Faced with rising far right, Soros Foundations look West

By Thomas Escritt

BERLIN (Reuters) - George Soros's Open Society Foundations, best known for funding civil rights activists across Eastern Europe and the developing world, are increasingly turning their attention to affluent western Europe in response to the rise of the far right there.

Officials at the hedge fund magnate and philanthropist's charity, which disburses around a billion dollars a year, said the nationalist right's recent electoral successes were triggering the same contraction in the space for independent activism that had earlier been seen in Eastern Europe.

In southern France, the foundation has stepped in to replace funding to local migrant rights and anti-discrimination groups whose financing was frozen when Marine Le Pen's then-National Front, since renamed National Rally, took power in a number of municipalities.

With Germany's anti-immigration Alternative for Germany set to make gains in regional elections across the country's east in the autumn, the foundation is preparing to take similar steps, said Selmin Caliskan, a director in its new Berlin office.

"We are now looking into the possibility of having a support and solidarity emergency fund for civil society actors in eastern Germany who share our values," she said.

"Everyone who works there on racism, on anti-Semitism, on helping and supporting migrants and asylum seekers, people like the Red Cross, they all have this concern that their funding will be lost," she added.

The enlarged focus - which includes funding organisations devoted to fostering community spirit in poor parts of Northern England that voted strongly for Brexit - reflects a concern that Western Europe is also succumbing to the charms of nationalist strongman leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The OSF, which emerged from Soros's attempts in the 1980s to foster democratisation in Hungary, the country of his birth, recently decamped from Budapest, which for three decades had housed one of its headquarters, due to concerns that it was no longer able to operate free of government harassment.

Goran Buldioski, head of the new Berlin office, recalls counting the ever growing numbers of government-sponsored anti-Soros billboards that mushroomed along his route to work in the final months before the move to Germany.

But, he said, the 88-year-old Soros's elevation to global bogeyman of the far right in countries from the United States to Russia and the Philippines had little to do with the foundation or even Soros himself. The vilification was a "smokescreen" to cover up attacks on local civic organisations, he added.

But its growing volume of work in western Europe was not coming at the expense of its activities elsewhere, he said.

"Over the years, we have expanded our work to all of Europe, supporting independent civil society East to West, North to South," he added in a later statement. "There has been no shift of our work from Eastern to Western Europe."

Salil Shetty, former head of Amnesty International and OSF's Asia-Pacific head said Germany had a responsibility to which it did not always live up as an outspoken champion of human rights around the world.

Berlin, always keen to fund democratisation and civil society initiatives, was often muted in its criticisms when that harmed the interests of the industrial giants on which Germany's exporting economy depends.

"They need to be called out more where there are hard trade-offs - India, China and so on," he said.

(Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Mark Heinrich)