In fall 2017, political consultant George Birnbaum arrived in Kyiv from the United States. For over 25 years, he has worked in the field, helping controversial figures such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev either gain or retain power. In 2016, he took on a new client – Donald Trump.
During the American presidential elections, Birnbaum worked with Trump’s senior advisor Barry Bennett, and then became a partner in his company Avenue Strategies. While his former client made himself comfortable in the White House, Birnbaum started to look for new ones.
Batkivshchyna leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who has already started her election campaign, denies working with American political technologists. (Tymoshenko at the Pechersk District Court, Kyiv, December 11, 2017) Photo: volodymyr Hontar/UNIAN
Birnbaum came to Ukraine together with his colleague from Avenue Strategies, Vlada Galan. She speaks Russian and is originally from Odesa.
In Kyiv, Birnbaum and Galan held talks with Yulia Tymoshenko, head of the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party. In March this year, Avenue Strategies reported that it had officially begun boosting Yulia Tymoshenko’s image in the US.
However, the American consultants’ biographies reveal that they specialize in election campaigns, not lobbying. In fact, Ukraine has already started preparing for the presidential elections planned for March 31, 2019.
Hromadske explores who these American political consultants are and what kind of image they create for their clients.
Ukrainian politicians usually refute any claims of working with political consultants. This is an uncomfortable topic as hiring a consultant is not cheap. Parliamentary and presidential candidates do not like going into detail about where they get their money for their election campaigns. The consultants themselves also refuse to comment, as one of the terms of their contracts is usually confidentiality.
Consultants do not always receive an official salary. In the case of Paul Manafort, information concerning his cooperation with the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska led to a lawsuit in the USA.
The work of American political consultant Paul Manafort ended in a lawsuit. Manafort is charged with 12 counts, including money laundering and collusion. According to a copy of the Party of Region’s “black ledger,” Manafort received over $12 million from the party between 2007 and 2009. (Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort [center] with his wife and lawyer outside the Federal Court in Alexandria, Virginia, USA, March 8, 2018) Photo: EPA-EFE/SHAWN THEW
However, information on political consultants is important. Politicians like to emphasize the fact they represent the interests of society and go into government to uphold the principles shared by their voters. Therefore power should be an instrument for implementing change.
If a politician hires a political consultant, the question remains as to where they got the money to pay for that service, and to what extent they genuinely want to implement some kind of change. If they just want to use power for their own interests, then the consultants are tasked with finding the right talking points to woo voters and ultimately win the election.
Flying into Kyiv in fall 2017, Birnbaum and Galan conducted a curious tour round the offices of the largest Ukrainian parties. Hromadske’s interlocutors close to Avenue Strategies claim that the political consultants met with the leader of the People’s Front party Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the Opposition Bloc’s Vadim Novinsky and, finally, with Yulia Tymoshenko.
These politicians have preferred not to talk about what was discussed when they met with the consultants. Novinsky noted that he met with them twice but declined their services, although he does consider them to be professional.
The head of AJF & Associates inc. George Birnbaum during a conference in Baku on the day of the presidential elections in Azerbaijan, April 11, 2018. Birnbaum worked on a pre-election campaign for the President-elect Ilham Aliyev. Photo: APA
Yatsenyuk did not comment on his communication with the consultants. However, a while ago, he told Hromadske that he has been skeptical of using political consultants since the 2010 presidential elections. At the time, Yatsenyuk worked with Russian “political technologists” Timofei Sergeitsev, Dmitry Kulikov and Iskander Valitov. Their campaign for Yatsenyuk was a failure. He took fourth place, receiving only 7% of the votes.
Hromadske’s interlocutors close to Avenue Strategies say that during the meeting with Tymoshenko the Americans highlighted the importance of the Batkivshchyna leader signing a contract a with them. Galan asked Tymoshenko what she wanted them to do, and the politician allegedly stated that she wanted to meet Donald Trump.
“Galan [wanted to] clarify how well Tymoshenko knows English. In response, the leader of Batkivshchyna assured her that she [speaks English] quite well. However, when Vlada switched to English, Tymoshenko could not keep up with the conversation,” Hromadske’s interlocutor says.
The Batkivshchyna leadership, and their leader Yulia Tymoshenko especially, deny hiring American political technologists, who also refuse to comment officially. (Tymoshenko with Batkivshchyna colleague MP Oleksandr Abdullin during a session at the Ukrainian parliament, Kyiv, 27 February, 2018) Photo: Oleksandr Kosmach/UNIAN
This occurred the day before the White House Prayer Breakfast, where the US President meets with foreign politicians and businessmen. The only way to attend this event is by buying an invitation. The fees for the Breakfast go to charity. Tymoshenko attended the event, securing a seat right in front of the podium from which Trump gave his speech.
After two weeks, Avenue Strategies signed a six-month contract to lobby Tymoshenko’s interests in the US.
The contract lasts* until August 20, 2018 and could be extended. In this time, Avenue Strategies could receive up to $390 thousand. The company has received a $130 thousand deposit from a little-known firm TWO PATH LLC.
Tymoshenko and Batkivshchyna deny that they have hired American consultants.
Information that the leader of Batkivshchyna is working with foreign political consultants appears in the media before almost every election. However, Tymoshenko has never confirmed this, and the consultants mentioned by journalists have never commented officially.
During the 2007 parliamentary elections, Tymoshenko refuted claims that she was working with political consultant and former press secretary to Bill Clinton, Joe Lockhart. What’s more, during the 2014 presidential elections, the media reported that the Israeli political consultant Tal Silberstein was advising Tymoshenko.
Birnbaum and Galan, although they ignored Hromadske’s question, have never hid the fact they are political consultants. Their official biographies on the Avenue Strategies website confirm it.
According to Birnbaum’s biography, he has worked on election campaigns since 1992. He worked for the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In addition, he participated in the campaigns of former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, former Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev and his Romanian counterpart Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, Serbian President Boris Tadić and others.
Birnbaum became a partner in Avenue Strategies in 2017 after working with the company’s founder Barry Bennett on Donald Trump’s election victory.
Avenue Strategies political technologists George Birnbaum (center) and his colleage Vlada Galan (right) during a press conference on the day of the presidential elections in Azerbaijan, April 11, 2018. Birnbaum and Galan oversaw the election campaign of President-elect Ilham Aliyev. Photo: APA
At the time, Bennet said of his new partner: “Birnbaum will focus on foreign politics, he may also lobby the interests of foreign governments in Washington.”
The fact that Birnbaum was working on an election campaign in Ukraine in 2017 is mentioned on his Wikipedia profile.
Although Galan is only 29 years old, she has participated in election campaigns in 12 countries around the world, according to the Avenue Strategies website. In addition to the US, she has worked in western Europe, the Balkans and Africa. According to her official biography, Galan specializes in developing electoral strategies and working with social media.
American political technologist Arthur Finkelstein (left) and current Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, archive photo, 1999. Photo: Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Birnbaum and Galan could be considered followers of the famous American political strategist Arthur Finkelstein. Birnbaum worked with him from 2003, and Galan also worked at Finkelstein’s company for some time.
Finkelstein is believed to be one of the ideologues behind “negative campaigning.” This approach does not focus on the positive aspects of the candidate’s image, but on proliferating negative information about opponents. He devised a strategy referred to as “rejectionist voting” – a formula based on slogans that discredit rivals. “Negative, negative, negative, because you can’t win any other way,” he once said.
Lobbyists – Technologists
Hromadske called Barry Bennett to find out whether his company really did help Tymoshenko see Trump and to ask what his partner George Birnbaum was doing in Kyiv. The head of Avenue Strategies refused to talk to the journalists, but conveyed a message via his secretary that he is currently on a very tight schedule and unable to talk in the near future. Avenue Strategies’ lawyer refused to talk to Hromadske at all.
Some details of Bennett’s team’s methods were revealed in an investigation published by POLITICO in April 2017.
American political technologists Barry Bennett (right) and Corey Lewandowski at the Leadership Symposium, Mount Vernon, Washington, USA, February 27, 2017. Photo: The Ripon Society
The journalists obtained pitch documents that another one of Bennett’s partners, Corey Lewandowski, sent to foreign politicians. For a fee, he offered to arrange meetings with Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Lewandowski did not comment at the time. However, Barry Bennett said that this is one approach Lewandowski used to recruit clients for Avenue Strategies.
At the same time, Bennett emphasized that Lewandowski was not trying to attract clients wanting to lobby their interests in the US, but those in need of a political consulting service. “90 percent of our business has nothing to do with access. Ninety percent of our business has to do with being a sherpa — who to call, what to do. We don’t take people in to see the president or the vice president,” Bennett said at the time.
Republican candidate for the American presidency Donald Trump (right) and political technologist Corey Lewndowski (left) during a campaign meeting in Palm Beach, Florida, USA, March 15, 2016. Photo: EPA/ERIK S. LESSER
After this story came out, Bennett’s and Lewandowski’s lines diverged. Less than a year later, Bennett declared that his company was helping Tymoshenko meet with American politicians, while not a single word was said about political consulting.
Immediately, however, two of Hromadske’s interlocutors connected to the Batkivshchyna leader and Avenue Strategies claimed that the American consultants were not only working with Tymoshenko in the US, but in Ukraine as well. During his visits to Kyiv, George Birnbaum and Vlada Galan allegedly worked on Tymoshenko’s strategy and social media analysis. It’s telling that Tymoshenko launched her official Facebook page at the beginning of April. Her first post reads: “FB is a real force for direct action. That force is capable of dismissing senior officials, forming volunteer movements and gathering [crowds on] the Maidan.”
The story of the contract that Avenue Strategies received for promoting Tymoshenko’s image in the US leaves a lot of questions unanswered. If Tymoshenko can independently meet with the President, why does she need help boosting her image in the US? If employees from Barry Bennett’s company come to Kyiv, does that mean the contract is valid in Ukraine? Why are the Avenue Strategies consultants responsible for her contract the ones who have spent their entire careers on election campaign strategies?
It is impossible to get any official answers to these questions. Avenue Strategies has not commented on the contract. Yulia Tymoshenko and Batkivshchyna MPs deny the fact they are working with Bennett’s company. Tymoshenko has also not commented on who is working on her election campaign, even though it has already begun. Tymoshenko recently announced an all-Ukrainian forum called “A New Course for Ukraine” happening on June 15. According to media reports, Tymoshenko is not only working with American political consultants, but also with Ukrainians Viktor Kotyhorenko and Viktor Voynalovych.
*On June 16, Hromadske discovered that on February 20, 2018 the company Two Paths LLC company which had entered into a contract with Avenue Strategies on behalf of head of Batkivschyna party Yulia Tymoshenko, had terminated the contract on May, 11. This is stated in the document placed in the register of the Department of Justice of the United States.
/Translated by Sofia Fedeczko