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Analysis 21 Mar 16

What Did Macedonia’s VMRO-DPMNE Buy in Washington?

Macedonia’s ruling party seems intent on ensuring American support in its conflict with the opposition through investing in lobbying activity, but is favourable coverage inside the US ‘Beltway’ evidence the strategy is paying off?

Kurt Bassuener and Toby Vogel
Sarajevo and Brussels
Nikola Gruevski and Joe Biden in Washington. Photo: MIA

Nikola Gruevski’s visit to Washington on January 11 was an all-out success. Vice President Joe Biden lectured the Macedonian Prime Minister about the need for free and fair elections and a proper investigation of the wiretapping scandal that had overshadowed the country’s politics for a year.

However, the meeting also generated footage of a statesmanlike Gruevski huddling with the second-most powerful man in the free world.

Gruevski was about to step aside for a caretaker administration ahead of an early election triggered by the scandal; what counted for him were the pictures, not the words.

The meeting, which the US State Department confirmed had been requested by the Macedonians, had taken considerable lobbying to engineer. It came in the wake of a deal signed between Gruevski’s party, VMRO-DPMNE, and the recently established Daschle Group, a lobbying firm founded by former US Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (Democrat, South Dakota).

In its initial agreement with VMRO in November 2015, obtained by Macedonian outlet Alsat, the Daschle Group suggested such a meeting between Gruevski and Biden, as well as concerted outreach on Capitol Hill, with the State Department, the National Security Council, and other official bodies.

Gruevski’s photo op with Biden was the most visible element of an intense campaign by VMRO ahead of the early elections, now set for June 5.

In Europe, this campaign has been far less intense, and to our knowledge conducted entirely through diplomatic and political channels rather than professional lobbyists. VMRO apparently feels that EU policy-makers are less in need of being convinced of Gruevski’s line.

Nikola Gruevski in Washington. Photo: MIA

In the US over the last few months, VMRO also opened accounts with other Washington outfits – New Partners Consulting, Inc. and Global Security and Innovative Strategies LLC, GSIS.

The total value of these contracts amounts to nearly $1.7 million a year. (New Partners, whose contract was worth $54,000 a month, reported to the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, FARA, that the contract with VMRO-DPMNE was cancelled as of January 31, soon after Gruevski resigned.)

It is unusual for such lobbying relationships to run through political parties. More commonly, as in the case of Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated entity in Bosnia, governments conclude them.

The specifics of these contracts are public knowledge thanks to FARA, which requires all those representing a foreign government or interest to declare themselves to the Department of Justice, file their contracts, and deliver regular detailed reports, including the nature of the representation, those working on the account, payment amounts, and work undertaken for the foreign principal.

This last element is delineated in public logs of calls, meetings, and emails – including the subjects discussed. This provides the public with considerable information about how a country’s leadership (or other interests) presents itself and wishes to be seen in the United States.

It is noteworthy that none of the filings for the VMRO-DPMNE accounts mentions the ongoing political turmoil in Macedonia, the Przino Agreement, or the early elections. Instead, as one might expect in public relations, the declared arrangements make clear the intent to accentuate the positive.

The Daschle Group notes priorities as the economic climate and NATO membership, and advises packaging VMRO’s messages so as to address “the security imperative, the economic imperative, and the democratic imperative” in order to “lift your profile and help you realize your political and policy objectives”.

Macedonia’s troop commitment to the NATO operation in Afghanistan is a lead selling point.

This theme is reinforced in the GSIS contract, in which the political activity to be undertaken to exert influence is listed as: “Educating United States governmental officials of VMRO-DPMNE's support for recent security steps and its efforts to support the United States on global security matters.” In the stability-fixated West, this seems sound PR advice.

Gruevski’s meeting with Biden also seems to have had other effects.

In the wake of the meeting, various publications aimed at an inside-the-Beltway audience carried glowing opinion pieces, stressing the West’s interest in Gruevski’s re-election, criticising the “former communist” Social Democrat opposition and urging Western governments to embrace the Macedonian government as it finds itself under pressure from the migration crisis.

The Hill and The Daily Caller carried such pieces by Stephen Blank, a foreign policy analyst, and JD Gordon and Jason Katz, two public relations professionals who had no previous profile on Balkan affairs (although Gordon has also recently written on Montenegro’s government – much more critically than on Macedonia’s).

Katz is a registered foreign agent who has long worked for the government of Azerbaijan, a dictatorship regularly criticised for violating fundamental rights and freedoms. Blank has a long list of publications, primarily focusing on Russia, including several in the past year about Russian penetration into the Balkans.

All three have characterized Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE as pro-Western and Zoran Zaev and the opposition Social Democrats as “former communist” or Russian-affiliated. This sits oddly with Russia’s assertion that last year’s protests were a Western attempt at “regime change” or a “colour revolution”, and with Blank’s own rendering of events in February 2015.

“No true democracy would tolerate such political corruption,” Gordon wrote in The Daily Caller. The reference was not to the government’s wiretapping but to the opposition’s threat to boycott the elections, at the time scheduled for April.

Gordon, Katz, and Blank replied to queries saying that they had not been paid to represent VMRO-DPMNE, the Macedonian government, or others representing those interests. “Nobody has paid me,” was Blank’s terse response.

Katz replied that his newfound interest stemmed from a “geopolitical/US foreign policy standpoint”.

Gordon replied: “Macedonia surfaced on my radar last year via the migrant crisis, and then even more so when Prime Minister Gruevski visited Vice President Biden at the White House a couple months ago.”

Nikola Gruevski and Joe Biden in Washington. Photo: MIA

This coverage has done far more for Gruevski’s visibility in Washington than the firms that are getting paid for their work.

Gruevski’s meetings with European leaders, by contrast, have been more discreet but perhaps more productive in substance as well: Europe has been notably reluctant to criticise his government, a tendency that the migration crisis has reinforced.

In Europe, Gruevski and his party depend less on lobbyists because the VMRO-DPMNE is a member of the European People’s Party, EPP, the umbrella group of Europe’s centre-right.

Every time EU national leaders meet in Brussels – at least four times a year, and usually more often – the EPP holds a separate meeting with all party leaders, both from inside or outside the EU. This includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Council President Donald Tusk, and numerous other senior Christian Democrats.

These gatherings are a perfect setting for unscripted, discreet bilaterals; their private character was important at a time when Juncker and Merkel were reluctant to meet Gruevski in public, immediately after the release of the wiretaps in early 2015.  

These close links may have played a role in the apparent reluctance of EU leaders and senior national figures to criticise Gruevski. The US has appeared tougher on Gruevski than the Europeans in their intense behind-the-scenes efforts, led by the European Commission, to mediate in Macedonia’s political crisis.

However, that Gruevski and VMRO-DPMNE may depend less on professional lobbying in Brussels, Berlin and elsewhere in Europe than in Washington remains conjecture - thanks to glaring deficiencies of European transparency regimes. The EU, and to the authors’ knowledge, its individual member states as well, has nothing similar to FARA in its transparency and detail.

Lobbyists are supposed to sign up to a joint transparency register maintained by the European Commission and the European Parliament, but signing up is voluntary. (Negotiations are underway to make the register mandatory, and already now, the Parliament no longer issues access passes to lobbyists or other organizations that have not registered.) In addition, the transparency register requires little information from the 25,000 lobbyists thought to be plying their trade in Brussels full-time.

They are not required to disclose the specifics of their contracts in the way FARA demands in the case of foreign principals. What lobbyists do for their clients and how much they get from them remains a closely-guarded secret in Brussels.

Even so, it is surprising that the register turns up no one lobbying the EU on behalf of Macedonia’s government or VMRO-DPMNE. After all, Macedonia’s relationship with the EU, of which it has been a candidate for membership since 2005, is of paramount national interest.

A lobbyist with close ties in the EU’s neighbourhood says the governments of the Western Balkans do not understand the need for representation, with some exceptions.

“These countries have got an ambassador [in Brussels] but they’re not linked into any of the important trade associations, they got nobody in agriculture, in terms of employers’ associations – they’re just not plugged in,” he says.

Macedonia’s opposition Social Democrats, the SDSM, have not obtained representation in either Washington or Brussels. It also seems that the SDSM’s membership of the Party of European Socialists has not yielded the dividends that EPP membership has for VMRO-DPMNE, because the centre-left is out of power in most member states.

As to what influence VMRO-DPMNE’s lobbying efforts have bought, it may really only show when Macedonia’s ongoing political crisis next flares up – for example, if the elections scheduled for June 5 go ahead without SDSM participation, or if there are credible allegations of fraud.

The EU’s policy fixation, particularly since the migrant crisis escalated, is to prioritise stability above all else.

The deal between Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia to halt the migrant flow may well muffle EU criticism of Macedonia’s government, as it already has with far larger Turkey. The American role as watchdog – for Western and European democratic values – may in the end be decisive.

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