In just the last few months, Bidzina Ivanishvili, one of the world's richest men with an estimated $6.5 billion fortune, hired a small army of PR consultants and lobbyists in Washington, including at least 7 of Washington’s most prominent firms. And though Ivanishvili built his business empire in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, he is, for the moment at least, a man without a country, having renounced his French and Russian citizenship and having been stripped of his Georgian citizenship, where dual citizenship is not allowed.
Politico reports today that the firms working for the billionaire businessman – including Patton Boggs, National Strategies, Downey McGrath and a slew of others – have not filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the 1938 law that regulates efforts to influence U.S. policy on behalf of a foreign government or political party, raising a number of legal questions about the lobbying campaign.
Many more questions surround the goals of the billionaire’s Washington activity. Late last month, Rep. Jim McDermott, the Washington Democrat who stood shoulder to shoulder with Saddam Hussein on the eve of the U.S. invasion, submitted a resolution filled with praise for Ivanishvili and dripping with scorn for the current Georgian “regime,” which has been unstintingly pro-American and boasts the largest non-NATO contingent serving alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Ivanishvili’s business interests may tell part of the story. The billionaire is the single largest private investor in Russia’s state-owned gas giant Gazprom. He also holds a major stake in the Russian oil company Lukoil. And he owns a bank and has massive real estate holdings in Russia. Not surprisingly, Ivanishvili has offered praise for Putin and his version of “democracy.”
Ivanishvili’s partners in Georgia have been even more strident in calling for an end to the country’s efforts to join NATO and solidify its place in the community of Western democracies.
The firms that have been enlisted in the effort have a history of working for unsavory regimes, including Patton Boggs, which also represents Beijing’s interests in Washington.
Still, at least one firm stands out as an odd choice. Peter Mirjianian Public Affairs, led by the Democratic strategist of the same name, is well known for representing Armenian interests in town, including the Armenian Church of America and the Armenian National Committee of America.
Ivanishvili’s coalition in Georgia draws heavily on anti-Armenian sentiment in Georgia. Gubaz Sanikidze, leader of the National Forum party, a partner of Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition, has warned that “The Armenian Church is much stronger outside of Georgia and if it gets the same status inside the country, Armenians will overrun us.”
One of the founding members of Ivanishvili’s party, Manana Kobakhidze, captured the anti-American, anti-liberal philosophy of the new movement well when he condemned the Georgian government for “trying to please America by protecting minorities…when somebody is trying to build a democracy by destroying our Orthodox ethno-psychology and ethics, who wants such a democracy?”
If Ivanishvili and his lobbyists succeed, Georgia’s democracy and Georgia’s minorities may suffer yet another grievous setback.