Mark S. Ellis, the Executive Director of the International Bar Association, explains why George Soros, a liberal billionaire, has become an international scapegoat ...
In the indictment against sixteen environmental activists now on trial outside Istanbul, George Soros and the Open Society Foundations (OSF) are mentioned over 300 times. Neither is in any way linked to the defendants or to the 2013 public demonstrations that took place at Gezi Park, yet somehow George Soros is accused of being the mastermind and financier behind them.
Osman Kavala, a businessman and philanthropist, is the primary defendant in the case, and is referred to in the indictment as “Turkey’s Soros.” I observed the opening of the trial, and it is a show trial in every sense. The defendants are accused of orchestrating the overthrow of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the 2013 civil unrest has been cast as a global conspiracy by Soros and forces of democratic liberalism. Turkey’s government-controlled media has fanned false allegations and called for Soros to be “taken down.”
Of Hungarian Jewish background, George Soros is an American investor, philanthropist and human rights champion that authoritarian governments love to hate. He is vilified by the far right, accused of being a puppet master behind a vast number of amorphous socialist movements. More often than not, attacks against Soros are smothered in propaganda and the anti-Semitic undertones are hard to miss.
Soros lived through the Nazi occupation and subsequent Soviet takeover of Hungary; he knows first-hand of the dangers and levers of authoritarian rule and has been an outspoken critic. After immigrating to the United States, Soros launched what was to be a highly successful career in finance. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Soros used his wealth to create the Open Society Foundations (OSF), an international grant-making network supporting free press, democracy, and civil society. Initially focused on the former communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the OSF now has broad international reach. OSF expenditures since 1997 have exceeded $15 billion.
George Soros is now the principal antagonist of many new autocrats, and he has become a handy scapegoat. Authoritarian regimes make effective use of character assassination to stay in power, and this is nowhere more apparent than in Hungary.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán passed a so-called “Stop Soros” law, criminalizing activities that support asylum applicants and their right to request it. Orbán has used the law to blame Soros for the “Muslim invasion into Christian Europe.” He expanded his aggressive attacks to target Soros’ Central European University located in Budapest.
The values of liberal democracy, the foundation of international order in the post-war period, are vanishing. Orbán has been clear in his intention to “make Hungary an illiberal state.” For today’s rising corps of illiberal, populist leaders, Soros personifies the “threat” of liberalism.
North Macedonia recently launched a similar “Stop Soros” campaign. The media portrays Soros as being instrumental in whatever ills face the country. The “Stop Soros” movement seeks to “expos[e] the subversive activities of Macedonian NGOs financed by the billionaire.” However distant or superfluous, connections to Soros are used to discredit any politician who promotes civil liberties.
In Poland in 2016, the leader of the ruling party, Jarosław Kaczyński, held Soros personally responsible for undermining the state by promoting multiculturalism. In his bid to maintain power, Kaczyński has attempted to corrupt the very concept of liberal democracy by attacking the effigy of George Soros.
Even the current U.S. administration has found Soros a convenient scapegoat. Soros was a major contributor in the 2018 U.S. mid-term elections, giving over $17 million in personal funds to democratic and progressive candidates. Not surprisingly, that earned the wrath of President Donald Trump, who accused him of financing opposition to Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing and fabricated an outlandish story about Soros facilitating the movement of Central American migrants to the US border.
Now Turkey has joined the anti-Soros authoritarian club. The Gezi Park demonstrations started as a small grassroots protest in May 2013 against Ankara’s plans to destroy a beloved park in central Istanbul. When the authorities responded with a brutal police crackdown, a wave of civil unrest throughout Turkey led to further suppression and police violence. President Erdogan claimed that the entire affair was a foreign-sponsored attempt to overthrow his government. The indictment against the 16 activists is factually baseless.
While not new, the vilification of George Soros has assumed dangerous proportions, and events in Turkey should be a wakeup call for democracy. This is a moment to stand against lies and autocratic manipulation. As effigy, George Soros personifies the liberal values of civil society, freedom and democratic governance – values that are burning at the hands of autocrats.
Mark S. Ellis is the Executive Director of the International Bar Association in London.
Suggested citation: Mark S. Ellis, “In Defense of George Soros and Democracy,” JURIST – Professional Commentary, October 23, 2019, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/mark-s-ellis-george-soros
This article was prepared for publication by Jessica Lasky, a JURIST Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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