Ukraine’s D.C. Lobbyists in Disarray as Dictator Flees

They represented a strongman’s allies in Washington. Now that the strongman is hiding, they’re not sure who they serve.

Ian Waldie/Getty

Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s deposed autocrat, could probably use his lobbyists in Washington now more than ever. The only problem at this point is that the lobbyists themselves are not sure whether they still work for him.

It's a risk built into the business of lobbying for foreign clients. Every now and again, the guys writing the checks are ousted from power. Take the government of Ukraine. Two heavyweight lobbying firms sold their services to represent an innocuous sounding think tank based in Brussels, Belgium called the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECFMU). Now those lobbyists are in limbo.

On paper, the Centre represented itself as a non-partisan research institution that pressed for Ukraine’s integration with the European Union. In reality, it was closely tied to the party of Viktor Yanukovych and one of his principal financial backers, Sergei Klyuyev.

The two firms that got the ECFMU contract are the Podesta Group, which is run by the brother of White House special counselor John Podesta, Tony; and Mercury, a public relations firm staffed by former GOP Congressman Vin Weber and other Republican lobbyists.

Ed Kutler, a lobbyist representing the ECFMU for Mercury told the Daily Beast, “We are waiting to see what happens on the ground in Ukraine. But we are still talking to staff and think tank people who come to us and ask us what is happening in the Ukraine. The fact is every five minutes there is a new headline and obviously a changing situation and we need to see how events settle in.” "We’re awaiting guidance from the European Centre for what if any work they have for us in the future,” said one source in Washington familiar with the lobbying efforts from the two groups. Another former lobbyist for the Centre told The Daily Beast the account was now in up in the air.

One Republican Senate aide who works closely on Ukraine issues told The Daily Beast that the lobbyists for the ECFMU have been “radio silent” for at least the last six weeks. Another Democratic House staff member who works on European policy issues confirmed this.

These sources say the last major push from the ECFMU lobbyists was in the fall when they pressed lawmakers to oppose a resolution from Sen. Richard Durbin, the Senate Majority Whip, calling for the release of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister who was convicted and jailed in 2011 under the Yanukovych regime on corruption charges. On Feb. 22 she was released from prison.

Kutler acknowledged the work regarding the Tymoshenko resolution. “We were talking to staff on the hill about these resolutions on Tymoshenko about how will this have the impact people hope it will have on the Ukraine,” he said.

Lobbying Discloure Act records show that Podesta billed the Centre for $510,000 for 2013. Mercury earned $280,000 from the ECFMU account in 2013. Calls to the Podesta Group were not returned.

Lobbying for foreign governments is supposed to be a regulated industry, with lobbyists required to report on their activities under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. Recent disclosures about the Centre shine a light on the ease with which big lobbying firms in Washington can evade these requirements. Mercury and Podesta filed under the far less stringent Lobbying Disclosure Act, which does not require, for example, the lobbyist to disclose contacts with reporters.

Adrian Karatnycky—a Ukraine expert, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and former president of Freedom House—said the account to represent Ukraine’s ousted president did not seem as political risky until November when the government’s crackdowns began.

“A lot of these American advisers funded by the European Centre signed up with Yanukovych and they had no idea that this was going to end up with mass butchery,” he said. “He started out with a mixed, checkered record [and] seemed to be ready to build a good relationship with the West.”

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In 2012, The Daily Beast first reported the ties between the ECFMU and Yanukovych’s political party, the Party of Regions. One of the Centre’s first presidents, for example, was Leonid Kozhara, a senior member of the Party of Regions who was named in December 2012 as foreign minister for Yanukovych’s government.

Earlier this month in the Ukrainian Pravda, its deputy editor Sergiy Leschenko published an expose that connected the ECFMU to Sergei Klyuyev, the brother of Yanukovych’s chief of staff Andrei Klyuyev who is alleged to have ordered the initial crackdowns in Kiev in November that set the stage for the collapse of the government there. Klyuyev, who is reported to have been shot Tuesday, has denied that he ordered riot police to suppress crowds in November. So far at least 100 people have been killed in clashes with authorities in Ukraine and more than 1,000 have been injured during the revolution.

In that article, Leschenko disclosed that Rob Van De Water, the husband of Ina Kirsch, the managing director of the ECFMU, was the vice chairman of Sergei Klyuyev’s foundation. Kutler, the Mercury lobbyist, accompanied Klyuyev in meetings he held in Washington last year, according to the piece. In other words, the Centre and its lobbyists maintained close ties to the brother of one of Ukraine’s most notorious enforcers.

In December, Van De Water gave remarks at an all-day symposium in Congress on Ukraine’s role in the Congress organized by the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. The program for the event said Van De Water's remarks were given on behalf of Klyuyev.

Nadia McConnell, the president of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation said the Klyuyev Foundation was one of the sponsors for the event. “At our Ukraine in Congress symposium in December, the speaker representing the Klyuyev foundation was the only speaker who said positive things about the Yanukovych government,” she remembered.

Kirsch, in an email to The Daily Beast said, “my professional activity as ECFMU Managing Director has nothing in common with professional activities of my husband.”

She added, “Ukraine’s Party of Regions has nothing to do with the ECFMU,” but that it does not prevent individual members of the party or sponsors of the think tank from helping promote the goal of the ECFMU, the integration of Ukraine into the European Union.

Kirsch said private businesses paid for the Washington representation of the Centre. “All payments made by private sponsors in support of the activities of the ECFMU towards the U.S. companies are fully transparent and published on the sites of the House and Senate,” she wrote.

But Kirsch declined to provide the names of the businesses that allegedly paid for her group’s representation. When asked if this included money connected to the Klyuyev brothers, she wrote back: “With whom you think we should have been working on the European integration when not with Klyuyev and Kozhara ?…Nobody else besides Klyuyev did something to get the Association Agreement done. And Kozhara convinced the Party of Regions leadership to follow this line.”

One Washington lobbyist who has worked on the ECFMU account in the past said he became uneasy with the Centre in 2012. “I was uncomfortable because from the very first meetings about this account it was clear that this was lobbying for the Yanukovych government in Kiev with the think tank in Brussels as a vehicle for paying the contract.”

Kutler said, “The ECFMU is funded by Ukrainian businesspeople who are interested in seeing a closer, more comprehensive EU-Ukraine relationship. The ECFMU is not, and never has been, financed by the government of a foreign country or a foreign political party.” Leschenko told The Daily Beast that he expected the ECFMU would close now that Yanukovych was out of power. “I think they will close because the whole purpose was to represent Yanukovych in America and Europe and their guy is now on the run. They probably will not be existing anymore,” he said.

Kirsch however said her work at least in Brussels continues and she will continue to press for Ukraine’s integration in the European Union. It’s just unclear for the moment whether Kirsch will have the support of the Podesta Group or Mercury for this effort in Washington.