Georgia builds up its lobbying, PR efforts

After a tumultuous year that included a short war with Russia, the small Caucasus nation of Georgia is spending big on lobbyists and public-relations consultants to shore up support in Washington.

The country’s roster of advocates includes top officials with Democratic and Republican connections. Public Strategies, which was signed to a six-month, $300,000 contract, will provide media and public-relations consulting to enhance “the reputation of the Republic of Georgia government,” according to the agreement.

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Several Democrats at the firm are working on the country’s behalf, including: Jeff Eller, a former director of media affairs for the Clinton White House; and Robert Ludke, a former tax and budget policy analyst for the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

A spokesman for Public Strategies said the firm does not discuss client matters. Dan Bartlett, a former top adviser to President Bush, is now the president and CEO of Public Strategies.

Georgia has also hired a pair of consultants to an 11-month contract worth roughly $470,000. The consultants, Gregory Maniatis and Daniel Kunin, will split the fees. Kunin has been a longtime adviser to Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president.

“The contract is to provide strategic and communications advice to the Government of Georgia in its international relations, specifically with the United States,” Maniatis said in an e-mail.

An embassy spokeswoman said the new hires are part of a public-relations campaign to boost support for the country in the United States and European Union (EU), and to improve its relationship with Russia.

“Georgia is committed to democracy and a free-market economy, and to deepening and strengthening its relationship with the U.S., as well as strengthening its relationship with the EU and Russia. We have opted for a policy of genuine independence and we have good stories to tell,” the spokeswoman said.

The new consultants join the Glover Park Group, a firm well-connected in Democratic circles, on Georgia’s roster of Beltway advocates. The country hired Glover Park last summer. Lobbyists for the firm took a delegation from the Caucasus state around both the Republican and Democratic national conventions to meet with lawmakers.

So far, Glover Park has received $320,000 from Georgia, according to recently filed Justice Department records.

Among Glover Park executives working for Georgia are Brett O’Brien, a former adviser to Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), and Kevin Madden, a senior communications aide for 2008 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

The additions follow a long 2008 for Georgia. It lost a brief skirmish with Russia over two breakaway provinces last August. The young democracy was often left isolated from the West as it sought help during the incursion into their territory.

Georgia still hopes to be able to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a move that has angered its Russian neighbors and will need U.S. backing to move forward.

As a candidate, Barack Obama was supportive of Georgia in its dispute with Russia, although not as aggressively so was his presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Since the election, President Obama and Vice President Biden have had several telephone conversations with Saakashvili, and Biden has met with him.

Since being hired in August, Glover Park has had more than 50 contacts with lawmakers’ offices to set up meetings with Georgian officials or to discuss trade issues, according to Justice Department records.

Lobbyists at the firm have reached out to aides for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.), and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Glover Park has also sought to promote Saakashvili in the press. A survey of Georgians conducted in early September by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found “record-high support” for him and “overwhelming public support” for joining NATO.

In the survey, the Georgian president had a 76 percent approval rating. In addition, Georgians wanted to join NATO by a wide margin — 85 percent in the survey. The firm targeted the poll for reporters of the international media.

Another firm working on behalf of Georgia last year was Orion Strategies. The firm’s contract became a campaign issue last year because one of its senior lobbyists, Randy Scheunemann, was also the foreign policy adviser to the McCain campaign.

Orion earned $150,000 in 2008 from Georgia, according to Justice Department records. Mike Mitchell, another lobbyist with the firm, had several telephone conversations with aides to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Georgia’s behalf, Justice Department records show.

Georgia did not renew that contract, however, the embassy spokeswoman said.