by Nathan Hamm on 7/8/2004 · 5 comments

All due respect to the man, but I take a much dimmer view of Soros in Central Asia than does Jodi.

In an LA Times article on his Open Society Institute (registan/registan), the following is reported.

During his April visit to Kyrgyzstan, Soros met with President Askar A. Akayev, a former scholar with whom he seems to be on friendly terms. At his news conference then, Soros discussed what role his organization might play in presidential elections set for next year.

“My understanding is that Mr. Akayev does not want to stand for reelection,” he said. “I am keen to ensure that there will be free and fair elections in the choice of his successor, because that will be a major step forward in this region where most presidents seek to remain in power all their life.”

Sorry dude, I’m calling shenanigans on that one. If what’s gone on since that April meeting is any indication, Soros had his chain mightily yanked. IWPR reports that Kyrgyzstan is becoming disillusioned with the West.

“Akaev is an autocrat by nature,” she told IWPR. “That is shown by the fact that as soon as the international community started demanding that the principles of free and fair elections should be observed in practice rather than on paper, he revealed his true face and his plans to ‘do democracy the Kyrgyz way’.”

Like many others, Tekebaev has seen many examples of this new policy line being conveyed through the government-controlled the media.

The main targets for this media campaign are international organisations that work with local groups on democracy-building projects. As well as the OSCE, the fire has been directed at the National Democratic Institute, a United States political foundation, NDI, the US government-funded free speech organisation Freedom House, and the Open Society Institute, funded by the financier George Soros.

In a June 4 article, the state newspaper Slovo Kyrgyzstana accused these organisations of pursuing the common goal of overthrowing the current regime, along the lines of the Georgian or Serbian popular revolutions.

I’m siding with IWPR here for two reasons: 1) Soros is full of himself and tends to overdo it when it comes to politics; and, 2) Central Asian leaders (hell, most Central Asians with power that I met) are masters of promising one thing and doing another.

I really like OSI and respect the work they do, in spite of Soros. In fact, he is probably a drag on the organization. Through my day job, I’ve heard nightmarish stories of what it’s like to work with OSI. Soros can love what you do one day and decide it’s worthless the next. I’ve heard anecdotes of OSI branches having to change course suddenly as Soros points them in a new direction. There’s probably a strong case to be made that he should not have any control over OSI. His tone at the beginning of the LA Time article won’t help OSI get back into Uzbekistan, even if he is right.

In a way, OSI is a great test case for the State Department when deciding the decertification debate (also here and here). You have to be willing to make some sacrifices if you want to do some good in Central Asia (though Uzbekistan was just being silly with OSI).

Again, the regular disclosure applies to this piece. I briefly worked with OSI-Uzbekistan’s debate program. It was a great experience. They did nothing to make me bitter.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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jodi July 8, 2004 at 2:24 am

hey nathan! i was waiting to hear what you had to say about this all and kind of expected you to respond the way you did. i do see your points…

yes, i agree with you on some things:

i don’t believe akayev one bit when he told soros he isn’t interested in “re-election” (if you can call it that). as i alluded to in my post, akayev has done nothing in the past to prove he’s sincere about a democratic kyrgyzstan…. and if soros truly believes akayev is really going to change his ways then perhaps i did give mr. soros too much credit (you caught me there!)

HOWEVER, i’m still impressed with the soros programs in central asia and the role his initiatives have played.

as you know, in central asia, money talks, and without the large amount of money soros pours into central asian programs/politics, i think the CAS nations would be far worse off than they are and perhaps out of the small international spotlight they seem to be in. who else spends so much on this forgotten part of the world (that gets ignored for more “exotic” places like cambodia?)

sure, you could accuse good old george of muddling into things that aren’t necessarily his business and using his money as a way to buy politics and there is no doubt in my mind that –as you said — he acts like a self-centered do-gooder.

but, the passive part of me is willing to forgive him some of these things for the overall good i see him doing in that part of the world. when it comes to soros, we know that it is all about the money to do things other organizations have not done or are not doing enough of in this particular part of the world…beggars can’t be choosers…(but, to give you credit, that doesn’t mean we can’t be critics.)

in kyrygzstan, i attended some soros-led seminars that i found pretty useful and i still feel that overall, the programs soros funds in central asia are for the better…at least until something better comes along…

praktike July 8, 2004 at 9:48 am

I’m not sure exactly what you’re accusing Soros of here.

Supporting free elections? Personally pressuring Akayev? Provoking a backlash by the state newspaper? Calling a spade a spade?

Nathan July 8, 2004 at 10:05 am

I don’t think he’s doing anything wrong. What he’s said is true, but not particularly helpful.

I think that his personality–both the way he manages OSI and the way he misreads politics–is holding back a stellar organization.

Central Asia is tough. I don’t agree that money necessarily talks there. Soros is right to say that the trick in Central Asia is to offer enough of a benefit to the people that the government wants you to stay. The thing is, OSI’s work is great for the people but runs counter to Central Asian leaders’ interests. It’s a tightrope that I don’t think Soros is fit to walk, especially if he really believes what he said about Akayev.

My motivation isn’t so much to criticize Soros (as much as I relish doing so) as it is to chime in on what I think is best for a truly amazing and important organization.

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