The announcement Tuesday that a foundation run by US-Hungarian liberal billionaire George Soros will quit Hungary puts the spotlight once again on the favourite whipping boy of Western nationalists.
Over three decades since it began, Soros’s Open Society Foundations (OSF) threw in the towel, citing Hungary’s “increasingly repressive political and legal environment”.
The organisation’s departure will be poignant for the 87-year-old financier-cum-philanthropist who emigrated from Hungary after World War II.
In recent years Hungary’s fiercely anti-immigration Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who himself received a Soros scholarship to study at Oxford, has accused Soros of orchestrating Europe’s migration crisis.
But the anti-Soros rhetoric is far from being limited to just Hungary.
Soros, listed by Forbes magazine as one of the world’s richest men, is accused by nationalists around the globe not just of stoking immigration but also of backing coups, sponsoring protests, and seeking to push a liberal, multicultural agenda.
Soros “makes an excellent scapegoat for increasingly authoritarian regimes as someone who’s invested a lot of money into philanthropy and represents capitalism”, German political analyst Ulf Brunnbauer recently told AFP.
– ‘Gift to my enemies’ –
Born in the Hungarian capital 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 last year — Soros created his foundation in 1984 to help countries move from communism toward democracy.
Since then he has poured billions of euros 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 $1 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.
– Call for ‘de-Sorosisation’ –
This kind of “interference” has earned him powerful enemies.
The Kremlin has accused Soros of fomenting 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 rights OSF and anti-immigration nationalists.
Macedonia last year saw the emergence of a “Stop Operation Soros” movement and calls 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 mass protests.
Soros “interferes in elections and referendums all over the world,” said leading Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage in February.
Italian anti-immigration leader – and possible member of the next government – Matteo Salvini has flayed the billionaire as “dangerous” for allegedly wanting to turn Italy into a “half-breed” country.
Meanwhile, leaders of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party – now in government – have also begun to echo Orban’s criticisms of Soros, while a right-wing magazine in France caused outrage with a recent front cover accusing Soros of “scheming against France”.
And on the other side of the Atlantic, the far-right news website Breitbart — whose co-founding member Steve Bannon is a former aide to US President Donald Trump — runs almost daily anti-Soros stories.