Belarus-tied oligarchs have been hiring lobbying help as the United States and the European Union step up sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko‘s government over its crackdown on protesters and the forced landing of a Ryanair jet last month.
Vladimir Peftiev, an Abu Dhabi-based former arms dealer who was previously sanctioned by the EU for being a “key financial sponsor” of the Lukashenko regime, has hired Steptoe & Johnson effective May 11, according to a recently disclosed lobbying registration. The firm is expected to provide “information to Congressional members and staff, and to third parties including journals or news outlets.”
Back in April, BGR Government Affairs registered to lobby for White & Case on behalf of Cyprus-based Dana Holdings Limited, which is owned by Lukashenko-connected Serbian brothers Bojan Karic and Nebojsa Karic. That engagement, which was effective Feb. 15, is for “monitoring US government activity regarding Belarus.”
Both Peftiev and the Karic brothers have been linked to the Lukashenko family through their respective ownership of Cypriot real-estate companies Eastleigh Trading and Dana Holdings, the EU Observer reported last fall. The two companies are accused by the Belarusian opposition of using their connections to the Lukashenkos to earn lucrative business concessions in Belarus, which they deny.
Steptoe’s registration made no mention of Belarus, and the firm did not respond to a request for comment. But experts here and in Minsk held little doubt that Peftiev continues to have close ties to Lukashenko’s assets abroad despite apparently no longer having any official ties to Belarussian companies.
“Publicly, he’s not related to the regime anymore. But I doubt this is true. He’s so close to Lukashenko,” said Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian journalist and nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington. “He’s not a random guy from Abu Dhabi.”
Paul Massaro, a policy adviser with the US Helsinki Commission, took to Twitter after the Joe Biden administration announced new sanctions today to call for Peftiev to be added to the list. A special license from the Treasury Department is required in order to lobby for sanctioned individuals and companies.
“It appears new Belarus sanctions do not include Vladimir Peftiev, a Lukashenko crony who just recently hired @SteptoeLLP to lobby for him,” Massaro tweeted. “These kinds of guys make GREAT sanctions targets given their clear links to the West. Cut off their lifeline.”
The lobbying push comes as the US, the EU and the United Kingdom have been coordinating sanctions against Belarus over a months-long violent crackdown on protesters who insist Lukashenko’s re-election last year was rigged.
In April the US reimposed sanctions on nine state-owned companies, primarily in the oil sector, that had been lifted in 2015 as the US sought to improve ties. And today the Biden administration announced visa restrictions on 46 Belarusian officials and additional sanctions on 16 individuals and five entities following the arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofiya Sapega after their plane was forced to land in Minsk last month.
Among the entities sanctioned in April was oil company Belneftekhim, which retained the services of lawyer David Gencarelli from November 2019 to August 2020 for help with sanctions waivers. Meanwhile state-owned potash fertilizer company Belaruskali and its distributor the Belarusian Potash Company briefly etained Greenberg Traurig and Sanitas International several years ago amid concerns that it too could be sanctioned. Those concerns are now back on the agenda after EU foreign ministers voted today in Brussels to target the country’s banking, oil, tobacco and potash industries.
“The key word, I think, is ‘potash,’ ” the New York Times quoted Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn as saying. “We know that Belarus produces very much potash — it is one of the biggest suppliers globally — and I think it would hurt Lukashenko very much if we managed something in this area.”
Steptoe has registered a team of four senior-level lobbyists on the account: Partner Darryl Nirenberg, a chief of staff to the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.); Partner Brian Egan, an associate counsel to President Barack Obama; Partner Edward Krauland, who co-chairs the firm’s economic sanctions practice; and Managing Director Elizabeth Burks, who served as chief of staff to former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Neb.).
Lobbying for Dana Holdings are BGR Corporate Counsel Daniel Murphy, a chief of staff to President George W. Bush‘s Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez; International and Trade Principal Maya Seiden, a veteran of the Bill Clinton and Obama administrations; and Walker Roberts, the head of the firm’s international practice and a former deputy chief of staff on the House foreign affairs panel.