Georgia leads all countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia in the money it spends on lobbyists in Washington, DC, according to a review of US government records.
In 2010, Georgia had contracts with four lobbying firms, including some of Washington's most influential, totaling at least $1.5 million. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan each employ a single firm to represent them in Washington, and spend considerably less: Azerbaijan is currently under a contract with Patton Boggs for $35,000 per month, and Kazakhstan pays public relations firm BGR Public Relations LLC $25,000 per month. The governments of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia each have a yearly $120,000 contract with the Mark Saylor Company for public relations work.
In 2009, foreign governments spent about $60 million overall on representation in Washington, according to the non-governmental organizations ProPublica and the Sunlight Foundation, which track such expenditures. (Figures from 2010 are not yet available.)
Assuming the 2010 figures are comparable, Georgia shapes up to be one of Washington's top foreign procurers of lobbying muscle over the past year. In 2009, Sunlight Foundation ranked the top 10 spenders in Washington and the tenth, Taiwan, spent about $1.55 million. Turkey was ranked 8th, spending about $1.68 million in 2009.
Lobbying is especially important for ambitious, developing countries that tend to have a relatively inexperienced diplomatic corps, said Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation. Those countries need to build relationships with Congress, the State Department and Defense Department, and it can be worth it to pay influential Americans to do all the meeting & greeting for them, Allison said.
“Rather than send some poor Georgian here to try to develop contacts quickly, they instead hire people who used to work for those agencies, or people with connections to those agencies or political players, to influence Washington,” Allison said.
These countries also get the benefit of the Washington heavy hitters who tend to head lobbying firms, and who can be much more influential than people from the home country, Allison said. “If I'm talking to some Georgian, what can he do for me? But if I'm talking to someone who used to head my agency, or who might be picking the head of my agency in the next administration, I may be more likely to listen.”
Although Armenia doesn't currently retain any lobbyists in Washington, there are several powerful Armenian-American organizations that lobby on behalf of Yerevan's interests. And that is part of the reason why Azerbaijan is active on K Street, said Cory Welt, associate director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. Azerbaijan “has an adversary that is well-organized and well-established on the Hill,” he said.
Georgia's heavy reliance on its alliance with the United States is a major factor in its spending, Welt added. “Of all of [the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia], Georgia is probably the most plugged into Washington already and therefore best understands how business gets done,” he said. “It also is motivated by the belief that it has a much more powerful adversary [Russia] with ready access to Washington, given the Obama administration's priority of 'resetting' US-Russian relations.”
In 2010, Georgia had contracts with Orion Strategies for $420,000, $426,800 with the Gephardt Group, $300,000 with the Podesta Group and $270,000 with the Ithaca Group, according to records kept by the US Department of Justice, which requires public disclosure of lobbying activties. The contract for Podesta was only for the first six months, but Natia Zambaxidze, a spokeswoman for the Georgian Embassy in Washington, said the group worked for the embassy the entire year.
Georgia's lobbyists are influential with both major US political parties. The Gephardt Group is headed by Richard Gephardt, a former Democratic member of Congress who was leader of the House Democrats from 1989 to 2003. Podesta is headed by Tony Podesta, a top Democratic party official whose brother, John, was former president Bill Clinton's chief of Staff. Orion is led by Randy Scheunemann, who was John McCain's foreign policy advisor during his 2008 presidential campaign.
“The government and embassy work daily to strengthen Georgia's strategic partnership with the United States, which has been an indispensable ally in helping to build our democracy and free-market economy,” Zambaxidxe said.
“By reaching out to the US media, we also aim to share with the business community and the broader American public the reforms and investment opportunities in Georgia,” Zambaxidxe continued. “In deepening our relationships here in the US, we draw on the knowledge and expertise of many people, including our consultants.”
Georgia has ramped up its lobbying activities recently, while Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have decreased spending. In 2008 and 2009, Azerbaijan paid a total of $1.3 million, Georgia $1.4 million, and Kazakhstan $1.7 million to various lobbying firms. No other countries or entities have hired lobbying firms in Washington.
The embassies of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan did not respond to requests for comment. None of the lobbying firms contacted by EurasiaNet.org would comment on the record.
Azerbaijan, after spending most of 2009 and 2010 without a lobbyist, signed a contract in December 2010 with Patton Boggs. The contract filed with the Justice Department gives little indication of what specific issues Baku is interested in, only that the company's activities “will include counseling and assisting [Azerbaijan] with regard to US-Azerbaijan bilateral relations.”
Under previous lobbying contracts, however, Azerbaijan appeared especially interested in its image in the United States. In 2007, lobbyists with the Livingston Group had 91 contacts with US congressional officials on a resolution that called on Azerbaijan to “immediately release” Farhad Aliyev and Rafiq Aliyev, who were imprisoned after allegedly plotting a coup, but whose case attracted the attention of international human rights groups. (The legislation was never voted on).
Lobbyists for Azerbaijan also worked in early 2009 to get members of Congress to commemorate the 1992 Khojaly massacre during the Nagorno-Karabakh war. The effort appeared to have some small effect: at least one member of Congress, Ed Whitfield, a Republican from Kentucky, formally recognized the anniversary of the Khojaly events in the Congressional record three days after meeting with a lobbyist from the Livingston Group on the subject.
According to government records, Kazakhstan's current contract with BGR Public Relations appears to be solely oriented towards getting media coverage, with all of the reported contacts being with reporters and editors of American media outlets. In the past, however, Kazakhstan has hired lobbyists to influence political figures, including a contract with Policy Impact Communications to try to get language on human rights requirements removed from foreign aid legislation.
Georgia's lobbying interests appear to be largely security-related, with meetings oriented toward promoting awareness about Russian activities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But getting media coverage is also a high priority for the Georgian lobbyists: representatives from the Podesta Group, for example, tried dozens of times in 2010 to arrange interviews for President Mikheil Saakashvili with broadcast outlets ranging from CNN to Al Jazeera. Podesta also appeared to try to pitch the idea of a profile of National Security Council Secretary Eka Tkeshelashvili to editors at People and Marie Claire magazines.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. He is the author of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.