Bosnian Serbs splash out on lobbying in US
Author: Valerie Hopkins, Sarajevo
Uploaded: Monday, 26 September, 2011
Determined to reset its poor image abroad, the Republika Srpska has spent $13 million on lobby firms in the US since 2007. What it has achieved is unclear, according to a valuable report from BIRN.
As Bosnia faces its worst crisis since the 1992-1995 war -- more than a year since October 2010 elections it still has no state government -- Bosnia’s smaller entity, the Serb-run Republika Srpska, is spending millions of dollars each year on lobbying in the US. According to mandatory disclosures provided to the US Department of Justice under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, the Republika Srpska spent almost $5 million in the US in 2010 and a total of almost $13 million from 2007 and 2011. In the first half of 2011 the government spent over $1.7 million on one firm, Picard Kentz and Rowe.
Analysis by The Sunlight Foundation (http://reporting.sunlightfoundation.com/2010/top-players-2009/), a non-governmental organization that digitizes and processes government data, shows that in 2009 the Republika Srpska was the third highest spender on lobbying in the US of all foreign governments. It says that the Cayman Islands came top that year, spending $7.8 million, mainly on boosting tourism.
The United Arab Emirates, the UAE, came in second, spending $5.3 million, lobbying primarily for economic interests. Republika Srpska came third with over $4.6 million. ‘It is rare for a sub-state actor to have such large expenditures in Washington,’ Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, told Balkan Insight. ‘You will see places like the city of London or Hong Kong spending money to boost tourism but ... they are generally not contacting a lot of government officials. You don’t see the same things that are going on with the Republika Srpska.’ By contrast, the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Muslim and Croat-dominated larger political entity, spends almost nothing on lobbying in the US. Allison acknowledges the power that these expenditures can have on influencing the opinions of US government officials. ‘Given the amount they are spending, they obviously have an agenda and are obviously working the halls of Congress,’ he said. ‘Because they are the only ones there [in the US from Bosnia], that can be very effective when you don’t have the same level of involvement from other parties,’ Allison added.
The presence of Western PR advisers can help to avert crises in some circumstances, a former senior international official who served in Bosnia told Balkan Insight. ‘Lobbying can work both ways,’ he explained. ‘When I wanted to get a message to [Bosnian Serb leader Milorad] Dodik, I could approach some of his representatives in Washington and use them as a channel if I needed to get something done,’ he said. The official said lobbyists could alert Bosnian Serb officials as to how a potential course of action could be perceived in Washington, which could have a moderating effect on a planned action. The same official said that the lobbyists probably had not succeeded in ‘improving the image of Republika Srpska,’ but the entity’s leaders may have benefited in other ways from lobbyists’ advice and advocacy.
In late 2009, for example, the US reversed its previous stance that international judges and prosecutors focusing on organized crime should continue to work in Bosnia. In a move that alarmed Bosnia’s former Chief Prosecutor, Milorad Barasin, and the President of Bosnia’s State Court, Medzida Kreso, international judges and prosecutors working on organized crime and corruption were relegated to adviser status in an agreement brokered by the international community. Foreign prosecutors had to turn over all their pending investigations and cases to local judges. Only international judges and prosecutors working on war crimes trials were allowed to remain in place. After this development, investigations into Dodik - then Bosnian Serb Prime Minister - concerning conflicts of interest, fraud and embezzlement, which the State Investigation and Protection Agency had initiated in February 2009, were moved from the State court to a lower court in Republika Srpska. These cases were not likely now be resurrected, the official said.
The same Western diplomat recalled that calling off these probes had been a priority for the lobbyists, who for months had raised the issue of the courts’ ‘so-called persecution of Serbs and Dodik in particular. ‘They were sowing a seed that the international community was ‘out to get Dodik’ because of his nationalist agenda and that this lay behind the international criminal investigations into him,’ the official said. He said the firm representing the Republika Srpska at the time had circulated copies of a document that supposedly contained information from the investigation, showing no evidence existed against him.
Since May 2009, Picard Kentz and Rowe LLP has represented the Republika Srpska government in the US according to the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, FARA. This act requires all firms who lobby on behalf of a foreign government to disclose the activities they undertake for clients and the financial compensation they receive for their services. These filings also list interactions with US government employees on behalf of clients. In their filing, Picard Kentz and Rowe write that services rendered for the Bosnian Serb entity include ‘government relations services, developing a comprehensive US media strategy, overseeing the government relations strategy with respect to the European Union and the United Nations, and developing communication strategies.’
The firm publishes a website, www.bihdaytonproject.com, which it describes as a ‘clearinghouse of news, commentary, scholarship, and key documents about Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Dayton Accords.’ The site collates articles from news outlets that are critical of the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the international administrator tasked with overseeing implementation of the Dayton Accords, the 1995 agreement that ended the 1992-1995 war. The site also publishes its own editorial-style content criticizing state-level institutions and promoting a decentralized vision of Bosnia in which the entities would gain more powers over fields now covered by central state institutions.
Quinn Gillespie & Associates LLC, also based in Washington, represented the Republika Srpska government from January 2007 to the end of 2010. Among others, this firm employed the Democratic Party fundraising heavyweight, John Quinn, and Ralph Johnson, who served as Bosnia’s Deputy Principal High Representative from August 1999 until July 2001. In the second half of 2010 Johnson billed more than $34,000 for travel expenses to Washington, New York, Vienna and Belgrade on behalf of the Republika Srpska.
While Picard Kentz and Rowe continues to represent the Bosnian Serb government, the entity’s Ministry of Economic Relations and Regional Cooperation engaged another firm in 2011 to undertake services, Laurus Group LLC, which had previously been subcontracted by Quinn Gillespie and Associates LLC from February and the Myrmidon Group LLC from August. The Republika Srpska economy ministry has paid Larus Group $495,000 to work for 11 months. The contract stipulates that the firm will ‘brief US government policymakers, oversee government relations strategy with respect to the international community, and develop communication strategies’. The ministry meanwhile also paid Myrmidon $275,000 for five months to ‘focus on materially increasing FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] and other types of capital flows into Republika Srpska,’ according to the contract.
For its representation in Europe, the Republika Srpska government contracted Hill & Knowlton from 2007 until December 2010. The firm’s clients at that time also included such large multinational corporations as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and Visa, but no countries or government entities. The firm is not required to disclose the payments it receives from clients, but a spokesperson for the firm in Brussels, Malgorzata Figwer, told Balkan Insight that the Republika Srpska ‘account budget constituted less than 10 per cent of H&K’s Brussels annual fees.’
The firm last year solicited Florian Bieber, a Balkan expert at the Center for South East European Studies at the University of Graz, for his opinions on Republika Srpska. Bieber told Balkan Insight that the Bosnian Serbs were spending money ‘to promote the image that the RS is the ‘more successful entity,’. The idea was to ‘suggest that the RS is functional while the rest of B-H is dysfunctional,’ he said. ‘What is missing in this image is that a large contributor to the dysfunctionality of the B-H state is the leadership of the RS,’ Bieber added. Bieber said the Bosnian Serbs would probably be better off spending money abroad on promoting tourism or business, rather than pushing a political agenda.
There is nothing illegal in principle in spending money on foreign lobby firms. In July 2009, Bosnia’s Constitutional Court dismissed an accusation from the then chair of the State Presidency, Haris Silajdzic, that Republika Srpska budget allocations to pay for ‘representation abroad’ and for agreements between Republika Srpska and foreign registered agents, were unconstitutional.
But Svetlana Cenic, a former finance minister in the Serb-run entity, who has investigated the entity’s budgets, says the sources of the funding are not as transparent as they ought to be. ‘The majority of the funding was not approved by the RS National Assembly,’ she told Balkan Insight. ‘If you look through the budget, the majority or more than a half of the amount [spent on lobbying] is not transparently shown. I am not sure that the RS approved it. ‘And as far as I can remember, some of the amount [spent on lobbying came] from budget reserves,’ she said.
The government of Republika Srpska did not respond to repeated requests for comment via email and telephone.
This report appeared in BIRN's Balkan Insight, 16 September 2011