Around 60 Ukrainian protesters from across the United States gathered on February 5th to protest outside the Podesta Group and Mercury/Clark & Weinstock, which are among the largest PR and lobbying firms in America. They sang the Ukrainian national anthem, chanted “Slava Ukraini” (Glory to Ukraine) and held up placards saying, “Podesta Group Takes Blood Money,” “Return Blood Money,” and ‘Mercury, Stop Supporting The Bloody Regime In Ukraine.”
The two PR firms have been the subject of an extensive investigation by Ukrainian journalist Sergiy Leschenko, who has accused them of acting on behalf of president Viktor Yanukovych and Ukraine’s ruling Party of Regions to advance the government’s interests on the Hill. Leschenko’s reporting echoes a recent investigation by Reuters that found Yanukovych supporters had paid substantial amounts of money to the two firms.
Back home, the peaceful protests in Ukraine’s Euromaidan have unraveled into a violent standoff with police, with stories circulating of alleged kidnappings, torture and disappearances orchestrated by the authorities—including the apparent torture of Automaidan activist Dmytro Bulatov, who says he was forced to into falsely confessing to being an American spy and to receiving money from the U.S. ambassador in Kyiv. Meanwhile, even as the capital burns, MPs from the Party of Regions and government officials have apparently been trying to curry favor in the U.S. Congress.
According to Leschenko and to Reuters, the European Center for a Modern Ukraine (ECFMU), a Brussels-based organization, was founded almost two years ago by three MPs from the Party of Regions. The founders enjoy significant appointments in the Ukrainian government—Leonid Kozhara is the current Foreign Minister; Ievgenii Hiellier is the current head of the parliament’s Budget Committee; and Vitaliy Kahlyushnyy is the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Verkhovna Rada. Kahlyushnyy had also been appointed a Treasurer of the ECFMU, despite the fact that MPs are prohibited by from holding leadership positions in outside institutions. When the website Ukrainska Pravda got wind about this violation, the ECFMU removed the names of the three MPS from their registry of founders.
“The cover story for the ECFMU is to prepare newsletters for Western audiences promoting the party line of the Regions,” Leschenko says. “Moreover, to avoid being suspected of relation[s] to the power party in Ukraine, the version of events is laid out carefully, betraying the real agenda only through avoidance of certain facts.” According to the European Commission, the ECFMU’s budget is only €10,000, or around $14,000. And yet the NGO has paid American lobbyists more than $1.5 million since 2012—according to Reuters, it paid $560,000 to Mercury and another $900,000 to the Podesta Group over the past two years, for a total of $1.46 million.
The latter group was founded by Anthony Podesta and his brother John, who joined the Obama administration in December 2013 as a senior advisor. Anthony Podesta told Reuters that he did not discuss events in Ukraine with his brother. In his investigation, Leschenko published what he said was a report by the Podesta Group to the Senate, noting that it had received $120,000 from the Brussels middlemen during the fourth quarter of 2013.
The second company hired by the ECFMU, according to Reuters—Mercury/Clark & Weinstock—lists as a partner former Republican Congressman John Vincent “Vin” Weber, who served as a senior advisor to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Weber’s firm has declined to publicly comment on its reputed ties to the Ukrainian government.
The ECFMU’s chairman, Inna Kirsch, declined to reveal where the $1.46 million came from. She said that “the Center is funded by donations from individuals and private companies. Some of these sponsors have committed to funding the activities of PR firms in support of the Center.” She said that the NGO’s activities in the United States were absolutely not connected with the ruling Party of Regions. Kirsch added that the center has “nothing to do, directly or indirectly” with another Ukrainian foundation, the Klyuyev foundation, funded by brothers Serhiy and Andriy Klyuyev, who are both influential Party of Regions members. (Andryi is now the head of Yanukovych’s new administration, and has been accused of being behind the violent crackdown on protesters.) Kirsch’s husband, Robert Van de Vater, is a Deputy Board Chairman for the Klyuyev foundation. In December 2013, according to Ukrainska Pravda, Van de Vater appeared at a “Ukraine in Congress” symposium (tagline: “Keeping Ukraine’s Legacy of Peaceful Political Solutions”). Last year, Serhiy Klyuyev visited Washington D.C. on two separate occasions, accompanied by Ed Kutler, the managing director of Mercury/Clark & Weinstock, according to Ukrainska Pravda. When the newspaper asked Kutler about the trip with Klyuyev, he referred the questions to the ECFMU, noting, “we work for them.”
The Podesta Group and Mercury are not alone in lobbying on behalf of Yanukovych associates in D.C. Billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, a prominent Yanukovych backer who controls 50 MPs in the Ukrainian parliament (so called “Akhmetov’s group”) through intermediaries. His politicians fully supported the draconian anti-protest laws voted in on January 16th. In 2007, a Wall Street Journal article detailed how two former Dole strategists and fund-raisers received fees and donations from Akhmetov and facilitated his trip to Washington.
As protesters on the streets of Kyiv continue their struggle, Yanukovych’s associates can rest easy knowing that their interests are well looked after in the capital of American democracy.