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8 December 2003updated 12 Oct 2023 11:13am

Sugar daddies and revolutions

Georgia's revolt was something to celebrate. Does it matter that it was funded by a billionaire?

By Leigh Phillips

The spontaneous people-power movement that toppled Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia’s miniature revolution last month seemed something to celebrate to the liberal left in Britain, faced with the seeming impotence of its own extraparliamentary activity against the war in Iraq. Here was a demonstration that produced a tangible result. Indeed, inspired by the example, Moldo-vans and Lithuanians have also taken to the street, calling for the resignations of their governments. Revolutions are still possible, we whisper, even in Europe.

Yet the spurned father of the people is blaming his overthrow not on the popular revolt but on dark forces behind the scenes – in this case the billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros.

According to Zaza Gachechiladze, editor of the Tbilisi-based English-language daily, the Georgian Messenger, “It is generally accepted public opinion here that Mr Soros is the person who planned Shevardnadze’s overthrow.”

Toronto’s Globe and Mail goes further, reporting that Soros, the Man Who Broke the Bank of England, funded Rustavi 2, the television station that was the key mobilising agency for the demonstrations, as well as the station’s anti-Shevardnadze newspaper, 24 Hours. He also bank-rolled Kmara, an anti-government student group modelled on Otpor, the student organisation that was the backbone of the movement that ultimately toppled Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia.

Kmara (Georgian for “enough”) received a $500,000 grant from Soros, according to Georgian press reports. It is likely the money was spent on bussing protesters into the capital from the countryside and on a giant TV screen set up for demonstrators outside the parliament in Tbilisi.

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Soros has personal links to Mikhail Saakashvili, the English-speaking and US-educated leader of the National Movement party, who is expected to win fresh presidential elections on 4 January. Soros supported him when he resigned his position as justice minister in 2001, complaining that Shevardnadze was corrupt.

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Western organisers of demonstrations have long been frustrated by the conservative canard of the “rent-a-mob”; the very phrase suggests that anonymous dark forces fund all extraparliamentary political activities. Yet it seems Georgia’s “velvet revolution” had exactly that – enough money from a Hungarian-born sugar-daddy liberal to take down a government.

Soros has also been throwing a lot of money around the US liberal left. In the past year or so, $60,000 has gone to the Independent Media Institute, $50,000 to the Nation Institute to support its programme Radio Nation and $50,000 to ProTex, the network for a progressive Texas. For 1997-2004, his Open Society Institute granted the Feminist Majority Foundation $770,000. Even Critical Resistance, which campaigns for the abolition of prisons, has been helped with $200,000.

But the money he has spent on various small-potatoes progressive civil society organisations is dwarfed by the cash he is shovelling into the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” in an effort to unseat President George Bush.

“[Defeating Bush] is a matter of life and death,” Soros told the Washington Post last month. “America, under Bush, is a danger to the world. And I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is.”

On 10 November, Soros and a partner pledged $5m to, an American internet-based group opposed to the Iraq war. It is an amount simply unheard of in anti-war circles. MoveOn has connections to Governor Howard Dean, the front-running Democratic presidential candidate. In August, Soros gave $10m to America Coming Together, a group aiming to get out the liberal vote in 17 battleground states at next year’s elections.

Soros has given money to the Democrats in the past, but it was small change compared to the bonanza he is handing out now. In the 2000 election year, he gave only $122,000 to Democratic candidates and organisations. This year so far the total is $15.5m. So what has changed?

“When I hear Bush say, ‘You’re either with us or against us’, it reminds me of the Germans,” he says. A “supremacist ideology” is driving the White House, he insists. The fairy godfather does not hide his political strategy. In his new book, The Bubble of American Supremacy, Soros argues that the ideologues currently in the White House will do everything in their power to maintain US military supremacy. This results in two classes of sovereignty – “that of the United States, which takes precedence over international treaties and obligations; and the sovereignty of all other states, which is subject to the will of the United States”.

And yet should not progressives be a little suspicious of Soros’s benevolence and about where the money funding their causes is coming from? Soros the finan-cier benefits directly from neoliberalism even as Soros the benefactor rages against the “excessive individualism” of laissez-faire capitalism.

The money he now doles out to organisations comes from the very processes of exploitation inherent in global corporate enterprises against which the progressive American recipients of his benefaction protest vociferously. Soros is simply robbing Pedro to pay Pablo, redistributing wealth from the poor to himself and then back down to those who advocate on behalf of the poor.

The Georgian coup was a feel-good moment. But far more inspiring are the revolts of the cocaleros of Bolivia – or the piqueteros of Argentina, who have toppled five presidents in two years, and all without a peso from the currency speculators who in the past decade have destabilised Latin America’s economies.