From Communism to Open Society
In April 2017 the Hungarian government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán adopted a legislation tailored with an eye to closing down the English-medium Central European University (CEU). This liberal institution – established in 1991, in the year of the breakup of the Soviet Union and two years after the demise of the Soviet bloc – has been a thorn in the side of Orbán’s program of ‘illiberal democracy.’ The CEU’s founder, the US financier George Soros, comes from Hungary, where he was born to an assimilated family of non-observant Hungarian Jews who, apart from Hungarian and German, after the Great War, chose to speak Esperanto as neutral language of potentially universal communication for a future more peaceful world. This was not to be. The two totalitarianisms of national socialism and Soviet communism steamrolled over Hungary and most of central Europe. Tens of millions died in the Holocaust of Jews and Roma, in the course of World War II, in the wake of the establishment of Moscow’s communist regimes across the region, and in both nazi and communist concentration camps. Furthermore, between 1933 and 1950, about 60 million people were expelled from their homes in central Europe, or a third of region’s entire population. In the 1930s Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin also made sure to incarcerate and kill most of Esperantists both in Germany and the Soviet Union. In the former case they were seen as ‘traitors of the nation’ led by a ‘cabala of international Jewry,’ while in the Soviet Union Esperantists were denounced as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ that was a code phrase for ‘insufficiently Soviet’ Jews.
In 1947, before the communist regime sealed off Hungary, Soros attended the International Youth Congress of Esperanto in Ipswich. He stayed in Britain and continued his education at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he was most influenced by the views of philosopher Karl Popper. Born to an assimilated Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian capital of Vienna, Popper shared much of his own intellectual and social background with Soros. Just before the Nazi Germany’s takeover of Austria, in 1937 Popper managed to leave for New Zealand. During the wartime exile there he wrote his opus magnum The Open Society and Its Enemies, published in 1945 in London. Like Esperanto after 1918, this work offered a new hope for a better future Europe and a world free of totalitarianisms. Soros and Popper remained friends until the latter’s death in 1994. Earlier in this year, Popper gave a lecture at Soros’s CEU, at the university’s Prague campus. Popper’s idea of open society was at the heart of this university and the growing network of Open Society Foundations (financed by Soros) that spread the ideas of openness, liberalism, cooperation, free speech and research, and peace across the postcommunist, post-Soviet and post-Yugoslav countries. Dissidents and anti-communist activists readily embraced this message and help offered, including the then young democrat Viktor Orbán.
Democratization and free-market economy appeared the obvious solution to the question on what was to replace communism. Soros was lauded for his good works across central Europe. It was his way to contributing to this momentous change in search of a better world, as presciently proposed by his teacher and mentor, Popper. As a convinced democrat and central European believing in meritocracy, Soros decided early on that it would be unhelpful for his family to inherit the fortune that he had amassed. He pledged to spend most of it on the good cause of facilitating the postcommunist transition in central Europe from totalitarianism to democracy, in line with the ideal of Popper’s open society.
I had the good luck to attend the aforementioned 1994 lecture of Popper that was chaired by Soros himself. This lecture and the education I received at the CEU in Prague decisively shaped my worldview, and taught me democratic and liberal values to which I subscribe. My classmates and I had a sobering experience in 1996 when the nationalist Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus brought about the closing of the Prague campus of the CEU in defiance of the free-thinking Czech President Václav Havel’s wishes. CEU students were no longer to ‘litter’ the Hradčany Prague Castle Hill (where some seminars were held) with their ‘too free’ thoughts and ideas. However, we believed that this incident was just an exception to the norm of the seemingly unstoppable wave of global democratization, as predicted in 1991 by the US political scientist, Samuel P Huntington in his seminal work The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Now, with the privilege of hindsight, we know that democratization is not the sole option. The fall of communism proved that Karl Marx was wrong, that there are no laws of history, which would compel all human societies to adopt communism. Likewise, in our optimism we neglected to notice that the postcommunist transition may have a variety of outcomes, democracy being just one of them. The persistent rule of second-tier communists parading as ‘democrats’ in Albania, Bulgaria or Romania during the 1990s, the 1995 re-founding of a Soviet-style dictatorship in Belarus, the post-Yugoslav wars, the rise of Putin’s ‘managed democracy’ in Russia at the turn of the 21st century, and the rejection of democracy by most post-Soviet states should have triggered off alarm bells in our heads. But none of these ominous events did. The successful westward enlargements of the European Union and NATO during the first two decades of the 21st century appeared to have made democratization irreversible, at least in central Europe.
How wrong and complacent were we in this wishful-thinking conclusion. Power trumps democracy, unless democratic societies are watchful and immune to populism’s empty promises of easy and simple solutions to the modern world’s difficult problems. The lure of China’s (‘Beijing consensus’) model of totalitarian-cum-nationalist politics and capitalist economy blinded many former democrats in central Europe, and already became the guiding principle of governance and development across most of the post-Soviet states. In numerous central European countries, the populations faced with high unemployment have openly desired a strongman who would ‘put things right,’ as such strongmen (never strongwomen) did during the communist era and in the authoritarian 1930s. The voters were already granted their wish in Hungary where Orbán commenced his ‘national revolution of illiberal democracy’ in 2010, and in Poland where since 2015 the country’s President and Prime Minister have been taking orders from Jarosław Kaczyński, who is just ‘a mere MP’ with no official function in the government. Xenophobia and exclusivist nationalism have become the order of the day. In emulation of Russia’s pro-Putin Nashi youth movement, nationalist paramilitaries or military-like nationalists march across central Europe’s cities, towns and villages beating up or ‘just’ instilling fear in national and LGBT minorities, cosmopolitans, ‘alien’ foreigners, or now in ‘Islamist’ refugees. The Magyar Gárda Mozgalom march in the streets of Hungary, the Slovenskí Branci in Slovakia, the Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny in Poland, the Lietuvos Šaulių Sąjunga in Lithuania, Ataka in Bulgaria, or the Chrysí Avgí in Greece.
Mainstream parties win elections in central Europe by embracing increasingly more elements from their extremist counterparts. Opinions and views that used to be contained to the margins of the political spectrum prior to 2010, now gradually move toward the center. Previously respectable right, left and centrist parties adopt the brown mantle of populism and nationalism. This transformation is hastened by a growing feeling of danger, epitomized by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, and the Kremlin’s moves to destabilize Moldova, Serbia, Montenegro, or the Baltic republics. In 2016 Russia deployed nuclear missiles in the Kaliningrad region that is fully encircled by the EU territory. Neither Britain nor the United States reacted to Moscow’s seizure of Crimea, though both western countries had pledged to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity in 1994. The EU’s and NATO’s reaction to these developments was muted to say the least. On top of that, the new US President, Donald Trump, wavers on whether NATO is at all still needed. None of the most important western leaders criticizes too vociferously Turkey, where since the failed 2015 coup, a presidential dictatorship has been swiftly established.
As a result, to many central Europe’s states it appears that the only solution to these geopolitical and economic challenges is ‘deepened national integration’ and ‘national egoism,’ or ‘our nation first and foremost!’ The resultant xenophobic isolationism is given a sheen of respectability by the meteoric rise of extremist parties of a similar hue in western Europe, be it the Front National in France, UKIP in Britain, the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, or the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs in Austria. To the average person in the streets populism presents strongmen and dictators as ‘savior-like’ figures who will single-handedly be able to protect their countries and populations in exchange for giving up democracy and the freedom of speech in the name of ‘god, honor and fatherland.’
The Foreign Agent
In reality, the territorially and demographically puny states of Europe stand no chance on their own in the face of an economic rivalry with China, any larger military conflict, or energetic blackmail posed by Russia. Prospective dictators, like Orbán, are deft populists and take care to check out how far, at a given moment, they can proceed with dismantling democracy and furthering their own personal power, ostensibly ‘for the good of the nation.’ Protests from all around the world and the European Union itself in defence of the CEU are a wake-up call. On 10 April 2017, 70,000 people demonstrated in Budapest against the law aimed at liquidating this university. But perhaps now it is too little too late. On 26 April, in the European Parliament Orbán countered any criticism of his government’s actions by proposing that he upheld the rule of law in Hungary. In a throw-away remark, he added that George Soros was a financial speculator whose line of business had cost millions their money. Orbán alluded to the 1992 event when Soros made a profit of over one billion dollars when the latter’s investment fund sold short its pound sterling currency holdings.
In 2012 Russia adopted a foreign agent law aimed at limiting the freedom of operation for NGOs financed from abroad in a bid to extend the government’s control over the entirety of public sphere in this country, like in China. One of the first victims of this move were Open Society Foundations operating in Russia. Three years later, in 2015, the undesirable organizations law led to the banning of these Open Society Foundations from the country. In the emulation of the Russian example, since April 2017 a similar foreign agent bill has been deliberated in the Hungarian parliament. But already, in his speeches, Orbán refers to Soros-linked organizations as unwanted ‘foreign agents.’
On 18 November 2015 a member of the Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny (National Radical Camp) burnt a Jewish effigy in the market square in the Polish city of Wrocław. In November 2016, this radical nationalist was sentenced to ten months in prison for this act that unquestionably incited ethnic hatred. Subsequently, in an unprecedented procedure, at the order of the Polish Minister of Justice, a Wrocław prosecutor public was compelled to reopen the trial seeking a lighter sentence for the perpetrator. In April 2017 his sentence was reduced to a mere three months. The accused’s new line of defence was that the burnt effigy was not of a Jew but of George Soros. He blamed the financier for various social, political and economic ills suffered by Poland and Europe. The nationalist also claimed that refugees arriving to Europe in recent years was part of a ‘Zionist plot.’
In the Polish nationalist press George Soros is often accused that with his money he wants to ‘seize control over the world.’ During the last two decades, the neologism соросовец sorosovets appeared in Russian, соросоид sorosoid in Bulgarian, sorosowiec in Polish; sorosist in Romanian, Turkish and Latvian; sorosistinė in Lithuanian, sorosista in Hungarian, sorosiste in Albanian, or sorosovec in Slovak. All are coined from the name of George Soros, and recently, in 2016 – quite ominously –Russia’s English-language news outlets developed an English version of this neologism, namely, ‘sorosite.’ It is a novel and increasingly more widely accepted term of abuse for the staff of the organizations supported by George Soros as well as for graduates of these organizations’ educational branches. This slur – gradually extended to liberally-minded and pro-democratic intellectuals – is nothing more but an expression of thinly veiled neo-anti-Semitism that borrows its plot theories directly from the Russian imperial secret police’s 1903 hoax of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Disturbingly, in many central European countries, law courts fail to make this connection, thus giving a veneer of acceptance to the use of this term, and by extension to anti-Semitism, an expression of which is officially illegal. When pressed on this issue, pro-nationalist commentators point to the fact that there are almost no Jews in central Europe’s countries, hence the spreading use of the neologism ‘sorosite’ cannot be an expression of anti-Semitism. I disagree. Time and again, in my home country of Poland, I experienced first-hand that anti-Semitism does exist. Jews are not necessary for the persistence and cultivation of this type of collective hatred. This hatred will always find its desired target appropriately navigated by nationalist and xenophobic mass media. In Nazi Germany, in the wake of the 1935 adoption of the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws, many Germans were surprised to discover that they were classified as Jews. Diligent civil servants were very good at paperwork. Lack of knowledge of one’s own Jewishness did not absolve a person of the ‘racial crime’ of being a Jew.
Similarly, it will not be in the gift of ‘sorosites’ to decide whether they agree or not with such an ascription. Instead ‘impartial’ and ‘nationally certain’ civil servants will give their verdict on this matter. Of course in full compliance with raison de l’état. The dawn of illiberal democracy is near.
I wish I were wrong in this diagnosis.