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NEWS 10 Feb 17

Soros Foundation Blames Attacks on 'Illiberal Governments'

As campaigns targeting NGOs linked to US philanthropist George Soros continue in the Balkans, Laura Silber - of Open Society Foundations - said illiberal governments were trying to divert the public from the real issues.

BIRN Team
BIRN
Belgrade

George Soros. Photo: georgesoros.com

While organisations financed or perceived to be linked to US billionaire philanthropist George Soros are increasingly under attack in the Balkans, Open Society Foundations says it is honoured to finance those working to create better lives for people in the region.

“Attacks by illiberal governments on George Soros are an attempt to deflect attention from their own failure to address unemployment, corruption and poor economic prospects," Open Society Foundations' chief communications officer Laura Silber told BIRN.

“Civil society plays an important role in holding governments accountable and making democracies stronger; we are proud to support organizations who work to improve people’s lives,” Silber added.

The name Soros crops up frequently in Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia in campaigns against independent NGOs, journalists and government critics, and in connection with alleged plans to bring down governments and destabilise countries.

Such campaigns are usually, but not only, heard ahead of elections, when activists and journalists are accused of not being patriotic or of not wishing well for their countries.

In Macedonia, the head of the ruling VMRO DPMNE party, Nikola Gruevski, after the December 11 general election issued a direct threat to NGOs that receive funds from abroad, saying his party would "fight for the de-Soros-isation of the country".

In January, the party declared that the "de-Soros-isation" of Macedonia had already begun while Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki told Italy's La Verita media outlet that Soros' activities in Macedonia were viewed as unacceptable.

In Romania, some pro-government voices have accused the leaders of the recent massive street protests of being “agents of George Soros”, Al Jazeera said.

The head of the ruling Social Democrats Liviu Dragnea reportedly said on January 25 that in future, the work of all NGOs would be “reviewed to see if they have proven to be of such interest”, meaning working in the public interest.

Dragnea also targeted Soros directly. “This man and the foundations and NGOs he has been setting up for years now in Romania, since the 1990s I think, have fed evil in Romania; he has financed [various] actions and none of them has done any good for the country,” the media quoted Dragnea as saying.

In neighbouring Serbia, a campaign against independent NGOs and media has been mounting for over a year and there, too, Soros is often mentioned as the sponsor of those "destabilising" the Serbian state.

Aleksandar Vulin, the Labour Minister, on January 28 claimed opposition candidates in the upcoming presidential elections were in the pay of Soros and also in January, the right-wing Nasi movement called for a new law that would outlaw the work of Open Society Foundations, following the example of Russia.

On Saturday, Croatian far right civic initiative, made from former politicians, writers, ex ministers, experts and historians is organising “national ethical tribunal” where the members of the group will in public adopt “ethical convictions of George Soros and his agents from the so-called civil society in Croatia”.

Open Society Foundation has also come under pressures in Albania over its support for the judicial reform that is underway. In parliament, some MPs have called the reform "a Soros-sponsored reform'.

Anti-Soros rhetoric in Bulgaria, targeting foreign-funded NGOs, liberal media and civil activists generally, escalated in the massive anti-government protests in 2013, sparked by the appointment of media mogul Delyan Peevski as head of the state security agency.

After the civil unrest erupted, counter-protests accusing the anti-government activists and independent media of being foreign mercenaries and traitors also took to the streets of Sofia. Pro-government media and politicians marked the protesters as paid “Sorosoids”.

Some ultra-nationalist groups in the region have also described the refugee crisis in the Balkans as a Soros-funded "plot" aimed at the destruction of Europe.

One result of these hostile campaigns appears to be less public support for the work of NGOs and human rights advocates generally.

A report last year on the sustainability of the NGO sector in Bulgaria, presented by the Bulgarian Center for Non-Governmental Law in 2015 showed that 45 per cent of Bulgarians do not trust the civil society sector and only 3 per cent of the citizens are members of such organizations.

Disclosure: Open Society Foundation is one of the donors of BIRN's Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence programme.

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