Who is George Soros? Four things you wanted to know (but were afraid to ask)

As Hungary’s prime minister pushes for his country to enact a set of ‘Stop Soros’ laws, we look at how George Soros — an investor turned philosopher and philanthropist whose generosity was championed in the 90s — became a modern-day liberal bogeyman.

Hungarian Prime Minister set to press ahead with ‘Stop Soros’ laws

George Soros has given billions to NGOs in more than 100 countries, leading some to accuse him of political interference. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)
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Depending on who you ask, investor and philanthropist George Soros is either a generous benefactor who has donated billions to improving the lives of others, or a shadowy figure plotting to send millions of illegal migrants to attack Hungary's national identity.

That latter is what's driving the "Stop Soros" laws, a collection of measures proposed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The legislation aims to stop an allegedly dangerous influx of migrants, who Orbán argues could be potential terrorists. He plans to do that by stopping the foreign funding of non-governmental organizations that Soros supports, limiting their ability to help asylum seekers and expose corruption. In response, the Soros-funded Open Society Foundations, announced it will move its offices from Budapest to Berlin.

How did Soros — an investor turned philosopher and philanthropist whose generosity was championed in the '90s — become a liberal bogeyman who inflames the passions of so many?

Financier George Soros, left, who emigrated from Nazi-occupied Hungary and eventually found success on Wall Street, is an ideological foe of the country's prime minister Viktor Orban, right. (Eric Piermont, Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images )

Who is George Soros?

Born in Budapest in 1930, Soros survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary and moved to Britain after the Second World War. He later moved to New York, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1961.

He made his fortune as an investor, turning a $1 billion US profit by short selling pound sterling during the 1992 Black Wednesday U.K. currency crisis. The move earned him the nickname "The man who broke the Bank of England."

The financier is also famously active as a philanthropist. Through his Open Society Foundations, he has given billions to NGOs in more than 100 countries to "build vibrant and tolerant democracies," according to its website.

Why is Soros controversial?

Emily Tamkin, a staff writer for Foreign Policy magazine, compares Soros's public image to a mirror in the Harry Potter novels. When a character looked in that fictional mirror, they would see what they desired most.

"He's like that, but with the thing that you revile most," she told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

It's always easier to to cry foul against an enemy who is not there.- Anna Porter

"In Hungary he's this Jewish person who left, and he made his money, and now he's turned against Hungary," she said. "If you go to Israel, he's a Jewish person who is too pro-Palestinian for the current government's liking. And so on and so forth.

"You can always find some part of him to rally your base around."

Soros was instrumental in opening up the Eastern Bloc countries after the fall of communism, by funding NGOs and setting up educational facilities like The Central European University, but Tamkin argued that the rhetoric around him changed "when people saw that: 'Oh, this path that we're on is not going to magically fix all our problems.'"

That disillusionment has been seized on by politicians eager to paint Soros as a foreign interferer and distract from domestic problems, she added.

Anna Porter, am author who has written about George Soros, said that his influence on international politics has not amounted to much. (TAP Books/Submitted by Anna Porter)

What impact does he actually have?

Anna Porter, author of Buying a Better World: George Soros and Billionaire Philanthropy, said Soros is heavily engaged in political causes around the world, from Myanmar to Bosnia.

The billions spent in the name of philanthropy have helped individual cases, she explained, and may have even saved lives.

But his influence on the wider political landscape has amounted to "nothing," she argued.

"He did have an impact in Sarajevo by getting water in, when people couldn't get water, or had to line up for water and were shot," she said.

A government billboard in Budapest, Hungary, last July features the financier with the words 'Don't let George Soros have the last laugh.' (Krisztina Than/Reuters)

What motivates the 'Stop Soros' movement?

Soros is a useful enemy for politicians in Eastern Europe, said Porter, largely because he is absent.

"It's always easier to to cry foul against an enemy who is not there," she said.

"For Mr. Orbán to run an entire election campaign on the anti-Soros ticket is astounding," she added. "I can't remember, from my reading of history, when an incumbent government was able to run a re-election campaign against a party that doesn't exist."

Students protest against the proposed laws last month, which undermine The Central European University, founded in Budapest by Soros in 1991. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

The Hungarian embassy in Ottawa told The Current in a statement that the newly proposed laws would prevent all activities that facilitate illegal entry of migrants into Hungary, as a matter of national security.

It also blamed a recent string of deadly attacks in Europe to the current wave of immigrants and refugees, saying "they had not accepted the European way of life and their social integration became a failure."

Tamkin argued that if Orbán were to accuse an official opposition party of risking Hungarian security in this way, he would be forced to engage them on a level playing field.

"With Soros, he doesn't do that. He just has this perfect enemy who is not actually in Hungarian politics to fight back," she said.

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.


Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC News. This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin and Danielle Carr.

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