Marshall Harris first made headlines in the 1990s as a young State Department officer when he quit over the Bill Clinton administration’s inaction in Bosnia.
After a stint as vice-president of Freedom House, today he continues to take an interest in democracy promotion as the managing partner at Alexandria Group International. Harris spoke about democratic backsliding in eastern Europe, the importance of US leadership and President Joe Biden‘s pledge to support the rule of law around the world in a wide-ranging interview with The Influencers, the podcast co-hosted by Foreign Lobby Report and Richard Levick of the international communications agency LEVICK.
Four years of former President Donald Trump praising US-allied dictators and challenging democratic norms at home “has emboldened the bad guys, so to speak,” Harris said. “It’s most obvious in Russia and China, which take our failings as a green light to escalate their bad policies and also to exercise their pernicious influence in foreign countries.”
But democratic backsliding is also visible among US allies, he said, notably in eastern Europe. Harris served as a foreign service officer for two years in Bulgaria and is now representing two Bulgarian families whose businesses have been targeted by state authorities. He insists the criminal cases against his clients — the Bobokov clan who own the Prista Oil motor oil company and the Staykov family behind the Vinprom Karnobat alcohol empire — are fabrications meant to enrich people in power and punish government critics.
“Bulgaria is one of three countries in eastern Europe — Poland and Hungary being the others — that have really been backsliding in terms of democratic development,” he said. “We have these countries that are now in the EU [European Union] but they aren’t embracing EU standards or European values in terms of how they treat their own citizens.”
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Harris said he was inspired by Biden’s promise to hold a gathering of the world’s democracies next year. And he expressed hope that the new administration and Congress would revisit past proposals to sanction certain Eastern European actors.
“I think Biden … and his administration will be looking at this closely and will take the whole thing much more seriously and hold these countries to account in a way that hasn’t happened for the past four years,” Harris said. “When you can’t reach the state itself, you are able to reach people in the central parts of that state and its behavior.”
The law firm representing one of those previous targets, Bulgarian lawmaker and media mogul Delyan Peevski, recently hired the BGR Group amid gathering storm clouds against their client.
“Being friends and allies also means we need to put pressure on them for their transgressions,” Harris said. “Yes, we can make a difference. And I think President Biden will.”
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