Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Georgia: The Strange Silence of George Soros

by Mark Almond

Time was when no street protest happened anywhere across the old Soviet Union without billionaire philanthropist George Soros popping up all over the media to express his support for those struggling for an “open society” against police armed with every weapon in the crowd-control arsenal. When thousands of Georgians protesting in front of the country’s parliament were dispersed on 7th November, 2007, by baton-wielding robo-cop-style policemen using the latest low-frequency “non-lethal” technology to disperse the crowd and low-tech clubs to smash up television and camera equipment which had given the wrong impression of the event, it seemed the ideal place and occasion for George Soros to grandstand his commitment to democracy, civil society and non-violence.

After all less than four years earlier, Mr Soros had taken a lot of credit for the establishment of the new regime in Georgia led by his protégé, Mikheil Saakashvili following the “Rose Revolution” in November, 2003. Mr Soros and his house-guest, Mark Malloch Brown then of the UNDP, arrived in Tbilisi shortly after the fall of Eduard Shevardnadze and the election of Saakashvili with 97% of the vote as President of Georgia to announce that Mr Soros and the UN would donate generous funds to boost the salary of the President and other public officials to combat the endemic corruption which had afflicted the country under the old regime.[1]

On 22nd March, 2004, Saakashvili’s long-term aide, Kote Kublashvili, the administrator of the secret fund, told the Georgian Times, that the new fund’s “main attention will be focused on the employees of the law-enforcement agencies.”[2] In the last reference I can find to the Georgian fund by Mr Soros on the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme on 31st December, 2005, Mr Soros still explicitly included the Georgian police among the recipients of his money.

Without millions of dollars from Mr Soros, Malloch Brown’s UNDP and the mysterious Cyprus-based “Golden Fleece Fund” from Georgia’s new commander-in-chief down to the lowliest billy-club wielding Georgian policeman the standard of living of the men who proclaimed the shining light of anti-corruption campaigners in the Caucasus would have been as poor as that of the policemen who stood aside rather than defend the Shevardnadze regime in November, 2007. As the Russian journalist and Saakashvili admirer, Pavel Felgenhauer pointed out just before the Georgian special forces gave the protestors a taste of the “black aspirin” on 7th November, Georgian officers now get up to US$1,000 a month.[3] That makes obeying orders very profitable if a little costly to the Western taxpayers and Mr Soros who have picked up so much of the tab.

Maybe it was just naiveté on the part of George Soros and Mark Malloch Brown that led them to think that upping the pay of Georgian security officers would make them less self-seeking and more supportive of civil society. Poverty may encourage corruption, but were the executives of Enron driven to steal hundreds of millions of dollars because they were poorly-remunerated? Isn’t often the case that if people can get away with corruption despite higher salaries they will steal as much as they can – especially if as head of government or police officers they face no superior who can restrain or indict them? Surely Mr Soros’s own well-advertised success at acquiring wealth beyond the dreams of avarice and his continuing to play the markets well after his first few billion was in the bank suggests that he understands that greed has no natural limit.

I have looked anxiously everyday at the news wires in case the philanthropist was ill and had lost the power of speech and writing, even of signing off on grants to the myriad off-shoots of his Open Society Foundation. They too seemed paralysed by the silence at Open Society HQ. No-one has stepped into the open to state what Saakashvili’s sponsor thinks now about the regime which he did so much to bring to power.

But the silence is only about Saakashvili’s onslaught on the Georgian public and media. Mr Soros has been repeatedly in public expressing his views about the decline of the dollar _ and even his billions of greenbacks may buy him less influence abroad than his wealth once did.

In the past, books, articles, interviews have poured forth from the self-styled “philosophical speculator”. No-one would accuse George Soros of reticence about expressing his opinions about how to put the world to rights. Quite often he even put his money where his mouth was. Nowhere more so than in post-Soviet Georgia. Yet suddenly silence. Even as the tear gas drenched Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue and the Imedi TV studios were smashed up by special forces, the prophet of the Open Society held his tongue.

Of course, despite his claims to promote openness and transparency, Mr Soros has behaved in the past in a secretive way to restrict public debate.

For his talk of his ideal of an Open Society, closing media access has been one by-product of the success of what George Orwell might also have called “The Open Society.” For instance, in the early years of Yeltsin’s reign as Russian President Soros played a key role in the April, 1993 referendum on privatisation. It was a surreptitious intervention. According to the Washington Post’s David Hofman: “Chubais… deployed a secret weapon to help Yeltsin win the April referendum. Chubais privately met with George Soros, the Hungarian-born superfinancier and philanthropist, who was in Moscow to launch a program to help scientists. Soros agreed to bankroll the pro-Yeltsin referendum campaign, the first but not the last time he would come to the rescue of the reformers.” The champion of openness agreed to a roundabout offshore financial facility which was invisible to Russia’s voters and almost certainly illegal. Hoffman reports, “A Chubais representative, a Westerner, went to Switzerland and made the financial arrangements for a $1 million transfer from Soros to offshore [emphasis added] accounts that Chubais could draw on for the campaign. The money helped the Yeltsin forces buy advertising to drown out the voices of the opposition.”[4] Chubais enthused, “Soros backed then really played a positive role” helping the oligarchs to get a stranglehold on Russia’s resources. So the prophet of the Open Society and the sponsor of Transparency International put his money behind the stifling of debate and closed off avenues to alternative opinion.

Maybe Soros hopes that the fuss about police brutality in Georgia will die away if he stays silent. But can he really hope that the subjects of what he joked was no longer the Soviet Union but “the Soros Empire” will not notice his silence?[5]

Maybe his un-characteristic silence is a product of shame at having backed another failed hero, who turned from clean reformer to corrupt autocrat without in reality in changing his way of operating at all. Back in Ukraine, for instance, Soros backed Leonid Kuchma before dropping him in favour of Viktor Yushchenko, who has since been dropped in favour of Julia Timoshenko… It would be easy to play a cruel game of no prizes for guessing who backed Kuchma for president in 1994 saying, “Kuchma is made of a different fibre. The manager of an important enterprise in the military-industrial complex, he is orientated toward problem solving,”[6] before urging “"The West must take a clear position denouncing Mr. Kuchma's behavior and actions. There is no way for the international community to continue to do business with Mr. Kuchma.”[7] A similar litany of praise by Soros for Shevardnadze followed by condemnation could be easily drafted.

In the past, Soros has had no problem ditching politicians whom he had backed when they disappointed him or stepped out of line in some way. Is his silence today about Saakashvili’s clampdown a sign of shame or indifference to then regime’s resort to force to stay in power.

It is a maxim of English law that silence implies consent. If George Soros doesn’t open his mouth soon, then Georgians and people around the world may well conclude that George Soros is still backing Saakashvili. If Soros is still putting his money behind the swagger sticks thrashing Saakashvili’s opponents then what he means by an “Open Society” will be clear to all. The Soros Empire will have become the Silenced Society.


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[1] The programme was announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 22nd January, 2004.See “OSI and UNDP Announce New Programme to Support Governance Reform in Georgia” (23rd January, 2004): http://www.soros.org/initiatives/cep/news/georgia_20040123.

[2] See “UNDP, Soros Fund Salaries for Georgian Officials” in The Georgian Times (22nd March, 2004).

[3] See Pavel Felgenhauer, “Saakashvili: Defiant, Ready for Action” [!] in Eurasia Daily Monitor (7th November, 2007): http://jamestown.org/edm/article.php?article_id=2372568.

[4] See David E. Hoffman, The Oligarchs. Wealth and Power in the New Russia (Public Affairs: Oxford, 2002), 202 and 510 note 52.

[5] As early as 1993, Soros quipped, “Just write that the former Soviet Empire is now called the Soros Empire.” See Robert Slater, Soros. The Unauthorized Biography (McGraw-Hill: New York, 1996), 135.

[6] See Soros on Soros. Staying Ahead of the Curve with Byron Wien & Krisztina Koenen (John Wiley: New York & Chichester, 1995) 167.

[7] See The Financial Times (2nd March, 2001).

3 comments:

Sandro Karumidze said...

OSI and OSGF (Soros foudnation in Georgia) have made a statement. It is not too loud though.

http://www.soros.org/newsroom/news/georgia_20071113

and

www.osgf.ge

Ragnar Daneskjold said...

Mark, I am wondering what evidence there is that Misha really is the lapdog of the scary old dude, George Soros.

I do want to know; condering me ignorant of the situation.

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