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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Billionaire Soros first vexed Eastern Europe's empowered rightists

George Soros attends the European Council on Foreign

George Soros attends the European Council on Foreign Relations annual meeting in Paris on May 29. Credit: AP / Francois Mori

Cries of conspiracy and subversion aimed at George Soros do not have birthright status in the United States.  They are imported, tariff-free, from Eastern Europe, where the liberal billionaire and his nonprofit projects have drawn fire for years from the likes of authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In June, Putin issued another denial of meddling in Western elections even as one of his oligarchs, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was being charged as the backer of a St. Petersburg "troll factory" that propagated divisive internet messages during President Donald Trump's election.

In statements on Austrian television, Putin evoked a parallel to Soros, whom right-wingers in the former Soviet world accused, beginning in previous administrations, of subversion at the behest of Washington. 

“He intervenes in things all over the world,” Putin said. “But the State Department will tell you that it has nothing to do with that, that this is the personal business of Mr. Soros.”

"Evil Soros" falsehoods in such places as his native Hungary go so far as to claim he controls much of the world's wealth and governments. Paranoid memes about his unlikely omnipotence caught on relatively late in America, fed by Trump tweets and fodder from his media allies at Fox News and Breitbart.

He pays for Antifa! He's funding migrant caravans! A White House official used a burner phone to transmit information to a Soros facility in Cyprus!  

Outside the fever swamps, of course, Soros is neither saintly nor satanic.

It is plausible that those who wail his name in alarm, including the sender of a maybe-bomb to his house in Westchester County, might not even know the barest facts about him. But domestic interest in him has grown as intense as it is in the efforts of Tom Steyer on the Democratic side and Sheldon Adelson and Robert Mercer on the Republican side.

Now 20th on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, he was born György Schwartz in Budapest in 1930. He lived through Nazi Germany's occupation of Hungary. After the nation's occupation by Soviet troops, he moved to England. He studied philosophy at the London School of Economics, then worked in merchant banks and started hedge funds. He is clearly a capitalist. He took advantage of asset bubbles, shorted stocks and in a complicated transactional story, was blamed for "breaking the Bank of England." Foes cast him as a financial conniver.

But what generates jitters in the parts of the power elite best described as global nationalist circles is Soros' Open Society Foundations. Soros backs nonprofit groups with the declared aim of building "vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable and open to the participation of all people."

The organization, into which he's poured tens of billions of dollars, has a website that proclaims as positives asserting the right of Muslim women in Europe to wear scarves in public, a law in Chile recognizing transgender people, and inclusive education for children with disabilities. Some former Obama administration officials are on the payroll.

One ironic political twist comes out of his native Hungary, as reported last year by The Guardian.

Thirty years ago, a Soros-funded scholarship paid for Viktor Orban's study in Britain. Later, Soros donated to Orban's government when the latter became Hungarian prime minister to help with an environmental cleanup and other charity efforts. But now Soros is openly reviled by the nation's ultraconservative leadership. In 2015, he urged a generous approach to migrants and refugees then flooding the country. 

In a speech in Brussels, Soros said Orban “sought to frame his policies as a personal conflict between the two of us and has made me the target of his unrelenting propaganda campaign,” the newspaper wrote. Soros called it something akin to a "mafia state."

As of late, Soros hasn't sounded as if he's backing down from his professed enemies. Earlier this year, he gave a speech in which he called Trump's presidency a "danger to the world" and said he wanted to help "re-establish a functioning two-party system" in the United States.

And as he said of Orban, Soros accused Trump of trying to establish a "mafia state." When it comes to politics, import-export trade seems to work both ways.


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