Early in his business career, philanthropy was the farthest thing from George Soros's mind. He disliked the very notion of philanthropy. Philanthropy, he told a reporter in 1993, "goes against the grain because our civilization is built upon the pursuits of self-interest, not on any preoccupation with the interests of others." So no one around him ever remembered Soros talking about how important it was to feed or house the poor. He was willing to give away large sums of money. But not to individuals. He wanted to have a more powerful impact. But to do that, he had to target whole groups, even societies. He thought on a grand scale.
His memory of the treatment he had received from the Jewish Board of Guardians in London still rankled; and that memory shaped his attitude toward all aid giving in general. "You should understand that I am actually opposed to philanthropic foundations," he told the reporter. "There is a sense of potential corruption because of the influence of the founder. The only justification that I see for a foundation is where there is something we want to accomplish that matters more than the foundation itself." He believes that any organization, including his, is subject to "erosion and corruption" as people within it pursue wealth, power, and comfort.
He never tired of telling people about the "foundation" that he had once organized, a small group called the Central Park Community Fund, whose goal was the renovation of New York City's Central Park. It so happened that another organization called the Central Park Conservancy had much the same mandate as his own, but was far more successful. When the Soros "foundation" began attacking the other one, Soros was appalled. He not only put a stop to the practice, he "killed" (his own word) the Community Fund. He took more pride, he said, in destroying it than in creating it.
And yet, he knew he had no choice, not if he were going to try to do some good. He would have to create foundations. He would just have to make sure they performed effectively.
Then the question was, How should he disperse his money? Since Soros was Jewish, would it not be natural for him to help out his fellow Jews?
Soros had never denied or cloaked his Judaism; he simply put it aside. He deliberately avoided giving any of his wealth to Israel until 1986, when he befriended Daniel Doron, the Israeli public affairs commentator, and provided a small amount of funds to Doron's Jerusalem think tank. Later, Gur Ofer, a professor of economics at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, approached Soros to try to get the investor to establish a foundation for the 500,000 Soviet Jews who had streamed into Israel in the previous two years. But Soros was dead set against the idea and cut the conversation short.
Why was Soros so opposed to helping Israel? "It was," recalled Ofer, "a mixture of his considering Israel too socialist and feeling that until Israel reforms itself there's no point supporting Israel. There's a non-Zionist or anti-Zionist element in his thinking. He believes that Jews should act within the societies where they live." As Soros searched for a place where he could be a "man on a white horse," he realized that the watershed event of his life had been his escape from the "closed society" that had taken hold in his native Hungary. Since leaving Hungary, he had tasted freedom, ffrst in England, then in the United States. Why not try to give others in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that same opportunity?
Soros decided that he would use his ffnancial muscle to promote open societies, places where people could be autonomous, where they could speak their minds and pursue their own objectives.
By bankrolling efforts to undermine communism, George Soros was in effect financing revolt throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The revolution would be conducted not at the barricades, not in the streets, but in the minds of the citizenry. It would be peaceful, slow, gradual, but unremitting. And eventually it would lead to the birth of democracy in these countries.
What Soros planned to do would not be easy. The obstacles would be formidable. Communist governments would not automatically fall into his embrace. And he understood that he could not bulldoze his way into each country. Some efforts might work, some might not. He knew that his power was limited; hence it was important to choose those points where he and his philanthropy could have the greatest impact. Like the Rothschilds, he would use his wealth to redraw Europe's political map.
At first, when communism still ruled these countries, it was easier to have an impact than later, after communism disappeared. Soros noted that "if you expose a dogma to alternatives, it will crumble because it will be seen to be false once you have something to compare it with."
Yet Soros knew that he could not make over Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union by simply handing out money. Beyond that, he needed to imbue the East with an appreciation of Western ideas. It was in the West, after all, where the notion of an open society had flourished.
Soros went up against people who were not used to someone tossing his money around so freely. Said Jeffrey Sachs, professor of international trade at Harvard University and economic adviser to the governments of Poland, Russia, and Estonia, among others: "George Soros is seen through all different kinds of prisms and some are not very attractive. Among the governmental leaders the reaction to him is much more positive than it is among the anti-Semitic groups, the extreme nationalists, and other xenophobic groups. Among them it's negative."
Indeed, it has not been easy for Soros to establish beachheads in these Eastern European countries. Romanians disliked him because he was Hungarian. Hungarians disliked him for being Jewish. And in Slovakia, a Hungarian Jew had two strikes against him.
He has not gotten away unscathed in the West either, where he has had to live down accusations of being a modern-day Robin Hood, of "taking" from the rich West and giving the money to the poor East. When he put all his chips on the pound in September 1992-and won-it was noted nastily that Soros had "stolen" the equivalent of 12 and a half pounds from each British resident. Soros took the attack in good humor. "I really think that the West ought to have done and ought to do more for the East so I'm happy to do it on their behalf."
Not every British citizen, though, was bothered by Soros's charita ble acts. Asked what he thought of the accusation that Soros had "taken" 12 and a half pounds from each British citizen and given it away to Eastern Europe, Neil MacKinnon, chief economist for Citibank in London, responded, "It was a cheap price to pay for freedom."
Soros actually began his forays into philanthropy in 1979 in South Africa. He had identified Capetown University as a place that seemed devoted to the notion of an open society. Accordingly, he offered to provide scholarships for black students. The effort backfired: Soros discovered that his money was being used largely to finance already enrolled students, and only in small part new students. He withdrew his support from the school. "South Africa was a vale of tears," he explained later. "It was very difficult to do anything without in some way becoming part of the system." In communist Eastern Europe, though, he felt he had more leverage against the system: "It was heroic, exciting, rewarding-and it was great fun. We were in the business of undermining the system. We would support anything. We gave out large numbers of very small grants because any autonomous operations would undermine the dogma of totalitarianism."
Once he decided to concentrate on Eastern Europe, Soros sensed that he needed a showcase. He chose his native Hungary. It so happened some of the reform-minded members of the hardline government of Janos Kadar had an eye on Soros as well. They wanted his foreign currency for their ailing government.
One was Ferenc Bartha, who at that time was responsible for the government's economic relationships. When Bartha and Soros met in 1984, Soros explained that he was interested in establishing a philanthropic foundation. Negotiations ensued. Conducting them for the government was George Aczel, the only Jewish member of Hungary's Politburo, and the unofficial cultural czar of Hungary and confidante of Prime Minister Kadar.
As his own personal representative in Hungary, Soros chose a formidable Hungarian dissident, Miklos Vasarhelyi. Soros and Vasarhe-lyi had met for the first time in 1983, when Vasarhelyi was working at the Institute on International Change at Columbia University in New York. Vasarhelyi had been a spokesman and member of the inner circle of Hungary's prime minister Imre Nagy at the time of the 1956 uprising. After the Soviets crushed the revolt, Nagy was hanged and Vasarhelyi was expelled from the Communist parry and sentenced to five years in jail.
Vasarhelyi guessed that the chances of setting up such an institution were no better than 50-50. On the plus side for Soros was the Hungarian government's wish to burnish its image abroad in order to obtain Western credit and hard currency. On the minus side, however, Soros confronted a communist state that had no experience with outsiders running philanthropic foundations, let alone outsiders seeking to encourage an "open society."
Even if the Hungarian regime agreed to Soros's plan to set up a foundation, it was not going to give him much of a free hand. Soros, for his part, insisted on independence. "I am coming to Hungary and I will give money to whomever I consider worthy," he said defiantly. The politicians reacted: "Mr. Soros, bring your money here, and we will distribute it for you."
The talks dragged on for a year. Soros wanted to contribute only $2 or $3 million, but that figure was too paltry for the politicians. The government favored aid for scientific research, but Soros preferred that the foundation sponsor individuals who would travel, write, or perform in the arts. The government wanted the foundation to finance equipment; Soros wanted to finance people.
Finally, it appeared that Soros and Bartha had overcome their differences. After the Hungarians signed the relevant documents, one of them said, "Great! Your secretariat can tell our foreign cultural-relations department what it wants to do, and we'll do it."
In other words, the Hungarian government was now insisting that the new Soros foundation fall within the purview of the Ministry of Culture. To the shock of the Hungarian negotiators, Soros rose from his chair and walked to the door. He would not sign the documents.
"What a pity to have wasted all that time and effort for nothing," he said, ever the good negotiator. His hand actually was on the door handle when the bureaucrats relented. They would allow the Soros Foundation a great degree of independence.
With that concession, Soros signed the documents. Soros promised to give $1 million a year to run the foundation for the foreseeable future. By 1993 the figure had grown to $9 million a year.
In an intriguing twist, Kadar's government apparently hoped that
Soros's foundation, by improving scientific research, would somehow quash discontent among the country's scientist intellectuals. Things didn't quite work out that way. Those academics who had been sent abroad to study through Soros Foundation scholarships returned to their native country armed with fresh Western ideas about a market economy and democracy.
It was the photocopy machine episode that served as the great breakthrough for the Soros Foundation in Hungary, establishing its reputation as an aggressive force for reform. Until that time, the Hungarian authorities had kept a tight grip on any machine that, if available to the underground press, could be used for subversive purposes. Few in Hungary had ever seen a photocopy machine. Soros decided to provide 400 photocopiers to Hungarian libraries, universities, and scientific institutes, stipulating that he would donate the photocopiers only if the government agreed not to monitor their use. Somehow he won the government's approval, stipulation and all, perhaps because it needed the hard currency.
Soros and his foundation faced continuing mistrust on the part of the government. For its first four years-from 1984 until 1988-the foundation was barred from advertising its programs in most of the Hungarian media. Nor could most of the media print the name George Soros or the phrase "the Soros Foundation." What little publicity Soros and his foundation received proved too much for the government. Trouble reached a peak in 1987.
The foundation had given a scholarship to a young journalist who wanted to write a biography of Matyas Racozi, Hungary's prime minister in the early 1950s. An item related to the forthcoming biography appeared in the World Economy magazine, the only Hungarian journal permitted to carry foundation advertising. Janos Kadar, the current prime minister, saw the item and thought, "This is impossible. Tomorrow Soros will give a scholarship to someone to write my biography."
Kadar extended the media ban to include World Economy.
Irritated at the way he and the foundation were being treated, Soros appeared ready to close the Soros Foundation. "For the next two or three weeks there was much tension," noted Miklos Vasarhe-lyi. "Finally matters cooled down." Once again, World Economy magazine became accessible to Soros and his foundation. The biography of Racozi was eventually published, but by then the storm had died down.
In 1988, Kadar and nearly all of the party leaders were swept from power. Soon after the new leaders took over, Soros was invited to meet Karoly Gros, the new general secretary of the party, a sign that the foundation was back in the government's good graces, for he had never been granted a meeting with the previous leadership.
The improved relations were short-lived, lasting only until 1989. By that time the government's anti-Semitic sentiments had became visible, and the foundation's position in Hungary grew more tenuous. Nowhere in Eastern Europe was right-wing criticism of Soros sharper than in Hungary. One eight-page article published on September 3, 1992, was headlined: "Termites are devouring our nation, reflections on the Soros regime and the Soros empire." It spoke of "The ... common role played by Communists and Jews in the Hungarian power struggle." Soros made clear that he would not be intimidated by the nationalists. "These people are actually trying to establish a closed society based on ethnic identity. So I'm really genuinely opposed to them and I'm happy to have them as my enemies."
By 1994, a decade after its birth, the Soros Foundation in Budapest was operating 40 programs, supporting libraries and health education, and providing scholarships. Travel abroad was a priority. So were youth projects. One Soros Foundation program even supported debates in schools. "The notion of debate wasn't familiar here," said Laszlo Kados, the foundation's dark-bearded director. "The atmosphere was more one in which you received orders and you didn't argue."
But despite its success, the foundation's directors sensed that they had much more work to do. "Hungary is still not an open society, " said Kados. "There are lots of structures, lots of mentalities that we have to change. You can found a party, have parliamentary life, free elections. These things already exist in Hungary. But this does not make for an open society. It is only the starting point."
Soros was candid about what he hoped to accomplish through the foundation's grants. "Instead of going at our goal directly, through political action against the government, we indirectly undermine the dogmatic system of thinking. The struggle between different ideas is the stuff of democracy."
After setting up the foundation in Hungary in 1984, Soros decided to expand his philanthropic activities. He had moved into China in 1986, mesmerized by the thought of establishing a foundation in the largest communist country in the world. His investment was small, only a few million dollars, and for three years Soros tried to penetrate the "inscrutable" Orient. He failed miserably. He had various excuses. He accused the Chinese secret police of hijacking his local organization. He also had trouble with the Chinese culture. "There is a Confucian ethic rather than a Judaeo-Christian ethic. If you give someone some support he becomes beholden to you, he looks to you to look after him for the rest of his life and he owes you loyalty. That is totally contrary to the concept of an open society." Despite the setback in China, Soros was undeterred from pushing ahead in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
In 1987, he had begun efforts in the Soviet Union; then in 1988, he moved into Poland, and in 1989, Czechoslovakia. But one of his most imposing challenges was Romania.
Among the worst effects of the communist regime in Romania had been the grinding poverty. Romanians have an average monthly wage of $50. When I visited there in March 1994, I saw Romanians lined up in large numbers outside drab-looking stores to buy cheap, subsidized milk. The stores offered few of the products available in the West. Inflation, as high as 400 percent a few years earlier, had been eating away at Romanian purchasing power; many young people were seeking to leave the country.
In 1989, revolution overtook Romania, the "events," as Romanians have come to call what happened in a six-day span in December. Soros spoke to officials at the New York Human Rights Watch office, insisting: "We've got to do something. We've got to do something. Those people are going to kill themselves."
Fighting had not yet broken out, but Soros sensed that a conflagration impended. He was right. On December 16, 1989, Romanian security forces fred on demonstrators in Timisoara; hundreds were buried in mass graves. Ceaucescu declared a state of emergency as the protests spread to other cities.
Five days later, on December 21, protests began in Bucharest, where security forces fred on the demonstrators. The next day army units joined the rebels. A group calling itself the "Council of National Salvation" declared that it had overthrown the government.
Ceau§escu fled, and fresh fighting erupted, as the army, now backed by the new government, tried to put down forces loyal to Ceau§escu. The fleeing dictator was captured on December 23, and two days later, following a quick trial at which he and his wife were found guilty of genocide, he was executed.
The Helsinki Watch group organized a fact-finding mission to Romania for January 1. Joining as guide and translator was Romanian-born Sandra Pralong, who, as a 15-year-old in 1974, had reached Switzerland and then had attended the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston. She became associated with the Human Rights Watch effort in New York. As she was about to leave the United States, she received a phone call from George Soros, who said he was about to help a Philadelphia-based organization called Brothers' Brother, which was sending medicine and other items to Romania. "I would like to pay for them to send shipments of medicine, but I don't want the shipments to fall into the wrong hands." Soros asked if she would try to see that the medicine was distributed directly to those in need, bypassing official channels. Pralong promised to do her best.
Soros then decided to visit Romania in January with the hope of setting up a foundation there. To head the foundation, he had in mind one of the country's leading dissidents, Alin Teodoresco, the 39-year-old leader of an organization of former dissidents called the Group for Social Dialogue. On December 22, 1989, the day that the revolt began in earnest, Teodoresco had discovered ffve cars filled with secret police outside his home. His phone line was cut, and he was briefly confined to his home, a virtual prisoner.
Teodoresco had never heard of George Soros-and had no idea what a foundation was or what one was supposed to do. Not surprisingly, his first meeting with Soros on January 6, 1990, did not go smoothly. Soros showed up at Teodoresco's doorstep without an appointment. He was accompanied by Miklos Vasarhelyi, his personal representative to the Soros Foundation in Hungary.
Teodoresco was busy with meeting after meeting, and when a colleague announced that "there are two Americans waiting for you outside, one of them is saying he is a billionaire," Teodoresco was not suitably moved. "Oh, come on. Fuck them" was his less-thanpolite response. Americans had been arriving by the busload after the revolution, telling Teodoresco and the other dissidents that they had money and wanted to help. So he kept Soros waiting for two hours. Finally a secretary popped into Teodoresco's office to let him know that the two men were still around.
"Let them come in."
In walked the billionaire and his associate.
"OK," Teodoresco said, unimpressed.
Teodoresco had heard of Vasarhelyi, a great dissident himself, a person who had been jailed and become something of a hero to many around Eastern Europe. Vasarhelyi's presence convinced Teodoresco to give Soros some time. Billionaires did not impress the Romanian dissident. Other dissidents did.
The three men met for breakfast the next day at Bucharest's Intercontinental Hotel. First came a half hour of small talk between the Romanian and Hungarian.
Finally, George Soros elbowed into the conversation.
"I'm a billionaire," he began.
"OK," was all Teodoresco could think of by way of reply.
"I would like to set up a foundation here in Romania."
"What is a foundation?" Teodoresco asked in all sincerity.
Soros explained patiently. "You receive money from me. You have a board. You advertise that you have money and people come to apply for this money. And you give out the money."
Soros said he wanted Teodoresco to head up the foundation and that he would put $1 million at his disposal. Teodoresco sensed that it would be strange and difficult to introduce the idea of an outside foundation into his country. A month later, when Soros was back in Romania, he was eager to learn why Teodoresco seemed hesitant to accept the post. Soros asked, "Do you need help to set up this foundation?"
"Yes," the former dissident said, "I need help. I don't know how to set up a foundation."
Fine, said Soros. He had just the person in mind. Sandra Pralong. "You have to see her. She's the most creative person I've ever seen, a little bit neurotic."
When he returned to New York, Soros called Sandra Pralong.
"What do you think of my foundation?"
"What foundation?" she answered perplexedly. She had no idea what he was talking about. "It's not functioning yet."
"Do you want to go to Romania and fx it?"
Soros seemed to be offering her a job, and Sandra Pralong grew excited. Finally, he asked her formally to become the foundation's first executive director, and she agreed. In April 1990, Soros met again with Teodoresco, and together they agreed that he would become the foundation's ffrst president.
Now that the top two jobs had been staffed, the foundation could get under way.
The foundation began functioning in June 1990. It was called the Foundation for an Open Society. Sandra Pralong arrived in Romania in September to take up her new duties.
For Alin Teodoresco, getting on with Soros was not simple, for Soros displayed little patience. He wanted to get the money spent and move on to other countries, other projects. Teodoresco was used to dialogue. "When I first met him, he was like a boss," Teodoresco recalled. He used the word "boss" pejoratively, to signify someone who expected his employees to function without too much instruction and without the chance to ask the boss questions.
As time wore on, though, Teodoresco became totally awestruck by the investor. He developed a theory about George Soros: that he was on a higher moral plane than most other people. He thought the secret to understanding Soros was to think of him as competing with himself, not against others, a concept that Teodoresco had drawn from the philosopher Immanuel Kant.
It was not easy creating the foundation from scratch. Just advertising for foundation staff in the newspaper was precedent setting. So was advertising the first scholarships. Despite its break with communism, Romania remained secretive, suspicious. When the first group of 60 Soros scholars arrived at the Bucharest train station on January 3, 1991, headed for the University of Edinburgh, one was crying. She confessed that when she had seen the newspaper advertisement she had thought it was a trick. The only Romanians who had gone abroad until then had been in high places, and she was decidedly not. That was why she was crying.
Even the foundation staff found it hard to function in the "open" atmosphere at the foundation. Anca Haracim, a tall, attractive 30year-old, began working at the foundation as program coordinator in October 1990, but in 1993 she succeeded Sandra Pralong as executive director. Her budget that year was a hefty $6 million.
Haracim had grown up believing that every activity required a centralized body to make decisions. Working at the foundation shattered that mind-set. Her constant smile masked the fear she felt at first. But by 1994 she was able to say, "I'm completely infused with the foundation ideology. I can even apply what I've learned to my private life. I take charge more. Now I'm at the next stage. I have to delegate. That's more difficult than taking charge."
Soros could not live down his Hungarian past, not at least in Romania. With a population of 23.1 million, Romania had in its midst 2.4 million Hungarians. For a Hungarian-born billionaire to arrive in Romania, preaching capitalism, economic reform, and an open society seemed, to some Romanians, simply a disguised way to turn Romania's Hungarian population against the government.
Attacks on Soros began soon after the foundation was launched. Soros was accused in some newspapers of trying to "sell" Transylvania, where 1.8 million Hungarians lived, to Hungary. The foundation sought to be fair, not to discriminate in favor of Hungarian residents of Romania-or against them. It was not easy. In the city of Cluge, Hun garian residents had applied in large numbers, and the foundation had no choice but to award them what seemed like a disproportionate number of grants.
Soros ignored the attacks. In the absence of any guidelines from Soros, foundation officials fought back by being as open as possible with the public. Before the attacks, the foundation had never published the names of scholarship winners. Once the attacks began, it did. "This was a way to show others that we were not just selling Transylvania to the Hungarians, but also doing good things," said Anca Haracim.
Even the name the foundation had taken for itself-the Foundation for an Open Society-created the suspicion that the staff had something to hide. After all, the foundation did not carry Soros's name. So Pralong asked Teodoresco to rename it the Soros Foundation for an Open Society. Hopefully, Soros's name on the marquee would convince people that the foundation was not an underhanded tool for using Hungarian money to support Hungarians in Romania.
And yet there is no marquee. Standing in the large Vittoria Square in Bucharest, outside the building that houses the Soros Foundation, one immediately notices the lack of a sign indicating that the Soros Foundation for an Open Society is inside. Nor is there a sign in the third-floor corridor outside the foundation offices. This hardly seems an oversight.
One searches similarly in vain for photographs of George Soros on the walls. Though he pays the bills, and the place bears his name, there is a refreshing absence of signs meant to exalt him. No one talks of him personally; or makes jokes about him. But George Soros is always there. He hangs about ethereally, his name popping into conversations once every four or five sentences. The Open Society embodies Soros's all-encompassing strategy and mission. The staff knows that if it thinks up a program that can impact on this mission, Soros will go for it.
Though the lives of all of the Bucharest Foundation staff are wrapped up in George Soros, no one seems worried that he might, even on a whim, close the place down. Only a few weeks before I visited Bucharest, Soros had lost $600 million by making an incorrect financial gamble on the yen. Anca Haracim said she was not concerned at Soros's loss or that he would shut down the foundation. The loss was all part of The Game George Soros played. Some days the horse came in, some days it never left the gate.
In 1987, Soros decided to open a new philanthropic front in the Soviet Union, "the quintessential closed society," as he called it. In March of that year, three months after Soviet officials freed Andrei Sakharov, the great symbol of Russian dissent, Soros began negotiating with the Soviets to allow him to establish a foothold in the Soviet Union. His great hope was to promote economic reform.
That year he sought out members of the Soviet emigre community in the United States for advice. Alex Goldfarb, a Moscow-born scientist and veteran dissident, was at the first meeting at Soros's New York City apartment. Goldfarb and his friends were skeptical. "We were actually quite negative. We said that such an effort will immediately be consumed by the KGB and they will outsmart you however smart you are." Soros dismissed their negativism.
And in fact, he pulled it off. In 1990, he established the Open Estonia Foundation and similar foundations in Latvia and Lithuania to provide business and management training, travel grants to scholars, scholarships, and English-language training. One such effort was the Management Training Program directed by his longtime friend Herta Seidman. Her program trained adult workforces-from Albania to the former Soviet Union-in business management techniques. In April 1994, the Management Training Program had just completed an accounting program for 35 Russians. "As the economies of these countries develop," said Seidman, "they will need local professionals to supply the services. That's what we're trying to do."
In December 1992, Soros announced one of his biggest aid programs, donating $100 million in support of scientists and scientific research in the former USSR. Having scored big against the pound in September 1992, Soros said, "I was looking for a megaproject that would make a bigger impact." The grant was designed to slow down the brain drain; already, 50,000 scientists had left the former Soviet republics, abandoning their research for better-paying jobs in places like Libya or Iraq. Here was a telling illustration of Soros at work. While the United States and the European Community were dithering about how to help Russia's disintegrating scientific community, Soros just went ahead and started a program.
Since 1987 Soros has opened Soros Foundation offices throughout the East. Each year his expenditures ballooned. His efforts in Eastern Europe grew in 1990, when he founded the Central European University with campuses in both Prague and Budapest. With 400 students from 22 countries, the CEU was Soros's dream, the project that meant the most to him. By the spring of 1994, the Soros philanthropic empire had spread to include 89 offices in 26 countries. He had given away $500 million in the previous two years, and he had made commitments to give another half billion dollars.
Some Soros-watchers believed cynically that the sole purpose of Soros's philanthropy was to give him better access to information so that he could invest more prudently. One skeptic noted that conferences Soros hosted for his foundations in Europe were attended by cabinet ministers who represented countries where he invested. Even Teodoresco believed Soros had a dual agenda in promoting his philanthropy, asserting that the contacts Soros made through his Foundation work gave him a better understanding of how the world economy functioned. "It's not at all random that he was more successful after he started to spend money through his foundations," said Teodoresco.
Soros attracted a great deal of publicity for his September 1992 coup against the British pound. The media wanted to know all about his investment style. He had no interest in giving away his secrets, so he used a diversionary tactic: By having reporters spend time with him in Eastern Europe, Soros was able to get the media to diffuse the focus. Less time was spent on his investments, that much more on his aid programs.
One British television documentary team, which aired its report on December 3, 1992, seemed happy to dwell on his aid efforts. They caught Soros talking on a plane to Prague about how little investing he was doing at that time. "Most of my effort goes into [the aid programs], probably 80 to 90 percent. I'm in touch with my office every day but I don't actually make any of the decisions. There's a team running the business I ffnd it easier to make [money] than to spend it, actually,"
The jet landed in Prague and Soros deplaned. A Czech television crew caught up with him, and its reporter asked what sort of a capitalist he was: "I don't feel that I'm a business. I invest in businesses run by other people. So I'm really a critic. In a way you could say I'm the highest-paid critic in the world." Again, the camera caught that big Soros smile.
As he moved around Prague, checking on his foundation and the Central European University campus, he radiated enormous satisfaction. "I've got all the money I need, and therefore I intend to step up my philanthropic activities. I'm thinking of setting aside something like a quarter of a billion dollars to be spent as fast as possible."
A quarter of a billion dollars?
Few people gave away as much money with such little fuss as George Soros.
The next scene of the television documentary showed the opening of the academic year at the Central European University. Soros stood next to Vaclav Havel, the dissident who became president, behind a microphone that was too tall for him, that seemed to be hanging over his nose. He kept his right hand in his coat pocket, gesturing with the left.
"Originally I committed five million dollars a year for five years. That was 25 million dollars. To the university. Our current level of spending is already well in excess of that figure."
The students in the crowd understood enough English to know that this was a good time to applaud.
To his credit, Soros has avoided trying to make himself into a cult figure through his aid programs. Certainly he wants recognition and respect, but he does not insist that his name and photo be placed prominently on every institution he finances. Nor does he seem particularly interested in using the foundations to disseminate his ideas. During my visit to Soros foundations in Eastern Europe in the spring of 1994, it was virtually impossible to find copies of Soros's books. Even the library of the Central European University in Budapest, which boasted a well-stocked library, had none of his books. The school itself was called the Central European University, not the Soros University. "I don't want to have a memorial of my name after my death," he once snapped. "I want to influence what's happening now."
Soros the aid-giver was a far happier person than Soros the moneymaker. His life seemed to have a fresh purpose. If many in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union considered him a saint or Santa Claus, that was fine with him. When his critics hurled epithets his way, he brushed them off, as if they were harmless flies buzzing around him. He was a man on a mission, trying to make a difference, acting in a very hands-on way, having the time of his life. His foundation work, Soros said gleefully, "has brought me closer to realizing a real sense of satisfaction than making large amounts of money."
Soros's satisfaction was evident in late 1993. Michael Lewis, author of Liar's Poker, accompanied him on a two-week tour through Eastern Europe and said: "When I wonder aloud from the back of his jet how to illustrate ... the comically complex web of his activities between Germany and China he will swivel around in his seat at the front and say, just write that the former Soviet Empire is now called the Soros Empire.' Then he will turn back around and smile to himself."
With his empire so spread out, so active in so many places, Soros seems to feel as if he should be everywhere at once. He has trouble sticking to a schedule. A whim will overtake him and he will change his plans at the last minute, to the exasperation of those who have already set his original plans in motion. In late 1992, he was scheduled to fly from Tirane, Albania, to Vienna, but when he boarded the plane, he suddenly shifted gears. "Let's fly to London," he told the pilot.
The pilot grimaced, smiled, and recalled the two hours he had spent preparing for the Vienna trip.
"Mr. Soros," the pilot said, "you are the most challenging customer we have." Soros laughed.
Racing from one project to another, Soros seems to be trying to make up for lost time. Nitty-gritty projects, however important, fail to capture his attention as much as the large ones. He wants to have an impact, and to have it immediately. "He always wants to begin new projects," explained Miklos Vasarhelyi. "If something is already on its way and is working, he's not so much interested in it. His decisions are not quite the best choices, but he's able to correct himself, because if he sees that something is not good, he'll admit it."
Tibor Vamos, who has been associated with Soros's aid program in Hungary, traced Soros's impulsiveness in his aid efforts to his "little stock-exchange brain He can change his mind while speaking a sentence. That's really a stock-exchange mind. At 9:30 AM you buy some textile industry, and 15 minutes later you sell everything and buy something very different. So he is somehow impatient if we are speaking about long-range effects and not very visible work."
By the spring of 1994, Soros had earned a good deal of credit in the West for his aid efforts. His "one-Man Marshall Plan," as Newsweek had dubbed it, was getting generally good grades. Yet Soros understood that far more needed to be done before Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union could be considered truly open.
While he and his foundation staff often profess to wish that Western governmental and nongovernmental agencies will eventually supplant Soros Foundation efforts, the truth is that Soros has little confidence that others will be able to accomplish what he has. He thinks little of government aid, believing it "the last instance of a command economy, because the help is given to benefit the donors and not the recipients." He told an official from the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, "You really can't do anything. You don't have enough power to change Eastern Europe."
Soros has had the advantage of being a lone wolf, able to make his own decisions, not having to submit his ideas to others for approval. Jeffrey Sachs, a Harvard University economist who has served as an adviser to the Polish and Russian governments on economic reform, said: "George Soros ... operates in a very flexible way. There isn't in these crisis cases a lot of cash around. So a small amount of money can help tremendously, paying for someone's airfare, a trip. The World Bank might take two years to get something going. George will give the air ticket overnight."
Due to the largesse Soros had spread around Eastern European and to the former Soviet republics, The New Republic has called him "the single most powerful foreign influence in the whole of the former Soviet empire." A Business Week cover story described him as the "single most influential citizen between the Rhine and the Urals."
But even with all that praise, by the early 1990s Soros seemed depressed at the slow progress of his aid efforts. He had, at first, hoped that he could simply light a match and ignite a revolution. "I feel that I have gotten sucked in a little deeper than I am really prepared for, because it is, in the end, very draining, and very exhausting."
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