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Soros Invests in His Democratic Passion

The billionaire's Open Society Institute network is focusing on Central Asia now.

July 05, 2004|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — His democracy watchdog group had just been ordered out of neighboring Uzbekistan by an authoritarian president who seemed fearful the American billionaire might foment a revolt. But George Soros wasn't pulling any punches.

"Unfortunately, the Uzbek government is very repressive," the controversial Hungarian-born philanthropist told reporters here in the Kyrgyz capital in April. "It has 7,000 people in prison for political offenses. At least one person has been boiled alive while in prison, so torture is a very serious problem."

For two decades, Soros has spent billions of his own money on an international network aimed at building civil society in authoritarian or onetime communist countries. In recent years, he has focused on the former Soviet states of Central Asia -- places where governments may welcome his money but feel threatened by his commitment to democracy.

"When you're dealing with repressive regimes, then you do need to strike a balance," Soros said in a recent telephone interview from New York. His fundamental strategy, he said with a chuckle, is to try to bring "such great benefits to the people that even a repressive regime finds it advantageous to accept your presence."

Soros is used to provoking strong emotions, especially now that he has plunged into U.S. politics, funding groups opposed to President Bush's reelection. His work overseas has won him the admiration of pro-democracy activists and the suspicion of autocrats.

In the five post-Soviet "stans" of Central Asia -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- Soros' Open Society Institute has focused on public health, legal and judicial reform, and education, spending about $20 million in 2003.

In some of these countries, Soros also supports independent media and efforts to encourage fair elections. And across the Caspian Sea, in the former Soviet state of Georgia, he played an important role in creating the conditions for a bloodless revolt that overthrew a long-serving president.

During November parliamentary elections in Georgia, Soros supported exit polling that indicated an opposition party placed first, contrary to official results. The poll played a critical role in triggering mass protests over alleged vote-counting fraud. That led to the ouster of former President Eduard A. Shevardnadze and the election in January of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who led what has become known as the "Rose Revolution."

"I'm delighted by what happened in Georgia, and I take great pride in having contributed to it," Soros said in the telephone interview.

The developments in Georgia are believed to have played a key role in President Islam Karimov's decision this spring to expel the Open Society Institute from Uzbekistan. In power since 1990, Karimov saw a possibility that the uprising against Shevardnadze could echo in his country.

"It was clear to everyone that if these events start happening in neighboring countries, sooner or later it will come to our door and the same thing will happen here, and that is something that made the authorities very nervous and apprehensive of the Soros Foundation," said Toshpulat Rahmatullaev of the National Press Center of Uzbekistan, a nongovernmental organization that provides training and services for journalists. National branches of the Open Society Institute are often called the Soros Foundation.

Karimov defended his expulsion order at a news conference in late April, charging: "Their main aim was to select those from among the Uzbek intelligentsia who tomorrow could serve as their supporting pole, so they could dupe them and set them against the constitutional order."

During his April visit to Kyrgyzstan, Soros met with President Askar A. Akayev, a former scholar with whom he seems to be on friendly terms. At his news conference then, Soros discussed what role his organization might play in presidential elections set for next year.

"My understanding is that Mr. Akayev does not want to stand for reelection," he said. "I am keen to ensure that there will be free and fair elections in the choice of his successor, because that will be a major step forward in this region where most presidents seek to remain in power all their life."

Medet Tiulegenov, executive director of the Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan, said that despite "rumors that Kyrgyzstan might get involved in what allegedly they think the foundation has done in Georgia," the events there and in Uzbekistan have not had much practical impact on his branch.

There has, however, been "some kind of apprehension, some suspicion, caution toward us," he added. "There are some who have been saying if we start certain projects, someone has to go and get approval from the authorities, discussing ... whether we do not have some Trojan horse that is leading to that situation."

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