[spectre] Alexei Pankin: Open Society and Its New Enemies
geert at xs4all.nl
Thu Jun 12 09:19:34 CEST 2003
The Moscow Times
Tuesday, Jun. 10, 2003. Page 12
Open Society and Its New Enemies
By Alexei Pankin
Journalists are wont to call the billionnaire George Soros a financier and
philanthropist. Soros has been in Moscow over the past week to reflect on 15
years of philanthropic work in Russia as his foundation winds down its
activities here. However, judging by the press reports, people were more
interested in his financial insights than his charitable work. Time and
again, he was asked "What will happen to the dollar?" To which, Soros
doggedly answered, "I don't know."
The dollar exchange rate is of course a very topical issue right now. Soros,
however, with whom I had occasion to talk quite a lot during his trip, is
blessed with a kind of foresight in that he can see certain positive or
negative trends in world development before they have properly taken shape.
Philanthropy for him is not simply an abstract act; it is always a means of
realizing some grander strategy.
I remember, for example, how on the morning of Aug. 19, 1991 -- the first
day of the coup -- I charged over to the offices of Russia's first
independent wire agency Postfactum. When I got there, fax machines were
whirring away at the double: Information about what was happening came in,
was compiled, edited and dispatched to the outside world. Perestroika gave
us freedom of speech, while Soros -- whose first charitable venture in the
Soviet Union involved giving photocopiers and fax machines to
nongovernmental organizations and media outlets -- gave us the tools to
realize that freedom. Taken together, it was an important element in
resisting the putschists.
Now, Soros is more concerned about the threats to an open society in the
United States. In particular, he is extremely critical of a recent U.S.
Federal Communications Commission decision that significantly weakens
restrictions on concentration of media ownership. In Soros' view, the
potential for media ownership concentration represents a threat to pluralism
and freedom of speech, and thus to democracy. Hopes are placed on the
Internet as the main means of countering this trend. But even in America,
the Internet is used by a minority of the population.
Thus, in a strange way the topic of media and elections, which has bored
everyone to death in Russia, is acquiring a new resonance in the United
At another meeting Soros had with journalists and human rights activists,
concern was voiced on the Russian side about closer relations between Russia
and the United States and Europe. One participant said, "We always hoped
that if our authorities acted in a completely outrageous and arbitrary
manner, then we would get support and help from the West. But now that Putin
has become the best friend of many Western leaders, they are no longer much
interested in our problems."
To which Soros responded: "That is exactly why I am shifting the focus of my
foundation's activities to the United States." But he added that the
problems there were so novel that a novel approach was needed.
How times have changed. In the pre-Gorbachev era, the intelligentsia prayed
for detente, because any warming of relations with the West led to a
broadening of freedoms. During the years of perestroika and glasnost,
America and Western Europe were perceived as natural allies in the fight to
democratize our country. There was a time when Russian people had much more
respect for George Bush Sr. and Helmut Kohl than for Gorbachev and Yeltsin,
and were not against them taking a more active role in "guiding" our
Is open society at risk in America? And is it the temporary consequences of
the events of Sept. 11, 2001, or an inevitable corollary of globalization?
What answers will Soros find to these questions and what ways to influence
the situation? And will they be as effective as those fax machines in
Postfactum in the dark days of the August coup?
Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals.
Last year, he also worked as director of the Open Society Institute's Media
More information about the SPECTRE