A perk of being one of the world’s wealthiest men is you can buy the most expensive of everything — from homes and cars, to yachts, private jets — and, let’s not forget, politicians.
So it goes that, when George Soros decided to help the president of an impoverished West African country cement his powerbase a few years back, he agreed to pay big bucks to secure the regular assistance of one Tony Blair.
Financial records produced by the American-Hungarian billionaire’s non-profit organisation, The Open Society Foundation (formerly Institute), reveal that in 2012 it spent $601,753 (£429,000) hiring Blair and his aides to help the leader of Guinea ‘manage and execute his ambitious reform agenda effectively’.
The cash was paid to Blair’s personal charity, the Africa Governance Initiative. In return, Soros’s chum (and Guinea president) Alpha Conde received much invaluable advice, including how to handle PR in the aftermath of violent clashes during which government forces shot dead nine opposition activists and injured hundreds more.
George Soros, one of the world’s wealthiest men, agreed to pay big bucks to secure the regular assistance of one Tony Blair when he decided to help the president of a West African country
‘We are losing the communications battle, in part because the government has remained largely silent over these past weeks,’ spin doctors from Team Blair advised the African politician in early 2013. They suggested he create a ‘new narrative’ in which ‘we must be seen as the side that has always been open to democratic process and dialogue’.
On another occasion, Blair personally contacted Hillary Clinton, who was then U.S. Secretary of State, asking for help persuading the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to speed up moves to relieve Guinea’s national debt.
‘My charity is helping the President of Guinea with [the] Soros Foundation,’ Blair told Mrs Clinton in a leaked February 2012 email, adding that financial assistance would ‘make a big difference since [the] President has elections in early summer . . . any support would be very welcome!’
Mrs Clinton passed Blair’s chummy request to U.S. Treasury officials, and suggested that Mr Soros personally call the Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to see if strings might be pulled.
A few months later — hey presto! — this cosy networking bore fruit.
The IMF wrote off $2.1billion (£1.5billion) of Guinea’s debt. Not long afterwards, President Conde was successfully re-elected, too.
Having paid Blair’s bills, Mr Soros also took a hands-on role in supporting Conde in advance of those elections, setting up meetings between him and foreign power-brokers (one, in September 2011, saw him host the African statesman and his son at his New York apartment). Occasionally during this period, Soros seemed to take it upon himself to act as a quasi-official negotiator for the Guinea government.
Mr Soros’ organisation in 2012 £429,000 hiring Blair and his aides to help the leader of Guinea, Alpha Conde, ‘manage and execute his ambitious reform agenda effectively’
Indeed, he appears to have informally represented the Conde regime at a meeting in London that year with a Brazilian mining firm which had interests in the African country.
In an internal email sent soon afterwards, executives from the company, Vale, said they’d been told by Soros to contribute $250million (£178million) to the Guinea government in order to be allowed to continue working there.
The message suggested that Soros was behaving as if the people of Guinea had elected him to run their country. It complained, he ‘has no right to speak on their behalf’.
These and other intriguing episodes are expected to feature in a high-profile court case which is currently going through the New York courts.
At its centre is an Israeli diamond tycoon called Benjamin Steinmetz, who alleges that — during the early years of Conde’s rule — Mr Soros conspired to have him stripped of valuable mining rights in the African country.
Steinmetz claims that Soros used a network of pressure groups that he finances to carry out this campaign, which he alleges was motivated by ‘long-standing antipathy’ between the two men. He’s now seeking an astonishing $10billion (£7.2billion) in compensation.
The lawsuit dramatically dubs Soros a ‘racketeer billionaire who acts in utter disregard of the rule of law and the rights of others’.
Soros, for his part, denies wrong-doing. He will argue that Steinmetz was justly punished by the government of Guinea for having corruptly acquired mining rights in the first place. The case (which we shall look at in more detail later) revolves around some disputed episodes in which neither side appears to have an absolute monopoly on either truth or virtue.
Yet perhaps more important than its particular rights and wrongs — in the context of recent events, at least — is what it reveals about the way in which George Soros uses his global philanthropic empire to advance agendas.
For the case offers a rare insight into the methods via which the 87-year-old, whose genius as a financier made him the world’s 29th richest man, has come to be regarded by friends and foe alike as one of the most influential power-brokers of modern times.
George Soros, pictured here with his wife Tamiko Bolton, has been criticised for his Brexit intervention but denies he is attempting to undermine democracy
Last week, of course, it emerged that Soros has donated around £500,000 to a campaign seeking to derail Britain’s departure from the EU and, by extension, bring down Theresa May’s government.
First, though, some history. George Soros is a Hungarian-born fund manager best known in the UK as ‘the man who broke the Bank of England’ on Black Wednesday, when he turned a $1billion profit betting that the value of the pound would fall.
His currency speculation, on that day in 1992, helped panic the Major government into devaluing Sterling, forcing Britain out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism and costing taxpayers around £3.3 billion in the process. In other countries, however, Soros is perhaps better known for the extraordinary amount of his personal fortune that has been devoted to philanthropy.
Despite the rapacious industry in which he works, his convictions are largely liberal and he has, over the past three decades, been perhaps the world’s most vigorous supporter of mostly Left-wing causes, ploughing around $14 billion (£10 billion) into promoting them.
He runs campaigning affairs via the Open Society Foundation, a grant-making organisation with 1,600 employees and branches in 43 countries, including an office in London’s Millbank Tower, which seeks to ‘build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable and open to the participation of all people’.
Its coffers contain around $25 billion (£15 billion), including $18 billion (£13billion) that he transferred to it before Christmas. It will this year spend a fraction over $1 billion (£712 million).
To supporters, this represents a uniquely noble endeavour that places Soros firmly in the tradition of such philanthropists as Andrew Carnegie, the Victorian industrialist who used his fortune to build libraries, and Bill Gates, who is devoting trillions to combating malaria and Aids.
Yet critics argue that the avowedly political nature of many causes Soros supports — such as the attempt to sabotage Brexit — can make his activities problematic.
Despite being unelected, and having few obvious ties to many countries where his organisations operate, his financial resources have the potential to subvert (rather than ‘build’) democracy, they argue. For example, by supporting individual politicians such as Guinea’s president, he is, by definition, undermining opposition parties which may be supported by significant portions of a country’s electorate. Though his motives may be honourable, critics say that at the very least, that amounts to meddling.
Were his campaign to succeed in stopping what he calls ‘Brexit calamity’ it would — to cite another example — have the effect of overturning a referendum which, whatever one’s political persuasion, was, with more than 30 million votes cast, one of the most widely-observed exercises in democracy in British history.
Quite how that dovetails with his stated aim to make governments ‘accountable and open to the participation of all people’ is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, although Soros’s affection for the EU is doubtless heartfelt, it may also be motivated by a hefty portion of self-interest.
For the EU has in recent years been a helpful ally in advancing causes close to his heart, from the rights of refugees, migrants and other minorities, to freedom of speech, human rights and reforming drug legalisation.
Mr Soros said his experience as a Jew in Hungary under Nazi occupation in 1944 has stressed to him the importance of the kind of political regime that prevails
The relationship between his organisations and Brussels was laid bare last year, with the leak of a 177-page document prepared for Open Society by lobbying firm Kumquat Consulting. Entitled ‘Reliable Allies In The European Parliament’, it contained a list of 226 MEPs thought ‘proven or likely’ to advance the agenda of Soros’s organisations.
‘The presence of an MEP in this mapping indicates that they are likely to support Open Society’s work,’ the document advised. ‘Open Society should seek to build lasting and trusting relationships with these European lawmakers.’
The list included what its authors regarded as the most ‘reliable allies’ among Britain’s 73 MEPs.
Among them was Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson, a former IRA member who served 12 years in prison for terror offences before being released via the Good Friday Agreement. The Open Society document notes approvingly that she’s ‘interested in regional autonomy, civil liberties, human rights, the rights of all minorities . . . the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and employment issues.’
The ten Labour MEPs on the list (there are also six Tories, one Lib Dem, and two Greens) include Claude Moraes who is dubbed an ‘unavoidable actor for civil liberties, justice, and home affairs’ who ‘may appear easy to win over but will require extensive engagement to ensure commitments are followed up effectively’.
Again, the very existence of such a list divides opinion. Some might say it forms part of a well-run lobbying operation that every professional campaigning organisation would be proud of.
Yet critics argue it shows an unhealthy desire to influence MEPs who are supposedly elected to serve the people of their nations, rather than to represent the pet interests of a foreign billionaire.
Equally problematic, in such a context was a second internal document which leaked in 2016 outlining how Open Society had recently sought to advance its agenda in Moldova by spending $141,750 (£110,000) supporting then Prime Minister Iurie Leanca.
The memo noted that Leanca ‘is a former board member of the Soros Foundation Moldova’.
It further revealed that Open Society was quietly financing four of his key advisers; one was a former director of a think-tank it supported and another had sat on the Soros Foundation’s board alongside Leanca.
While the rationale for wanting to support the politician was perfectly legitimate — Moldova needed help standing up to Vladimir Putin’s Russia — the methods via which Soros’s organisation pursued this aim turned out to be somewhat contentious.
For it’s against Moldovan law for a prime minister’s aides to have their salaries paid by a third party organisation. As a result, the document stated, a way to bypass the rules was found: ‘The advisers will be paid as research consultants within a project run by a German think-tank.’
To critics, such financial gymnastics seem contrary to the spirit (if not the letter) of Moldova’s law. And, again, the degree of influence they appear to have given Open Society over an elected government raises questions about whether democracy was subverted.
Soros might, quite understandably, argue that the end justifies the means. For life has made him healthily suspicious of authoritarian governments in Russia and elsewhere — and keen to support their opponents.
Born in Hungary in 1930, he grew up first under Nazi then post-war Communist rule before escaping to the UK aged 17.
Over time, Soros’ focus became gradually more political. In the Nineties he funded divisive campaigns to legalise marijuana and liberalise abortion in a number of American states
After attending the London School of Economics, he began work in the City of London and then on Wall Street, quickly gaining a reputation as a hugely gifted investor, with a talent for predicting economic trends and betting accordingly, often via currency speculation.
In 1973, he launched an investment firm, Soros Fund Management, and by the Eighties had earned his first billion.
Around the same time he began giving cash away, coming to regard philanthropy as his real purpose in life. He didn’t really enjoy making money. ‘I’m just good at it,’ he’d say.
At first, Soros devoted his efforts to relatively uncontroversial schemes: paying for black students in apartheid South Africa to have scholarships, or supplying photocopiers to Communist Hungary, thereby breaking its government’s hold over information.
But over time, his focus became gradually more political.
In the Nineties he funded divisive campaigns to legalise marijuana and liberalise abortion in a number of American states.
Then, in the 2000s, he began pouring cash into party politics, spending $15 million (£10.5 million) attempting (unsuccessfully) to unseat President George W. Bush in 2004.
His donations in more recent years to help Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s presidential bids turned him into a hate figure for American conservatives — just as Right-wing billionaires who finance Republican candidates are the bete noir of liberals.
Even he admits to having what psychologists call a ‘Messiah complex’ — admitting in a memoir that ‘I have always harboured an exaggerated view of my self-importance. To put it bluntly, I fancied myself as some kind of God’.
All of which brings us back to Soros’s current nemesis Mr Steinmetz, a controversial businessman who turned a family diamond firm into a global mining giant, largely by investing in edgy regions, and became Israel’s second richest man in the process.
In 2008, the highly corrupt former dictator of Guinea, Lansana Conte, granted one of Steinmetz’s firms, BSG, a lucrative concession to mine iron ore there. But two weeks after the deal was signed, Conte died.
When Alpha Conde came to power two years later, via the country’s first proper elections, he decided, with the support of Soros, to review mining deals that had been struck under his predecessor.
During this process, BSG lost its valuable rights, amid allegations that it had originally acquired them by bribing Conte’s relatives with millions of dollars in cash, plus diamond-encrusted watches and other luxury goods, including, bizarrely, a bejewelled replica Formula One car.
The firm denied such charges. Its lawsuit against Soros now alleges that the financier and his non-profit organisations persuaded Conde to take on Steinmetz as part of a personal ‘vendetta’.
The duo fell out over a Russian business deal in the Nineties, it says, adding that as a vigorous supporter of Palestinian causes, Soros disliked Steinmetz for having given large donations to Israeli charities.
At a court hearing last year, Steinmetz claimed Soros had spent ‘$40-50 million (£28-36 million) out of his own pocket to destroy me’ claiming: ‘He has an obsession with me . . . he’s nuts.’
Soros, for his part, told an interviewer in 2012: ‘I have not met Mr Steinmetz nor have I ever spoken with him. I have no personal grudge against him.’
His spokesman has called the entire lawsuit (which accuses Soros of ‘fraud, illegality, defamation and criminal misconduct’) a ‘PR stunt’.
At various stages, the wider legal battle — which has been raging since 2013 — has been costly for both sides.
Steinmetz was briefly placed under house arrest in Israel last year while Guinean bribery allegations were investigated, while a former associate was jailed in the U.S. for two years — following an FBI sting — after admitting corruption related to the affair.
Meanwhile, Soros’s right-hand man Lord Malloch-Brown — a former Labour minister who is heavily involved in his campaign against Brexit — suffered a costly legal setback in 2013 after Steinmetz accused him of industrial espionage.
A large lobbying firm that the British peer worked for had previously made ugly headlines for Steinmetz by dropping his mining company BSG as a client.
Steinmetz alleged that Malloch-Brown orchestrated this move at the behest of Soros, as part of a smear campaign.
Malloch-Brown and the lobbying firm eventually settled out of court, paying compensation of £72,000 along with legal costs, which were said to run to six figures more. Malloch-Brown did not admit wrongdoing, but Steinmetz’s spokesman told reporters: ‘When you are paid to advise people . . . you are not supposed to leak information about them to their enemies.’
That point-scoring now sets things up nicely for the blockbuster $10 billion (£7 billion) case between Steinmetz’s mining firm and Soros, which was, in November, suspended by a New York judge until the conclusion of related litigation in Paris. It is expected to return to court later this year.
Should a full trial ensue, the jury will, to quote the opening paragraph of the lawsuit, be asked whether they agree with Steinmetz that: ‘George Soros epitomises in the 21st century what [the historian] Lord Acton observed two centuries ago: ‘Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’