U.S. Billionaire Donates Millions to Russian Causes : Aid: George Soros has already sponsored scientists. Now he’s giving $250 million for teacher training and textbook writers.
He brands Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin’s administration “more inept and impotent” than Germany’s prewar Weimar Republic, and he professes to be “horrified” by the prospect of a takeover here by ultranationalist, anti-Western forces.
But billionaire George Soros is back in Moscow this week, expanding a personal crusade for what he calls an “open society” in post-Soviet Russia with millions of dollars in fresh commitments from his own fortune.
On Wednesday, the American financier gathered some of Russia’s most innovative educators in a hotel ballroom and distributed grants worth $250 million to retrain teachers and write new textbooks.
Two days earlier, Soros announced a one-year extension of another ambitious project that in less than two years has doled out or promised $100 million to more than 2,000 Russian scientists to support their research.
“Even if the most horrendous things happen here in the next few years, there will still be a Russia in the long run, and I think what one does now will bring its fruits in the years to come,” Soros said in a brief interview before the ceremony with the teachers.
When he started his aid projects here in the perestroika days of the late 1980s, Soros recalled, “I threw myself into it with great enthusiasm for a few years. I felt it was a short-term thing. Now I think in biblical terms--you know, 40 years in the wilderness.”
Soros, who made his fortune speculating on currency movements, is the latest in a parade of prominent Westerners to come and express alarm at the prospects of remaking Russia.
Former U.S. President Richard Nixon, who ended a fact-finding mission here Tuesday, said the huge U.S. effort to support Yeltsin’s economic reforms was on “rocky ground” after Yeltsin “lost far more support than expected” in December’s parliamentary elections.
That alarm was fueled when the ailing, 63-year-old Yeltsin left Moscow this week for a two-week seaside vacation, and most of Russia’s conservative and nationalist parties announced Wednesday that they were forming a united movement for the 1996 presidential elections.
In remarks to reporters this week, Soros blamed the West for Russia’s continuing economic decline and political retrenchment.
“Most of the foreign aid has been designed to satisfy the needs of the donors and not the needs of the recipients,” he said. “The joke in my foundation is that foreign aid is the last remnant of the (Soviet) command economy.”
His criticism was echoed this week in a report by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The report said the distribution of the $3 billion in official U.S. aid given to Russia since 1991 has been dictated too much by decision-makers in Washington rather than by those in Russia.
The Hungarian-born financier stressed that his foundation works with “trustworthy local partners,” allowing them to design and manage the aid programs.
The foundation controls the purse strings, and the money goes directly to scientists and teachers, bypassing the Russian government.
“It’s a formula that works,” he said.
The International Science Foundation, the private Russian partner for Soros’ program to aid scientists, will get another $12.5 million from Soros to keep operating through 1995, the financier announced.
He said the Russian government agreed to match that donation and help the foundation seek another $25 million from foreign sources.
The $250 million in education grants is the costliest single program of all those Soros has launched in the former Soviet bloc.
It will be managed over the next five years by another private Russian foundation, International Cultural Initiative.
Based on a smaller-scale pilot program operating since 1992, the expanded initiative aims to publish hundreds of new schoolbooks, replacing texts designed under the Soviet system, and to retrain as many as 100,000 new teachers and principals so they can teach young Russians to think more critically and creatively.
Special grants will go to 100 secondary schools, public and private, that were chosen for their innovative teaching methods.
The schools are spread across Russia--just 19 are in Moscow--and non-Russian ethnic groups are dominant in 27 of them.
The elite schools’ principals seemed overwhelmed by the financier’s largess.
“I have always wondered how a philanthropist chooses where to spend his money,” said Anatoly G. Kasprjak, principal of the Moscow City Pedagogical Gymnasium, which has 370 students in grades five through 11 and got a $60,000 grant. “Some put their money into Italian opera, others into Canadian hockey teams, others into Greek antiquities. And here we have Mr. Soros, who, fortunately, seems to value Russian education as a part of world culture that must be preserved.”