- By Josh Rogin
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A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
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There’s been plenty of reporting about the Georgian government’s extensive lobbying effort in Washington, but little is known about the new and expansive lobbying effort now in place on behalf of a Georgian billionaire and a leading opposition lawmaker, who are confronting Georgia’s president on the world stage.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is in Washington today, having lunch with Vice President Joe Biden and meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office — a testament to the recent successes in the U.S.-Georgia relationship, as well as the successful efforts of Saakashvili’s Washington lobbying duo, made up of the firms Orion Strategies and the Podesta Group.
"I think Georgia should be extraordinarily proud of the progress that is made in building a sovereign and democratic country," Obama said after the meeting. "And one of the first things that I did was express my appreciation for the institution-building that’s been taking plac in Georgia; the importance of making sure that minorities are respected; the importance of a police and system of rule of law that is being observed — the kinds of institution-building that is going to make an enormous difference in the future of not just this generation of Georgians but future generations of Georgians."
But if Saakashvili opened up his morning New York Times or Washington Post when he woke up at Blair House on Monday, he would have seen a full-page ad sponsored by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire tycoon of Georgian descent who is working closely with Irakli Alasania, the leader of Georgia’s Free Democrats Party and the president’s main political rival.
"The Rose Revolution of 2003 inspired many, myself included, to hope that Georgia would move toward a pluralistic democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, and a free and open society," Ivanishvili wrote in the ad, which was framed as an open letter to Obama. "What we have instead is a super-centralized, almost neo-Bolshevik style of governance, which exhausted itself long ago, which not only impedes the nation’s progress, but also jeopardizes its own achievements.
"We urge the leaders of the USA and the entire democratic community, do proceed and encourage the nation’s movement towards the Euro-Atlantic integration, and at the same time, do apply all assets available to secure free and fair ballot for our citizens at the October 2012 parliamentary elections," the ad reads.
The ad identifies Ivanishvili as a Georgian businessman and philanthropist who was stripped of his citizenship by Saakashvili. The Georgian government contends Ivanishvili never renounced his French citizenship and needs a presidential waiver to hold dual nationalities — a waiver he isn’t likely to get. Regardless, Ivanishvili and his "Georgian Dream" movement are increasingly vocal in Georgia, and now in Washington as well.
Ivanishvili is currently paying the lobbying firm BGR Group $25,000 per month, according to disclosure filings, in a contract signed last November. He is also paying another $20,000 per month to Sam Patten, a Tbilisi-based consultant who is working with BGR on behalf of Ivanishvili, the disclosure records show. That money is paid through a London-based entity called BGR-Garbara, LTD, which the records state is working on behalf of Ivanishvili.
BGR-Garbara, LTD, also pays Patten $10,000 per month to work on behalf of Alasania, according to disclosure filings, to "advise U.S. officials" on political developments in Georgia, and for "arranging meetings with U.S. officials on behalf of the foreign principal [Alasania]."
Another contract filing shows that BGR-Garbara, LTD, also pays BGR an undisclosed sum to work on behalf of Alasania and the Free Democrats. The filing defines BGR-Garbara, LTD, as "a pan-European government affairs and public relations firm engaged by ‘Free Democrats’… for the purposes of promoting a stronger Georgian democracy through fair, open, and honest elections in 2012." Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker is also working on the contract for BGR, according to lobbying e-mails sent out by BGR to journalists and non-governmental organizations.
We’re told by two sources that Alasania and Ivanishvili have also recently signed a contract with Patton Boggs, a powerful D.C. lobbying law firm, although no disclosure forms have yet been submitted. Both sources also confirmed that Ivanishvili’s representatives made a pass at the Podesta Group, offering to double their fee to switch teams, but Podesta declined.
Ivanishvili is also working with Sam Amsterdam, the son of Robert Amsterdam, the Canadian lawyer made famous by his defense of imprisoned Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. There’s no disclosure filing for that relationship because Sam Amsterdam is not a U.S. citizen and is not lobbying U.S. officials. Ivanishvili has made statements criticizing Khordorkovsky in the past. Robert Amsterdam is not working with Ivanishvili or his son on the project.
Ivanishvili’s critics paint him as a Russia-funded oligarch whose agenda is anti-Western and therefore anti-American. They point to his seemingly soft stance on Russia, such as when he said of once and future President Vladimir Putin, "the Russian people like this man," and that Russia "is not the worst example of an undemocratic state." He has also blamed Saakashvili for the outbreak of war with Russia in 2008.
Ivanishvili’s ties to Russia are not only political, but economic. He made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, and still maintains at least a 1 percent stake in Gazprom, the semi-state controlled energy behemoth. (The Russian Federation and Gazprom are represented in Washington by Ketchum).
Patten, in a phone interview from Tbilisi, told The Cable that the Georgian opposition is simply maturing to the point where it recognizes the need for greater international stature.
Ivanishvili made his money in Russia before Putin’s return to power, Patten said. Ivanishvili believes that confronting the Georgian government’s lobbying in Washington is part of his effort to show the world there is an alternative to the Saakashvili government.
"In the Georgian mentality, there’s a sense that Washington creates outcomes, but you have to win an election based on what you do on the ground," said Patten. "In the end, that’s what matters."
Regardless, for Georgia-watchers around Washington, there are now two full fledged lobbying efforts to contend with. In a recent interview, Ivanishvili promised to ramp up his lobbying efforts around the world.
"They [the government] are spending a lot of money on lobbyists… The money of the people… They are wasting the money of the poor people," he said. "We have started very serious work and it needs to be organized well. In a few months, we will change the situation and we will change the attitude of the Europe and the U.S., and we will show them the reality. You will see this very soon."
Correction: This article originally stated — incorrectly — that DLA Piper was the third lobbying partner for the Georgian government. In fact, there are only two firms. Additionally, the original article contained a quote attributed to Alasania that could not be independently verified.