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World: Soros Says Revolutions Don't Build Democracies

George Soros at RFE/RL's Prague broadcasting center today (RFE/RL) April 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Billionaire financier George Soros hardly needs an introduction, especially in Eastern Europe and the CIS. Through his Open Society Institute and national Soros Foundations, he has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to fund philanthropic projects in the region, aimed at promoting the rebirth of civil society. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten spoke with Soros.

RFE/RL: I'd like to start by asking about the so-called "colored revolutions" that have taken place in recent years in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. You are said to have played an important role in them, especially in Georgia, where you were called one of the Rose Revolution's engines. Can you set the record straight?

George Soros: My role has been misunderstood and greatly exaggerated, actually by [Russian] President Putin and others -- [including former Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze -- who prefer to blame me for organizing the [Rose] Revolution, rather than accepting the fact that the people overturned the regime in Georgia.

RFE/RL: But still, you did play a role, especially in Georgia, did you not?

"I'm not a particular fan of revolutions because revolutions occur when there is a democratic deficit. They then create space for building democracy, but they don't assure that you make the jump from a repressive regime to a democracy."

Soros: I was somewhat more personally involved in Georgia because I was working with Shevardnadze and others on an anticorruption campaign that he and [current President Mikheil] Saakashvili, who was then minister of justice, supported, along with [Zurab] Zhvania, who was head of the parliament. And then, very regrettably, Shevardnadze could not deliver on his promises or his commitments because the main source of corruption in Georgia was the Ministry of the Interior -- the police. And his life literally depended on the police and so he just couldn't [follow through].

Then, Saakashvili and Zhvania left the government and started their own party. I did not support them as a political party but we gave them, for instance, the Open Society Prize, which recognized their stand. So that was my role.

RFE/RL: In hindsight, are you disappointed or pleased at how things have turned out in Georgia?

Soros: Georgia, the state, has really changed in its character. Corruption is much less prevalent than it was, and Georgia has been able to withstand very, very strong pressure from Russia because Putin does not like to see an independent Georgia and has done everything to undermine the [government]. At one point, they cut off the gas. They blew up the electricity, and Georgia managed to survive. So it's an unfortunately tense situation, and it would be certainly in the interests of Georgia and of Russia to have better relations. But I think Georgia is proving itself a viable and successful regime.

RFE/RL: Does that positive assessment also apply to Ukraine?

Soros: Ukraine is more questionable because unfortunately Russia did prevail in gaining control over the gas. So Russia holds Ukraine much more in its power than it does with Georgia. Nevertheless, Ukraine is still a vibrant, democratic society, where society has shown the rulers that it will not tolerate certain kinds of behavior. And whoever is in the government has to pay attention to that.

RFE/RL: But a lot of Ukrainians who were full of idealism and enthusiasm during the Orange Revolution are cynical now. All they see is deadlock and political deals. What would you tell them? Should they go back out onto the streets?

Soros: You need to build the institutions of democracy. You can't build democracy by revolutions. That's what I'm saying -- that I'm not a fan of revolutions.

And I'm also distressed by the failure of the leaders who were leading the Orange Revolution to deliver on their promises. They proved inadequate to the task and that's what people are disillusioned with. Nevertheless, there are countervailing forces that have to compromise with each other. No group has a majority and as a result you have this rather unattractive form of democratic compromise that currently prevails.

But that situation still allows for free discussion. You do have freedom of speech, freedom of media. And out of this, I think if this rather disappointing situation prevails for a number of years, you will get something much more positive, because people can debate and have greater freedom of action.

RFE/RL: So it's a slow process. I take it that you're not encouraging any other nations to have their own color revolutions?

Soros: I'm not a particular fan of revolutions because revolutions occur when there is a democratic deficit. They then create space for building democracy, but they don't assure that you make the jump from a repressive regime to a democracy.

RFE/RL: Turning to Russia, what's happened to civil society there? Are you personally disappointed that Russians seem to like President Vladimir Putin -- a strongman -- so much and don't seem to cherish their newly acquired civil liberties?

Soros: I've really invested large amounts of money and a lot of effort into Russia. It was a major project of mine for maybe five to 10 years. And so it is a source of great disappointment how it turned out.

But it's always only a small minority that really is willing to take very serious risks for principles. They were the dissidents under the Soviet system. And we are coming back to that -- that people who believe in principles and stand up for those principles are becoming a small minority that nevertheless stands up. I mean, there were still 2,000 people that were hit over the head in St. Petersburg [in a demonstration on April 15]. You can't really expect a very large number of people to do that, as long as they can see that they are outnumbered by a much larger number of policemen wielding sticks and so on.

It's only occasionally, like in the Orange Revolution and in the Tulip Revolution [in Kyrgyzstan], that a large mass of people is willing to demonstrate. But nevertheless there are those people. And I think that there are a lot of people who sympathize with them but keep quiet.

RFE/RL: You have been very critical of U.S. President George W. Bush and in the last presidential campaign you contributed millions of dollars to groups opposing his reelection. Is your assessment of the current White House's foreign policy still so negative?

Soros: I think that the policies followed by the Bush administration have really hurt America's ability to exert influence in the world. And this is felt in the decline of American influence in this region. I think it has also hurt the world because America did stand for certain principles, which it betrayed.

The Bush administration has violated some basic principles of an open society in a number of areas: in human rights; in the treatment of prisoners; in politicizing areas of the government that ought to be non-political, like for instance the [attorney-general's] office, the military, the civil service and so on. So, tremendous damage has been done and I've warned against it. And I'm glad to see that the American public is now rejecting the Bush policies.

Thinking Strategically

Thinking Strategically
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Listen to the entire briefing (about 60 minutes):
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