Europe, New in Lobbying

New Ukraine lobbying venture raises eyebrows in Kyiv

A new lobbying push to “improve the reputation of Ukraine in the world” is raising concerns in Kyiv that it could inadvertently have the opposite effect.

West Capital Inc., an asset management company in Casper, Wyoming, registered as a lobbyist for the Office of the President of Ukraine at the end of last year. This week the firm updated its filing to say it was working for the ​Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine.

The new push however appears to have caught by surprise a Ukrainian government that is preparing to turn the page on President Donald Trump‘s brand of personal diplomacy. The president’s unorthodox approach turned Ukraine into a political football in Washington, culminating with the US House of Representatives voting to impeach him for allegedly leveraging military aid to Ukraine in exchange for political favors.

Igor Novikov, a former adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, told Foreign Lobby Report that the presidential office isn’t aware of the new lobbying push. He said top officials in Kyiv have been asked to avoid hiring lobbyists ahead of the transition to a Joe Biden administration in which government agencies and the US and Ukrainian embassies are expected to manage the bilateral relationship — a sharp departure from the past four years when Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani helped run US policy via private relationships with a host of Ukrainian actors.

“With the presidential transition, things are changing as far as Ukraine is concerned,” Novikov said. “People are trying to chase the new administration connections because in Ukraine it means a lot. What they don’t know is the fact that, as far as I know, the Biden administration will not be using any unofficial channels and will not take kindly to lobbying efforts. It’s going to be institutions only.” (Biden pledged to ban lobbying by foreign governments during the presidential campaign).

West Capital’s original filing lists Oleksandr Havryshuk as the sole lobbyist on the account. The updated filing now lists Yana Kolesnikova instead. In a phone call from Ukraine, Havryshuk said he was an owner of West Capital and was in the process of setting up lobbying operations once Kyiv approves a proposed lobbying law.

He said he planned to hire lobbyists in the United States and in Ukraine to help with the effort and had registered to lobby after beginning the hiring process.

Havryshuk said he knew several Ukrainian officials who had indicated an interest in building connections with the incoming Biden administration but that his firm had not yet been formally hired.

“It’s just personal contacts. I know some people and they said it would be [beneficial] to cooperate,” Havryshuk said. Their goal and his, he said, is to “help to build a great partnership and friendship” with the United States.

He shared a list of several Ukrainian officials he said were expected to shortly sign contracts with the company:

  • Parliament members Klochko Andrii and Trohtiy Bogdan;
  • Deputy Minister of Social Policy Muzychenko Vital;
  • Chairman of the High Council of Justice Ovsienko Andrii;
  • The provincial governors of Kyiv, Odessa, Nikolaev and Sumy; and
  • The chairmen of the State Agency for Water Resources and the State Ecological Inspectorate.

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Novikov said the people on the list were not in the inner circle of the presidential office and may not be familiar with the informal lobbying freeze. He viewed their apparent involvement as a remnant of the past four years, when Ukrainian lobbying was often aimed more at scoring “political points” back home rather than pushing official Ukrainian policy.

“Getting to talk to an American, given the lack of transparency of the past four years, could put you in a position of power,” he said. “Why? Because you could claim you had the support of the US government and obviously the United States is a major strategic ally and nobody wants to mess with the US.”

Those decentralized lobbying efforts have also allowed Ukraine’s neighbor and rival Russia as well as local oligarchs to spread disinformation about US and Ukrainian priorities, Novikov added — another reason why the government in Kyiv is keen to put an end to dubious lobbying schemes.

In September, for example, the US Treasury Department designated Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker who supplied questionable information to Giuliani, as a Russian agent. That same month, a mysterious non-governmental organization that had hired US lobbyists to organize a Washington visit for representatives from the National Bank of Ukraine, the Export-Import Bank of Ukraine and the Office of the Prosecutor General postponed their trip after an outcry in Kyiv.

Novikov said the Ukrainian Guild of Activists refused to say who had funded the lobbying and described it as “definitely not a legitimate kind of hire.” He said that when the government warned the proposed delegation to delay their visit to Washington until after the US election, they denied any knowledge of such a trip.

“Even the fact of hiring a lobbyist in Washington can be used in a disinformation campaign,” Novikov said. “Given the history, it will be important that we stick with the official channels from now on.”