WASHINGTON, September 13 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – An American PR firm’s role in placing a controversial op-ed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in The New York Times this week has trained a spotlight on the massive funds governments around the world spend to lobby their interests in Washington.
“It fluctuates a little bit, but right now it’s around a half a billion dollars a year,” Ben Freeman, a Washington-based expert on foreign lobbying, told RIA Novosti on Friday.
The New York-based PR firm Ketchum says it helped arrange Putin’s op-ed to be published on the Times’ website Wednesday as part of the company’s business relationship with the Kremlin that dates back to 2006.
In the piece, Putin sharply criticized a US push for military action against Syria – without UN Security Council approval – over Washington’s claims that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government deployed chemical weapons outside Damascus on Aug. 21 that allegedly killed more than 1,400.
The op-ed elicited outrage from the US political and media establishment, with prominent lawmakers accusing Putin of hypocrisy and disingenuousness. But Ketchum has also faced scrutiny and public criticism for taking money to improve the Kremlin’s image in the face of scathing criticism of Russia’s rights record in the West.
“An American company that does operate in a fairly free democratic society should probably think twice before supporting something like that,” Anna Neistat, an associate director at the rights watchdog Human Rights Watch, was quoted by Reuters as saying Friday. “From a personal perspective, I of course find it quite appalling.”
Ketchum has received more than $24 million in fees and expenses from the Kremlin since 2006, according to an analysis of US Justice Department records by ProPublica, a Washington-based nonprofit news organization that tracks foreign lobbying efforts.
This sum, however, is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the hundreds of millions of dollars that foreign governments, political parties, and state-affiliated companies pay Washington lobbying firms annually to court US lawmakers and drum up positive press coverage.
[Editor’s note: RIA Novosti is a Russian media company that is editorially independent but that receives financial support from the Russian government, in addition to commercial revenue.]
Freeman, a national security policy adviser at the Washington-based think tank Third Way, said roughly $1 out of every $8 paid to lobbyists in the United States comes from foreign governments.
“It’s a big chunk of the pie that people don’t really look at,” said Freeman, author of “The Foreign Policy Auction,” which examines how foreign lobbying impacts US relations with the world.
Under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), a US law enacted in 1938 to counter Nazi propaganda in the United States, individuals or entities representing the interests of a “foreign principal” must register with the Justice Department and provide detailed descriptions of their activities in this capacity, as well as declare the amount of money they receive.
The most recent Justice Department report to Congress on foreign lobbying includes principals from 140 countries, ranging from economic powerhouses like China, Germany and Japan to regions not even recognized as sovereign nations, like the predominantly ethnic-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Justin Elliott, a ProPublica reporter who has closely studied Ketchum’s business relationship with the Kremlin, said in a radio interview this week that it is not surprising that foreign governments pour money into K Street, a Washington thoroughfare where the offices of numerous lobbying firms are located.
“A lot of important foreign policy decisions made by the US government have a big effect on countries really all around the world,” Elliott told Public Radio International on Thursday.
US lobbyists rarely turn down business from foreign states if the money is right, said Freeman, even if the governments or leaders are widely seen as pariahs in the West. He cited former Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi and deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, both of whom paid US lobbying outfits to promote their interests.
“Some of the world’s worst dictators can get representation in the US,” Freeman said.
One veteran Washington lobbyist told RIA Novosti on Friday that while some firms might turn down business from governments they do not approve of, “the call is largely based on potential conflicts and the impact on clients.”
“Obviously a political lens comes into play, i.e. if you work with [US Sen.] John McCain’s office a lot, you don’t want to represent someone he diametrically opposes,” the lobbyist said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
US lobbying firms have seen slower revenues in recent years, which has made them more “willing to engage foreign clients despite the rigid reporting requirements” under FARA, he added.
Steve Barrett, editor in chief at the trade magazine PRWeek, said that despite many questions about Russia’s rights record, Ketchum’s decision to represent the Kremlin is an understandable business decision.
“It’s not as though Russia is North Korea or Nazi Germany,” Barrett wrote in a column Friday. “It is a fully-fledged member of the G8 group of the world’s largest economies. It is a huge global player on the diplomatic front.”
Controversial policies such as a Russian law passed earlier this year banning the “promotion of non-traditional relationships to minors” – a law the Kremlin maintains does not prevent adults from making their own sexual choices but which has been but it has been sharply criticized by some world leaders as a crackdown on gay people – could give a PR or lobbying firm second thoughts, he added.
“But a hard-headed senior commercial executive might say we are a global agency with offices all over the world and, on balance, a client such as Russia is a prestigious and lucrative piece of work we can't turn down,” Barrett said.