For more than three decades, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations network has provided billions of euros of crucial funding to civil society organisations across emerging Europe. Now, however, it is pulling out of the EU to concentrate on regions where it says it is needed more.
After decades of philanthropy in 120 countries, the Open Society Foundations (OSF) network will drastically scale back its operations in European Union member states from in 2024 to focus its resources on supporting human rights and civil society organisations elsewhere.
“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,” wrote OSF in an internal email announcing its “radical redesign”.
“This shift is not a reflection on past work and the many contributions by staff over the years, but rather a forward-looking decision rooted in future opportunities to make a significant impact.”
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The email explained this shift in strategy by noting that EU institutions are “already allocating significant resources to human rights, freedom, and pluralism”, so OSF will “focus on Europe only in the context of its role in large global issues.”
Some 40 per cent of OSF’s global workforce will be laid off, with the most severe cuts in EU offices. Its branch in Barcelona will close by the end of 2023, its Brussels offices will be downsized, and 80 per cent of the 180 employees in its Berlin headquarters will be dismissed.
Spokespeople for OSF have since specified projects supporting European Roma communities will continue and that the network “will continue to support human rights, democracy and accountability in the region, especially in Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and the Balkans.”
Billions and battle scars
OSF was founded by Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros three decades ago to support his other philanthropic foundations in Central and Eastern Europe. Born to a Jewish family in Budapest in 1930, Soros survived the Holocaust, studied philosophy under Karl Popper in the United Kingdom, and made his fortune as a hedge fund manager in the United States. OSF’s name is taken from Popper’s book, The Open Society and Its Enemies.
Soros authored a series of economic philosophy books and became active in promoting democracy and human rights in his native Hungary and neighbouring communist countries. From 1984 to 2017, Soros donated over 32 billion US dollars of his personal fortune to these causes—he remains the “most generous giver” according to the Forbes Philanthropy Score for having donated the greatest share of his personal net worth of any scored philanthropist.
His early donations focused on helping move CEE states away from communism and authoritarianism towards liberal democracy. In 1991, he founded the Central European University (CEU) with one of the largest per-student endowments of any European university—now worth 880 million US dollars—as a Western-modelled institution to support research in good governance and rule of law and the general promotion of democracy. CEU originally offered courses in Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest but established Budapest as its main campus in 1995.
Soros, however, is far from universally beloved. In 1992, a year before OSF’s founding, he made one billion US dollars on a bet against the value of the pound sterling—“breaking” the Bank of England on what became known as “Black Wednesday” and, according to some, spawning a wave of Euroscepticism in British politics. His support for liberal and progressive social causes and migrants’ rights has provoked widespread right-wing ire in the United States and Europe.
He is often the subject of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories portraying him as a “puppet master” behind global plots—especially in his native Hungary, where prime minister Viktor Orbán has repeatedly used Soros’s image in anti-Semitic billboards and media campaigns. Even the gift shop in Budapest’s House of Terror museum, dedicated to the victims of Nazism and communism, sells books about Soros’s “plots.”
Orbán called CEU “Soros University” and his government forbade the university from accepting new students. After severe political pressure, OSF announced it would relocate its headquarters from Budapest to Berlin in 2018—the same year CEU announced it would relocate to Vienna.
Passing the baton
George Soros, however, is no longer the chair of OSF. In December, he quietly passed on leadership of the organisation to his son, Alexander Soros, who assumed full control this June. Alexander’s previous philanthropic activity focused on work with progressive Jewish organisations, environmental justice, and aiding domestic workers in the United States.
Alexander’s appointment came after years of Succession-esque intrigue over whether he or his brother Jonathan would be George’s heir. OSF’s dramatic scaling back of its operations in EU countries is one of Alexander’s first acts as its new head.
Some civil society organisations in EU countries experiencing democratic backsliding warn the loss of OSF funding cast their futures into uncertainty.
“When OSF left Budapest under severe political pressure in 2018, they said they would lose their physical presence but not their focus on the region,” Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a Budapest human rights NGO supported by OSF, told The Guardian. “Has there really been such a positive shift in Europe over the last five years that that promise has become less relevant?”
“The need for democracy-building never really goes away,” she added.
Soros’s adversaries cheered, with Viktor Orbán’s political director, Balázs Orbán, tweeting, “We’ve heard the news about the Soros empire. When it comes to such matters, we Hungarians have our historical insights: We only truly believe that the occupying troops are leaving the continent when the last Soros soldier has left Europe and Hungary.”
Progressive critics of the new strategy call it a “retreat” while proponents argue that operating costs in the EU are higher than those in other regions, where OSF’s 25 billion US dollars could go further.
Only time will tell how many of the gains made by OSF-supported organisations in the EU will survive after losing one of their principal streams of funding.
Photo: George Soros (IMF/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
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