For years, the Washington debate over Georgia has focused on its quarrels with Russia and its aspirations to join NATO. This month, the well-heeled Georgian opposition has succeeded -- with help from a large team of D.C. lobbyists -- in opening the debate to include the Georgian government's handling of human rights and democracy inside the country.
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) brought simmering congressional interest in internal Georgian politics into the public discussion last week by introducing the "Republic of Georgia Democracy Act of 2012," which declares in its list of findings that "Democracy in Georgia is facing serious challenges and political freedom and fair competition between political parties is under assault."
"For example, the government has increased detaining members of the political opposition and civil society nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), limited freedom of the press, undermined the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, and stopped opposition groups from holding demonstrations -- often by violent means," the bill states.
The bill goes on to accuse the Georgian government, led by President Mikheil Saakashvili, of harassing billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom the bill identifies as a Georgian businessman who has launched a new political party called Georgian Dream, "in an effort to unify the Georgian opposition parties and challenge Saakashvili's increasingly dictatorial control over Georgia's government."
The legislation accuses Saakasvili of stripping Ivanishvili of his Georgia citizenship and initiating a campaign of punishing and detaining his supporters in the lead up to the October 2012 Georgian parliamentary elections. The bill seeks an end to U.S. aid to Georgia if the elections are not free and fair or if Ivanishvili and his party are not allowed to fully participate.
"This bill will help shed light on the suppression that has been intensifying in Georgia. I know Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle share my growing concern over the suppression of political parties, nongovernmental organizations and workers in Georgia," McDermott said in a press release.
McDermott has not been known in Congress as being particularly active on the Georgia issue or on foreign policy in general. His last major foray into international diplomacy was a late 2002 trip to Iraq to meet with Saddam Hussein just before the U.S. invasion, a trip that was later discovered to be financed by Saddam's intelligence agencies.
But he is not the only lawmaker who has become recently interested in the internal politics in Georgia. Several senators brought up the issue at the March 21 nomination hearing for the new U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, who was confirmed late last week.
"I strongly believe that advancing our key interest in Georgia's long-term security and stability is directly linked to the government's furthering democratic reforms," said Senate Foreign Relations Europe Subcommittee Chairwoman Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) at the hearing.
In his opening remarks, Norland praised the Saakashvili government, declared U.S. support for Georgian territorial integrity, and noted Georgian contributions to U.S. national security priorities, including its contribution to the war in Afghanistan.
"As President Obama noted during President Saakashvili's visit to Washington earlier this year, Georgia has made extraordinary progress during this time in transforming itself from a fragile state to one that has succeeded in significantly reducing petty corruption, modernizing state institutions and services, and building a sovereign and democratic country," Norland said.
But then, in response to questioning from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Norland directly tied the conduct of Georgia's upcoming parliamentary elections to U.S. support for Georgia's NATO membership.
"I would just point out given Georgia's interests, Georgia's aspirations to NATO membership, and our support for those aspirations, how these elections are conducted is a very important litmus test, and we'll be watching carefully to make sure that the way these elections unfold are in keeping with NATO standards," he said.
"I just would underscore the issue of qualification of opposition candidates," Cardin said, a not too thinly veiled reference to Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream party. "That's been used in too many European countries as a way of trying to block opposition opportunities, and I would just urge our presence there to have the widest possible opportunities for opposition to effectively be able to compete on a level playing field."
Norlund's comments stunned Georgia watchers because no administration official had directly linked the conduct of parliamentary elections to Georgia's NATO aspirations, and the no other administration official has used the term "litmus test" to connect the two.
The new and expansive congressional interest in Georgia's democratic development coincides with a new and expansive lobbying effort by Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream party in Washington. The effort is led by the powerful D.C. lobbying law firm Patton Boggs, which has filed disclosures for its work on behalf of Ivanishvili and his Cartu Bank under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), rather than the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), as is commonly used for Americans representing foreign politicians.
The Ivanishvili lobbying team also includes several other D.C. firms, including National Strategies, which also filed under the LDA and declared on its form that it is not representing a "foreign entity." Working with National Strategies is the firm of Downy McGrath, which did say it is representing a "foreign entity" in its disclosure forms and stated it is working on behalf of "democratic elections in the Republic of Georgia." The firm of Parry, Romani, Deconcini, Symms is also working on the Ivanishvili lobbying team, according to its own disclosure forms.
Some firms appear to be working on Ivanishvili's behalf even though they haven't registered at all. The firms KGlobal and Peter Mirijanian Public Affairs have been sending e-mails to reporters touting the McDermott bill.
The only firm to register under FARA as representing Ivanishvili is BGR Group, whose disclosure forms for its business representing Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream movement can be found here, here, here and here. BGR also represents leading Georgian opposition politician Irakli Alasania and his Free Democrats party, according to their own FARA disclosure forms. Alasania's political efforts are supported and funded by Ivanishvili, the disclosure forms reveal.
Lobbying firms often prefer to register under LDA rather than FARA because the disclosure requirements are more lenient. The legality of such filings, according to FARA lawyers, depends on whether the client is actively involved in foreign politics and whether U.S. lobbyists are actively involved in lobbying U.S. officials for specific policies related to said politics.
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 economic ties to Russia run deep. He made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, and still maintains at least a 1 percent stake in Gazprom, the state-controlled energy behemoth. (The Russian Federation and Gazprom are represented in Washington by Ketchum).
In an interview last week with Der Spiegel, Ivanishvili spelled out the goals of his new and expensive lobbying effort, namely to get the U.S. government to end its support for Saakashvili.
"America has chosen Georgia as a junior partner. The United States believes that Saakashvili is creating a democratic Georgia, but these are merely facades," he said. "I want to show the Americans his true face. Saakashvili is pulling the wool over their eyes."
For now, the U.S. government is treading carefully on the issue. In his written responses to questions from Sen. Richard Lugar (R-ID), Norland disputed some of Ivanishvili and McDermott's assertions, but did not dismiss their concerns outright.
"We are not aware of any opposition supporters being detained, although there have been some credible reports of their harassment. In addition, there are indications that Georgia's new campaign finance law is being implemented in a manner which is curbing political speech," he said. "Our focus is on the process and ensuring that all qualified candidates and political parties are able to compete on equal terms; the administration does not support any particular party or candidate."
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.