing priorities in the political world.
“Like my father, I regard the EU as one of modern history’s great triumphs. It brought together countries that almost destroyed civilization to forge a common destiny, and it helped breakaway former Soviet republics and satellites move toward democracy. But there remains more work to be done.
And it is my great hope that OSF, in its reconfigured form, will be able to help the European project realize its full promise.”
The question still remains, how his reduction of support in some EU countries will test their resilience to right wing, often Russian funded influence. Next year, the bloc enters an unprecedented electoral season, with votes scheduled in almost a quarter of its member countries and the EU elections looming.
The most urgent question now is: will others step in to fill the gap left by the OSF?