In the midst of the attacks on U.S. embassies throughout the Middle East, a story of foreign influence and lobbying got very little attention. BuzzFeed reported:
Former CNN host Larry King, Council of Foreign Relations President Emeritus Leslie Gelb, and retired Congressman Lee Hamilton have joined the advisory board of a private Georgian television station founded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leading challenger for the presidency in the October election. The station is now formally owned by Ivanishvili’s wife.
Central to Ivanishvili’s platform is a stronger relationship with Russia, where the tycoon made about one third of his $6.4 billion fortune. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, has sought to reassert the country’s influence over the former Soviet countries Russians refer to as the “near abroad.” But the candidate has denied ties to Russia — which invaded Georgia in 2008 — and recently sold off his Russian assets to prove his independence.
These big names are just the tip if the iceberg of a huge lobbying effort to enlist Americans in the Putin ally’s attempt to gain power in Georgia, which has been a strong U.S. ally, by defeating President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Georgia’s opposition party leader is pulling no punches in his campaign to win backing from the United States and has hired close to a half-dozen firms in Washington to plead his case to Obama administration officials.
Lobbyists and public relations operatives for Bidzina Ivanishvili, one of the world’s wealthiest men and the head of the Georgian Dream coalition, are focusing on Georgia’s parliamentary elections on Oct. 1 — and emails, memos and contracts on file with the Justice Department show that Ivanishvili’s representatives are aggressively courting U.S. support.
Understand that Ivanishvili is Vladimir Putin’s man in Georgia. Ivanishvili is threatening to make sure “one million people take to the streets” if the election does not go their way.
It is of course U.S. policy (though the Obama administration has done precious little about it) that Russia has no right to occupy 20 percent of its neighbor, a democratic and stalwart ally of the U.S. But that doesn’t stop U.S. lobbyists and others who should know better from signing on with the Georgia bully Ivanishvili to try to spruce up his image.
As The Hill notes, a major K Street lobbying shop, Patton Boggs signed on. But that isn’t all. “Ivanishvili has spent more than $1.4 million on lobbying fees for 2012 so far, according to Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) records. Firms working for the billionaire have since registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), overseen by the Justice Department. Those firms include Patton Boggs; National Strategies; Parry, Romani, DeConcini & Symms; and the Downey McGrath Group.”
The most eye-catching of the names on the list is certainly Leslie Gelb, a familiar figure in the Washington foreign policy establishment. His biography at the Council of Foreign Relations reads : “Dr. Leslie H. Gelb is among America’s most prominent foreign policy experts. A Pulitzer Prize winner, former correspondent for the New York Times, and senior official in state and defense departments, he is currently president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), having served as president of the organization from 1993 to 2003.” It is a mystery to many who have known Gelb for decades why he would involve himself in a pro-Putin political campaign.
Gelb is a frequent and prominent contributor to Newsweek, where he opines on foreign policy matters. I contacted two of Gelb’s editors and received a response via e-mail from public relations director Andrew Kirk: “Les Gelb is a contributor to Newsweek & The Daily Beast, not an employee. Should he write about Georgian politics we will disclose his relationship with the TV station.” Apparently writing on Russia more generally is fine.
There is nothing illegal in U.S. firms lobbying for foreigners, and, from everything we know, all those on Ivanishvili’s team have complied with U.S. lobbying law requirements. But you do have to wonder why foreign policy figures like Hamilton and Gelb would involve themselves in such an effort, risking their own reputations and sacrificing their status as respected pundits.