How Soros came to Macedonia, as seen by The New Yorker

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A New Yorker article from 1995 is probably the seminal piece on how George Soros got involved in the then newly independent Republic of Macedonia, and how even then he worked to support only the left side of the political divide, even when faced with rampant allegations that the former Communist Party it is rigging elections and doing all it can to maintain its control over the country. His God complex in interfering in small countries is also on prominent display in the article.

 

THE NEW Y O R K E R

23 January 1995 “The World According to George Soros”

By Connie Bruck

 

Now here has Soros put more energy and money into bolstering a government than in Macedonia. “George is the savior of Macedonia,” his friend Morton Abramowitz declared. And the Macedonian representative in Washington, Ljubica Acevska, says of two separate Soros loans of twenty five million dollars, “People found it difficult to believe.The opposition said, “A country does not help you- why would an individual help you?” Remember, twenty-five million dollars in Macedonia is like billions here… the fact that Soros did it helped the government a great deal.”

By betting aggressively on Macedonia, Soros plunged into one of those simmering Balkan disputes whose apparent simplicities mask lethal complexities. The Macedonia that excited Soros was of province of Yugoslavia once know as Vardar Banovina; it was renamed the Republic of Macedonia in 1945 by Marshal Tito. Its populace varied, the largest portion being Slavs, whose ancestors had arrived in the region a thousand years after the most famous Macedonians of all, Philip II and his son, Alexander the Great. However, Tito- coveting the large Greekregion of Macedonia -encouraged the irredentist idea of all Macedonians sharing a distinct identity. He then supported the Communist-led Democratic Army in the Greek Civil War, a brutal conflict that tore the country from 1946 to 1949.

Greece’s fears were reawakened in 1991, when the fragment of Yugoslavia declared its independence as the nation of Macedonia; its newly elected President Kiro Gligorov, was one of Tito’s Communist bosses, and had helped propagate the idea of a separate ethnicidentity for the Macedonians. Gligorov says that Macedonia has noterritorial ambitions, but the Greeks have not been comforted. In 1992and 1993, Gligorov’s government issued new school textbooks that showed “geographical ethnic boundaries” encompassing the whole of Greek Macedonia; the country’s flag carries the symbol of the empire of Alexander the Great; and a preamble to its 1991 Constitution pledges it to protect Macedonians everywhere. The Greeks do not pretend that the lilliputian Macedonia, with its two million people,poses any threat to them at the moment, but history has taught them to take a long view. In a scenario that some Greeks project, for example,Macedonians might someday attempt a hostile incursion, in concert with their fellow-Slavs in Bulgaria, which occupied part of Greece during the Second World War.

This was the situation when Soros arrived in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, in September, 1992, during a whirlwind tour through his proliferating foundation network. He had come directly from Bulgaria,where a member of the board of his foundation in Sofia had given him the prevailing Bulgarian view: that there is no such thing as anethnic Macedonian, and that Macedonia’s fervent attempts to establish this identity cloaked irridentist aspirations bequeathed by Tito.”Soros knew nothing about Macedonia,” Acevska said. “When he arrived, his head was filled with propaganda from Bulgaria- he was probably sorry that he was here. Then he had a meeting with the Prime Minister, whom Soros really likes, and the President had a lunch for him- and he changed his mind.”

That afternoon, Soros held a press conference at which he announced that he was committing an additional million dollars to the budget of his foundation in Macedonia, and, furthermore-and this carried as much weight- he was changing its name from the Open Society Foundation ofSkopje to the Open Society Foundation of Macedonia.

When I described Soros’s overnight conversion to the Macedonian cause to someone who used to work for Soros in the financial markets, this person asserted that it was “pure Soros”. He said, “As a fund manager,you’re looking at life and then simplifying it in order to find predictive qualities. So he gets the ‘broker’s recommendation — that is, the consensus view- from Bulgaria. Then he gets to Macedonia, and,instead of getting corroboration, he decides that the reality is totally different. And he thinks, If I hit the reality hard, the illusion will give way. It’s his perfect market position!” This person noted that Soros is always happiest going against the herd: “That’s when the wind’s in your hair.”

He pointed out, however, that in the market “you see if you’re right or wrong; the market tells you. Now George is in an area where there is no real right or wrong, where it’s more nuanced. He says, ‘If I spend enough, I will make it right.’”

In the good-guy, bad-guy formulation to which Soros is so partial, the Greeks became the bad guys. He did not go to Greece to get the Greek view. In his few hours with Gligorov, he became persuaded, as he often insisted since, that Macedonia is the only multi-ethnic state left in the Balkans with a government devoted to pluralism and democratic principles- a view contested by many ethnic Albanians, Macedonia’s largest minority, who charge that Gligorov’s actions belie his words,and that they are discriminated against in schooling, employment, and political representation.

The executive director of the Soros foundation in Skopje, VladimirMilcin, maintains that he, too, is committed to the principles of an open society. But it is difficult to reconcile a dedication to pluralism with the demagogic passion that Milcin exhibits on the question of Macedonian ethnic identity. He gave me propagandist literature on Macedonia and Greece (including a pamphlet of excerpted texts entitled “Modern Greeks Are Not Descended from the Ancient Hellenes”). Efforts to resolve the ongoing dispute with Greece have included discussions about changing the name of Macedonia to something like Vardar Macedonia or Nova Macedonia.

But in an interview I had with the Prime Minister, Branko Crvenovski, which Milcin attended, the two men insisted that the name is not negotiable. Milcin declared, “If they change the name, I will go to the mountains and fight with the guerillas!” Such strong partisanship is not the normal language off oundations. As tax-exempt organizations that receive tax-deductible contributions (from Soros), the Soros foundations, according to I.R.Srules, are not supposed to engage in most forms of political activity.

They may not lend support to a particular party or campaign, for example and they may not lobby (though “lobbying” iт rather loosely defined). Soros, as he has done often in his financial life, is moving aggressively in a gray area- in both his personal lobbying and the work of his foundations. Soros made no secret of his willingness to lend support to Gligorov, even in the context of an election campaign.

In November, Gligorov and his coalition won an ample majority (in an election that the two main opposition parties have charged was rigged). About a month before the election, Soros told me that he would have gone to Macedonia to help Gligorov if the election had seemed in doubt. Ljupco Georgievski, the right-wing head of theopposition V.M.R.O (International Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) Party charges that the Soros foundation is “a support machine to the government.” Virtually all foundation grants, he says,go to those associated in some way to the ruling party. Referring to a television station, A1, that receives Soros support, Georgievski said,”It is truly an alternative in its cultural programming; however,in politics… you see ministers of the present Macedonian government more often than on state TV.” Marshall Haris, who was formerly in the State Department and is now the executive director of the ActionCouncil for Peace in the Balkans (an organization started in 1993 with Soros’s funding), told me, “The complaints I’ve heard a lot-that the[Gligorov] government freezes out all other parties, even those in its own coalition, that information about negotiations [in the dispute with Greece] is kept under very tight control- are not suggestive of anew system.”

Since the fall of 1992, Soros has been lobbying aggressively for United States recognition of Macedonia, while Greece has been making the case that recognition should not come before Macedonian concessions on its name, its flag, and its Constitution. Last February, President Clinton did agree to recognize Macedonia under the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia-an attempt not to show prejudice to either side. Greece retaliated with an embargo, and Clinton, after meeting with representatives of a Greek-American lobby,essentially froze the recognition.

At this point, one will-placed person in the Clinton Administration told me, Soros moved into high gear. “He wrote a sharp letter to the President, raising parallels with 1938 and appeasement,” this person said. Soros also wrote a somewhat more moderate piece for the Op-E Dpage of the Times. In public appearances, he denounced Greece and the Greek-American lobby. He has lobbied Strobe Talbott and others in the State Department and the National Security Council. And at the BretonWoods Conference in Washington last July, Soros worked the corridorsassiduously, attempting to persuade members of the European Union to help Macedonia. (Greece, which then held the chairmanship of the E.U.,has vetoed any aid.)

Nor were all Soros’s efforts so overt. The Soros-funded Action Council for Peace in the Balkans launched a major effort on Macedonia. In February, 1994, it issued a “Macedonian White Paper,” highly supportive of Macedonia’s position vis-a-vis Greece, and this was circulated to the White House, Cabinet offices, Congress, and hundredsof media people. Several months later, in May, it issued an other report, which also supported Macedonia. The report had been produced,according to its cover letter, by “a bipartisan, independent delegation.”

The Action Council letterhead lists fifty people-including members of its steering committee and its executive director and its program director- but not Soros. (According to Aryeh Neier, Soros wants to“foster the debate” rather than “be identified with detailed positions.”_ Nor, for that matter, does it list John Fox, who is thehead of Soros’s Washington office, and who, according to Marshall Harris, “was director of the policy group.. the behind-the-scenes group at the working level of the council,” and was involved in the preparation of both reports.

Few would disagree with the high premium Soros has placed on achieving a stable Macedonia. For if tensions were to ignite between its Slav majority and its large Albanian minority, that conflict might well precipitate a wider Balkan war- one that could involve Albania,Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece. And his denunciations of the Greek embargo are not so off the mark either; even many who understand Greece’s sensitivity on the Macedonian issue acknowledge that Greece,in imposing the embargo, has handled the situation in an unjustifiable as well as a self damaging way.

But the problem with Soros is the extremity of his views- his tendency to beatify one side and demonize the other-and the way in which that’s reflected in his activism. If Soros had pursued a more moderate,conventionally diplomatic course at the start, listening to both sides, it is just conceivable that he-with his influence and resources- might have been able to mediate a settlement before the issue became so enmeshed in the politics of both countries. In the event however, Soros’s intervention- as self-styled deus ex machina-has done nothing to move the conflict towards resolution; if anything,one might argue that his zealousness (and funds) has contributed to Macedonia’s intractability. According to one person familiar with the situation, the Greeks have become somewhat more flexible, whileGligorov — after his recent electoral victory- has stiffened. It bears noting, too, that Soros’s strength has always been abstraction, while his weakness has been judgments about character, motivation, the more nuanced stuff of life-and, for that matter, of politics. As one person with considerable diplomatic experience told me, “Gligorov is very smart, but he did spend thirty-five years in the Tito government- and to have survived that system you have to be a tough bastard. We shouldn’t have illusions about him. Soros does romanticize Gligorov.“Soros sees the situation in black-and-white,” this person continued.“But in my view, no. In this region, there is no black-and -white, and it is a mistake to view it that way.”

To Soros fans like Strobe Talbott; Leslie Gelb, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations; and Mark Malloch Brown, the head of-public affairs at the World Bank, Soros is the trailblazer they hope other business people will follow, moving to fill the vacuum left by an overextended and inadequate government. But Soros’s Macedonian expedition seems to be almost a parable about the pitfalls of that idea. Soros, unsurprisingly, is to a considerable degree a creature ofhis experience in markets: idiosyncratic, intuitive, prone to quick judgments often based on scanty information, aggressive,manipulative, so self-reliant that he trusts no one’s judgement but his own- a profile, in sum, hardly suggestive of a diplomat. And,unlike the governmental bodies he has longed disdained, Soros is a free agent, accountable to no one, subject to no checks and balances of countervailing opinion- whose power is rooted, in the end, not in a consensus on the wisdom and sophistication of his world view but in his money.