The opposition leader in Georgia hired a bipartisan US lobby firm just days before his arrest this week.
Nikanor “Nika” Melia signed a six-month, $150,000 contract with Washington lobbying firm Cogent Strategies on behalf of his United National Movement (UNM) on Feb. 16. Police dragged Melia out of his party’s headquarters and detained him on Tuesday, sparking bipartisan blowback in Washington.
Cogent Strategies is led by Kimberley Fritts, the former longtime CEO of the Podesta Group who took many of the firm’s top lobbyists and more than a dozen of its clients to start her own firm when the Podesta Group imploded in 2017. The powerhouse firm started by brothers Tony Podesta and John Podesta was an early casualty of Robert Mueller‘s investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 election because of its undisclosed work for a Ukrainian group tied to the pro-Russian former President Viktor Yanukovych.
The contract calls on Cogent to provide Melia’s party with government and public affairs services that “highlight the need for renewed US engagement in Georgia in pursuit of strengthening Georgian democracy, territorial integrity and NATO integration.” The firm is specifically asked to lobby the Joe Biden administration, the House and Senate foreign affairs committees, the Helsinki Commission and the Georgia congressional caucus.
Fritts signed the contract on behalf of Cogent. She did not respond to a request for comment.
The firm has registered a bipartisan team of seven people with deep connections to both policymakers and Washington media on the contract:
- Managing Director David Adams, a former assistant secretary of State for legislative affairs under Hillary Clinton and staff director on the House Foreign Affairs Committee;
- Managing Director John Ward Anderson, the former editor of Politico magazine;
- Managing Director William Bohlen, a former spokesman for the German Marshall Fund;
- Associate Erin Dunne ;
- Managing Director Randall Gerard, who heads Cogent’s outreach to Republican leadership;
- Managing Director Andrew Kauders, a former senior adviser to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.); and
- Managing Director Shellie Purvis, a former member of the executive team at the US mission to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
The lobbying hire comes as Georgia has been rocked with protests following disputed parliamentary elections in October 2020. The protesters accuse the pro-Russian Georgian Dream party founded by former oligarch-turned-politician Bidzina Ivanishvili of electoral fraud and increased authoritarianism since it first came to power in 2012.
The increasing political instability is causing heartache in Washington, which has long considered Georgia an ally and one of the most democratic of the post-Soviet states. The relationship deepened in 2008 when Russia invaded and took control of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions.
The State Department released a statement Tuesday saying the US was “deeply troubled” by Melia’s arrest and that it “stands ready to support a democratic, secure, and prosperous Georgia.” Melia is accused of fomenting a crowd to attack parliament in 2019, charges he denies.
Congress has also weighed in.
In a statement on Tuesday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and ranking member Mike McCaul (R-Texas) called out the Georgian Dream party by name. They were joined by Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the co-chairs of the House Georgia Caucus.
“In the interest of resolving political discord peacefully, we encourage the leaders of Georgian Dream to de-escalate the situation and work with the United National Movement and other opposition parties to bring Georgia’s push for a healthy democratic future back on track,” the statement said. “We fear that failure to work with minority parties will impede the progress made by Georgia to foster stronger relations with the European Union and NATO.”
Senate Foreign Committee members Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) also issued a joint statement on Tuesday with Kinzinger and Connolly calling for Melia’s release.
“The Georgian government’s decision to violently raid the United National Movement headquarters to arrest its leader, Nika Melia, and dozens of activists is profoundly troubling,” the statement said. “The corrupt use of Georgia’s law enforcement and judiciary to execute politically-motivated actions jeopardizes what remains of Georgia’s democracy and its Euro-Atlantic path.”
Melia’s detention has also caused rifts within the Georgian Dream party itself. Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, a member of the party, resigned last week in protest over the arrest, citing confrontation and polarization as the biggest risks to Georgia’s future.
The United National Movement was founded in 2001 by Mikheil Saakashvili, who later served as president from 2004 to 2013. The party is well-versed in the ways of Washington, having retained lobbying firm Orion Strategies from October 2019 to October 2020 to lobby on democracy in the country.
The firm’s founding partner, Michael Mitchell, a former State Department official and press aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and his partner Randy Scheunemann, a former foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), were registered on the contract. Orion previously lobbied for Saakashvili during most of his presidency.
Last year Orion raised concerns in Congress about the arrest of another Georgian opposition figure, Giorgi Rurua, and warned about “anti-democratic developments” under Georgian Dream. The firm reached out to Rep. Kinzinger and other congressional offices at the time. Several lawmakers and members of the European Union have called for Rurua’s release since he was sentenced to four years in prison on weapons charges in July.
The threat isn’t lost on Georgian Dream, which has launched its own lobbying defense.
The party hired two firms in February 2020: Hogan Lovells for $75,000 per month and DCI Group AZ for $33,333 per month. Former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) signed Hogan Lovells’ contract with Georgian Dream and is among the lobbyists on the account.
DCI for its part lists its task as promoting Georgian Dream as a “reliable and pragmatic partner for democracy, peace and stability with an unwavering commitment to Western democratic liberal ideals and the special Georgia – U.S. relationship.”
Update: This story was updated at 11 a.m. on Feb. 26 with new information about the registered agents on the account.