Led by Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, the conservative lawmakers have signed on to a volley of letters accusing Soros of using his philanthropic spending to project his liberal sensibilities onto European politics. As Lee and other senators put it in a March 14 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Soros’ Open Society Foundations are trying “to push a progressive agenda and invigorate the political left.”
It’s an accusation that’s being fomented and championed by Moscow.
Soros, who survived the Nazi occupation of his native Hungary and fled after World War II when it was under Soviet control, has been long a bête noire of the Kremlin, which sees his funding for civil society groups in former Soviet satellite states as part of a plot to install pro-Western governments.
For years, those complaints had generally fallen on deaf ears in Washington.
While Republicans have long regarded Soros as a mortal enemy when it comes to domestic politics (where he has spent tens of millions of dollars backing Democratic candidates and liberal causes), their politics were more aligned on the international stage. Soros’ efforts to boost democracy and root out corruption in former Eastern Bloc countries dovetailed with traditional Republican foreign policy objectives.
But things may have started changing after Donald Trump’s stunning victory in a presidential campaign during which he emphasized nationalist themes. Politicians with nationalist constituencies in several former Eastern Bloc states have become increasingly aggressive in seeking international support for their crusade against Soros, and they seem to have found at least some takers in the GOP.
The particular focus of the letters from Lee, Smith and their cohort is spending by Soros’ foundations in Macedonia, a former socialist republic in the throes of a two-year political crisis, and to a lesser extent in its neighbor to the west, Albania. In the former Communist country, which has struggled with allegations of corruption, one letter expressed concerns that “Soros-backed organizations” are pushing reforms “ultimately aimed to give the Prime Minister and left-of-center government full control over judiciary power.”
The letters, which ask the State Department and the Government Accountability Office for information about U.S. foreign aid funding for Soros groups in the Balkans, came after lobbying from the right-wing party clinging to power in Macedonia, VMRO-DPMNE.
Chris Stone, president of the Open Society Foundations, suggested that autocratic regimes see Trump’s rise as giving them carte blanche to resist reforms, and to dismiss those proposing them.
“Authoritarians, branded today as ‘illiberals,’ have long opposed George Soros and the vision of an open society, but they have been emboldened by Trump's victory to go even further,” Stone told POLITICO.
So far, the Republican lobbying against Soros’ efforts in Macedonia has not resulted in much. But the involvement of several high-profile Republicans, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, is raising eyebrows within the U.S. foreign policy community, who see the baleful influence of Moscow making inroads on Capitol Hill.
Russia is trying to exploit the crisis in Macedonia to sow distrust of the U.S. and pull the right-wing party into its orbit, regional analysts say. And the Republican lawmakers’ concern — that the U.S. is, in the words of Lee’s letter to Tillerson, “fomenting political unrest, disrespecting national sovereignty and civil society” — handed Moscow a major propaganda coup, they warn.
Russia’s state-controlled English-language websites rushed to trumpet Lee’s and Smith’s letters, holding them up as proof that the U.S. is guilty of exactly what it accuses Russia of doing in 2016 — interfering in another country’s politics.
“Senators ask Tillerson to probe US ‘fomenting unrest’ in other countries,” RT blared.
Sputnik News reported on Lee’s letter under the headline “Tables Turned: Have Obama and Soros Hacked Foreign Elections?”
The claims have been echoed in right-wing U.S. outlets, from the conspiracy website Infowars to Fox News.
“It’s straight from the Russian playbook — the idea that some American NGO is fomenting the demonstrations is like ascribing to the CIA mystical powers that don’t exist,” said a policy analyst with knowledge of the Balkans. “The Russians have been using all tactics at their disposal, and it’s a very inexpensive way to stir the pot.”
The Macedonian politicians and an allied group known as Stop Operation Soros deny any direct Russian role in their efforts. But they acknowledge that Moscow has taken an interest. One of the founders of Stop Operation Soros, Cvetin Chilimanov, noticed a virtual army of bots and trolls posting about mass demonstrations against Soros that never actually happened.
“I’m not naïve,” said Chilimanov, who granted several interviews with RT and Sputnik News. “I understand they would be happy to use this.”
Macedonia, a small and ethnically diverse former socialist republic that seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, became a new front in the geostrategic power games in Congress when a member of parliament from the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party named Vladimir Gjorcev brought the Soros issue to the attention of Smith, according to Aleksandar Nikoloski, a party spokesman. Gjorcev and Smith know each other from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a regional security forum, and bonded over shared commitments to traditional values, such as opposition to gay marriage and abortion. Gjorcev routinely meets with Smith when he visits Washington, as he has three times in 2017.
Smith has been an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s international development efforts, which he accused of seeking to spread liberal ideology. Gjorcev’s case against Soros also resonates with Republicans who see the megadonor as a boogeyman, some of whom have recently accused him, without evidence, of bankrolling anti-Trump protests.
“The whole ‘George Soros is the root of all evils’ story has great appeal to some folks,” a former Senate Republican aide said.
Smith and five other Republicans first sent a letter on Jan. 17 to the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, Jess Baily, accusing him of favoring the left-wing party. Unsatisfied with the State Department’s Feb. 6 response, the lawmakers asked the Government Accountability Office on Feb. 24 to investigate USAID funding for Soros’ Open Society Foundations. The lawmakers say USAID is funding a “progressive agenda” in the Balkans through Soros’ foundation and accuse the ambassador of “actively intervening in the party politics of Macedonia … favoring left-leaning political groups over others.”
Those complaints appear to be drawn from a document prepared by Stop Operation Soros that was distributed to members of Congress, including Senator Lee, in January. The 38-page dossier contains a number of implausible claims, including that USAID and Soros are aiming for “complete control over the media … with the final goal of establishing complete control over the country for Soros [sic] own benefit and implementation of radical policies.”
Smith’s office didn’t answer requests for comment, but he expanded on his concerns during a recent radio interview with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, a Christian conservative pressure group. “We’re not supposed to be taking sides,” Smith said. “There needs to be a top-to-bottom review at the State Department to ensure this kind of aggressive partisanship doesn’t take place.”
The State Department denies any such favoritism. Baily, a career Foreign Service officer, said his role in the country, which has involved helping to mediate Macedonia’s political crisis, was neither unusual nor biased.
“We were invited and welcomed by the parties to [mediate],” Baily said in an interview with POLITICO. “Political crises have usually been resolved with a fairly significant involvement from Europe and the United States.”
According to the State Department, USAID provided just three grants to Foundation Open Society-Macedonia over the past 15 years, primarily for education initiatives involving the country’s ethnic Roma population. “Funding for Foundation Open Society-Macedonia for the Civil Society Project represents just 8 percent of our total assistance over the past five years,” said USAID Mission Director for Macedonia Jim Stein. “There’s a lot of exaggeration and distortion in that document.”
A Feb. 9 letter from the State Department to Lee pushed back against the accusation in greater detail, defending the U.S.-EU mediation efforts and noting the growing concerns about Macedonia’s deteriorating political climate.
For its part, the Open Society Foundations says it has been working with independent organizations that support “good governance, human rights and accountability” in Macedonia since the early 1990s, and has partnered with the U.S. government to administer grants to such groups under presidents of both parties.
The dispute comes amid a deepening political crisis in Macedonia, following the release of wiretapped conversations that showed government officials abusing their power, while other revelations showed the illegal wiretapping of journalists and political opponents of the government. The leader of VMRO-DPMNE, Nikola Gruevski, resigned as prime minister last January amid pressure from the U.S. and the European Union, but his party remains the largest faction in the parliament. In December, Gruevski blamed Soros for the ongoing unrest and called for a process of “de-Soros-ization.”
Officially, VMRO-DPMNE is pro-Western, but Gruevski has welcomed Russian support in response to what he perceives as the U.S. Embassy siding with the left-wing opposition. On Feb. 1, he met with the Russian ambassador to Macedonia, who alluded to unnamed forces “spreading instability and uncertainty in the country”—presumably a reference to Soros. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement a day later warning about “continuing foreign influence in Macedonia under pseudo-democratic slogans,” and expressed support for VMRO-DPMNE. Russia recently added personnel to its embassy in Macedonia.
“Gruevski’s strategy is to bring Russia around on his side, figuring that the Americans will be on the side of the Social Democrats,” said Daniel Serwer, a regional expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “He says, ‘We’re not Russophiles,’ but what he’s doing is looking for support wherever he can get it.”
“It’s kind of a broader indication of an attack on think tanks, nonprofits and civil society in Macedonia,” said Sarah Bedenbaugh, associate director of the European Union and Special Initiatives at the Atlantic Council.
Taking their cue from Gruevski, Chilimanov and two other right-wing media personalities formed Stop Operation Soros in January, receiving extensive coverage in Russian media. Chilimanov was a member of VMRO-DPMNE until 1999, when he became a journalist. At one point he was a correspondent based in Washington, but is now an English-language news editor at the state-controlled Macedonian Information Agency.
Chilimanov said the group, which he described as a shoestring operation with no significant expenses and no outside funding, has no affiliation or coordination with VMRO-DPMNE. “I’ve been going on about this for a long time, but I guess now the moment is also good in U.S. for people to get involved,” he said.
Around the same time Chilimanov sent his dossier, Macedonia’s defense minister, Zoran Jolevski, visited Washington for Trump’s inauguration and met with senators including Lee, Cruz and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who also signed Lee’s letter to Tillerson. (Chilimanov also met with John McCain, who did not sign the letter.)
A spokesman for Lee said the senator sent a mid-January letter to Baily and the March letter to Tillerson based on “personal briefings from Macedonian leaders” and information received from Stop Operation Soros. He declined to say who wrote the letter. The other senators’ offices referred questions to Lee.
Besides the congressional letters, in February, the conservative activist group Judicial Watch sought records under the Freedom of Information Act about U.S. funding for Soros’ activities in Macedonia, citing “high-level sources in Macedonia and the U.S.” The organization’s president, Tom Fitton, declined to say who brought the issue to his attention.
Nikoloski, the VMRO-DPMNE spokesman, disavowed all external efforts to exploit Macedonia’s political crisis. “We have a problem with one foundation and one person, and it’s not good that it’s being abused in a strategic game that Russia is playing or someone else is playing,” he said.
But the anti-Soros movement already extends beyond Macedonia. In a nationally televised address in February, Viktor Orbán, the pro-Russian far-right leader of Hungary, blamed Soros for allegedly meddling in his country’s domestic politics. “Large-bodied predators are swimming here in the waters. This is the trans-border empire of George Soros, with tons of money and international heavy artillery," Orban said. “It is causing trouble ... that they are trying secretly and with foreign money to influence Hungarian politics.”
And last weekend, far-right leaders convened in Budapest to launch their own chapter of Stop Operation Soros.
The event featured Nick Griffin, the former leader of the British National Party, who has said it’s now “Russia’s turn” to lead the world; the right-wing religious group Knights Templar International; Macedonian journalist Ljupcho Zlatev; and several Hungarian politicians from the far right, which has drifted toward Russia.
One of them, Imre Téglásy, head of the pro-life Alfa Alliance, in his remarks noted the presence of a Russian camera crew and praised Vladimir Putin’s regime.
“I would like to express my respect my dear friends to Russia,” he said. “God save Russia, which has returned to its national and traditional roots. God save the U.S., which under the leadership of President Trump may return to its original, God-respecting American values.”
Author: Isaac Arnsdorf , Andrew Hanna and Kenneth P. Vogel