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Georgia revolt carried mark of Soros Add to ...

It was back in February that billionaire financier George Soros began laying the brickwork for the toppling of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.

That month, funds from his Open Society Institute sent a 31-year-old Tbilisi activist named Giga Bokeria to Serbia to meet with members of the Otpor (Resistance) movement and learn how they used street demonstrations to topple dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Then, in the summer, Mr. Soros's foundation paid for a return trip to Georgia by Otpor activists, who ran three-day courses teaching more than 1,000 students how to stage a peaceful revolution.

Last weekend, the Liberty Institute that Mr. Bokeria helped found was instrumental in organizing the street protests that eventually forced Mr. Shevardnadze to sign his resignation papers. Mr. Bokeria says it was in Belgrade that he learned the value of seizing and holding the moral high ground, and how to make use of public pressure - tactics that proved so persuasive on the streets of Tbilisi after this month's tainted parliamentary election.

In Tbilisi, the Otpor link is seen as just one of several instances in which Mr. Soros gave the anti-Shevardnadze movement a considerable nudge: He also funded a popular opposition television station that was crucial in mobilizing support for this week's "velvet revolution," and he reportedly gave financial support to a youth group that led the street protests.

He also has a warm relationship with Mr. Shevardnadze's chief opponent, Mikhail Saakashvili, a New York-educated lawyer who is expected to win the presidency in an election scheduled for Jan. 4. Last year, Mr. Soros personally presented Mr. Saakashvili with the foundation's Open Society Award.

"It's generally accepted public opinion here that Mr. Soros is the person who planned Shevardnadze's overthrow," said Zaza Gachechiladze, editor-in-chief of The Georgian Messenger, an English-language daily based in the capital.

In the eyes of Mr. Soros's employees, it was all done in the name of building democracy. Laura Silber, a senior policy adviser at Open Society, said the foundation sponsored the exchange because "some of the experiences are very translatable" between Georgia and Serbia. In Georgia's current political climate, she said, "it looks more charged than it is."

That's not how Mr. Shevardnadze saw it, however.

"George Soros is set against the President of Georgia," he said during a news conference in Tbilisi a week before his resignation - it was at least the third time during the protests that he had complained about Mr. Soros. He threatened to shut down Open Society's Georgia offices, saying it was not Mr. Soros's business "to get involved in the political processes."

Mr. Bokeria, whose Liberty Institute received money from both Open Society and the U.S. government-backed Eurasia Institute, says three other organizations played key roles in Mr. Shevardnadze's downfall: Mr. Saakashvili's National Movement party, the Rustavi-2 television station and Kmara! (Georgian for Enough!), a youth group that declared war on Mr. Shevardnadze last April and began a poster and graffiti campaign attacking government corruption.

All three have ties to Mr. Soros. According to Georgian press reports, Kmara received a $500,000 (U.S.) start-up grant in April, some of which may have been used during the three weeks of street protests when it bused demonstrators in from the countryside and set up loudspeakers and a giant television screen amid the crowds surrounding the parliament building.

Rustavi-2 got start-up money from Mr. Soros when it launched in 1995 and more funding a year ago when it began the anti-Shevardnadze newspaper 24 Hours.

Observers say that Rustavi-2's role during the protests is hard to overestimate. The channel began its campaign years ago when it produced a popular cartoon called Our Yard, in which the animated president was portrayed as a crooked double-dealer.

The government twice tried to shut down the station after its reporters exposed corruption in various government ministries and Mr. Shevardnadze's inner circle. And it was Rustavi-2 that showed the Georgian people how flawed the Nov. 2 parliamentary election was, broadcasting exit polls conducted by American non-governmental organizations that contradicted the official results. During the protests that followed, it was the channel everyone watched for the latest news.

"They were a tribune," Mr. Bokeria said. "People knew where to get real information. They were informed about the details of the election, when to go into the streets, where and how."

Meanwhile, Mr. Saakashvili, the man expected to replace Mr. Shevardnadze, has a relationship with Mr. Soros that dates back to late 2000, when the financier paid the first of several visits to Tbilisi.

Mr. Soros arrived in the country then at Mr. Shevardnadze's invitation - the two have known each other since the 1980s, when the Georgian was Soviet foreign minister - to set up Open Society Georgia, with the stated aim of building democratic institutions and civil society. On that same trip, however, he met with Mr. Saakashvili and publicly praised a program the then-justice-minister was promoting to tackle the country's corruption problem.

Less than a year later, Mr. Saakashvili quit his post over Mr. Shevardnadze's slow progress in implementing the program and went into opposition. After his departure, Mr. Soros's relationship with Mr. Shevardnadze began to sour.

In mid-2002, Mr. Shevardnadze made his first of many complaints about Mr. Soros's political interference in the country, and shortly afterward, more than a dozen young people stormed the offices of Mr. Bokeria's Liberty Institute, smashing computers and beating up several members of the staff. Mr. Soros responded by suggesting during a news conference in Moscow that Mr. Shevardnadze's government could not be trusted to hold a proper parliamentary election in 2003.

"It is necessary to mobilize civil society in order to assure free and fair elections because there are many forces that are determined to falsify or to prevent the elections being free and fair," Mr. Soros said. "This is what we did in Slovakia at the time of [Vladimir]Meciar, in Croatia at the time of [Franjo]Tudjman and in Yugoslavia at the time of Milosevic."

Mr. Soros's money and seeming good intentions were initially welcomed in former Soviet states when Open Society moved in after the fall of the Iron Curtain, but some of those relationships have since broken down. Ukraine and Belarus expelled Open Society, accusing the organization of political interference, and the foundation's offices in Moscow were raided recently by masked gunmen over an apparent real-estate dispute.

Mr. Soros, whose large-scale currency market interventions have been blamed by some for the 1997 currency crisis in Southeast Asia, has said that his next goal is making sure U.S. President George W. Bush does not win re-election.

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