Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s guilty plea last Friday has fired speculation that he may “flip” on President Trump, telling prosecutors about Trump’s Russian ties in return for a lighter sentence. But for Europeans a much more important story emerges from the plea. Buried in the 117-pages of documents released as part of the plea agreement is the story of how Manafort enlisted senior European politicians to paint Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian, authoritarian regime as a democraticlly-led friend of Europe and America. The story shows:
1) Manafort used the dark arts he learned as an American lobbyist to corrupt gullible European politicians;
or on another reading —
2) Some leading European politicians are as willing to prostitute themselves for whatever client will pay as some of their American counterparts.
The tale begins with Manafort’s June 2012 “Confidential: Eyes Only Memo” proposing to procure a “Super VIP Group of former European Heads of Governments and VIP Officials” to sell Yanukovych’s Ukraine to Europe and American policymakers. The sale, Manafort explains, will be made “without any visible relationship” to the Yanukovych government through his “quiet direction” in newspaper articles, press commentary, and presentations at Manafort-organized conferences across Europe.
Less than a year later Manafort’s report on the work of what he christened the “Hapsburg Group” says:
“The Hapsburg team has provided valuable back-channeling and timely information on relevant issues between European Commissioners and other high-ranking EU personnel.” Manafort brags in this February 21, 2013, memo to Yanukovych about the group’s success in deflecting the West’s attention away from the regime’s arrest and abuse while jailed of former Prime Minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. Other notable achievements are group members’ private, confidential talks with then EU President José Manuel Barroso and then EU Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton and the use of their personal relationships with those close to the Italian Prime Minister and French President’s office to peddle Ukrainian propaganda to these leaders.
In a February 24 memo to “SL” (presumably Yanukovych chief of staff Serhiy Lyovochkin), Manafort recounts conversations with “AK” and “AG” about “messaging” during “AK’s forthcoming visit to Washington.” While the memo does not identify AK or AG, the June 2012 “Super VIP” memo names former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer and former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski as potential group members. Reports are the two did in fact join (here and here). Furthermore, after Manafort’s scheme was revealed, a Washington lobbying group he also hired to peddle the Ukraine story — which under the Foreign Agent Registration Act should have immediately reported to the U.S. Department of Justice it had been retained as a foreign agent of Ukraine — filed a (tardy) disclosure revealing it had taken Gusenbauer to meet U.S. Congressmen.
Kwaśniewski was a particularly valuable group member. Not only because he was the former president of Poland but because he was also the designated representative of the President of the European Union responsible for monitoring the planned trial of Tymoshenko. While Manafort wrote that Kwaśniewski thus “could not publicly be associated with group,” former Austrian Chancellor Gusenbauer had assured him that once Kwaśniewski had finished his trial monitoring duties, he would join the group and in the interim “very likely [provide] some informal and covert interaction.”
In a July 10, 2013, memo headed “Hapsburg and US,” Manafort touts how effective group members had been in whoring for Ukraine during their meetings with Washington policymakers. Their most notable success was watering down a pending Senate resolution denouncing Ukraine’s treatment of Tymoshenko. While the plan initially was to kill the resolution, Manafort had to report that, thanks to reports that Tymoshenko was on the verge of death in prison, the Senate did pass the resolution. But thankfully, according to Manafort, what passed was not as critical of Ukraine as it might have been because of the group’s efforts.
The existence of the Hapsburg Group and the secret to why Gusenbauer, Kwaśniewski, and a third Super VIP, former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, had suddenly taken such an interest in the Yanukovych government’s well-being was inadvertently disclosed in a February 2018 filing in the Manafort case. Questioned by the press (here, here, and here) about the disclosure, Prodi claimed not to know who was paying him; Gusenbauer admitted taking money to lobby for Yanukovych but refused to say who was his paymaster, and Kwaśniewski denied any connection to the group.
The full list of “Super VIP Group” members is not publicly known. In addition to the three former government heads, Manafort named Belgian Constitutional Court Judge Jean-Paul Moerman, former German MP Bodo Hombach, and former NATO head and EU foreign affairs spokesperson Javier Solana as likely recruits in his Super VIP Group memo. Whether any of these individuals or others ultimately joined is again not known. Or at least Google searches produced no information.
Membership in the Hapsburg Group certainly had its privileges. Manafort paid group members at least €2 million over the 2012 – 2014 period. Gusenbauer alone reportedly received €30,000 a month for his labors. High-level political prostitution is if nothing else financially rewarding.
Was Manafort the Svengali some press accounts make him out to be? Did he bamboozle naïve European politicians into vouching for Yanukovych and the gang around him while they ran the nation’s economy into the ground, smothered democratic impulses, and denied citizens basic human rights? In the face of such gross abuses, did Manafort find it a challenge to assemble the “Super VIP Group”?
Or was it easy to find willing participants? Did Gusenbauer, Kwaśniewski, Prodi and other Hapsburgs welcome Manafort’s approach with open, greedy palms?? Were they happy to push whatever line on Yanukovych needed pushing so long as the money flowed?
I don’t know whether the Hapsburgs were Manafort’s fools or his accomplices. Nor do I think it matters much. What matters is that like the Habsburg Monarchy, the Hapsburg Group be the last of its kind. That there be no more Super VIP Groups secretly peddling claims that a corrupt, dictatorial, anti-liberal government is actually a friend of the West. If a former head of state, minister, or other European politician wants to put whore for a Victor Yanukovych, let him or her do it openly.
An obvious first step is for the European Union and European governments to be sure anyone prostituting themself on behalf of a foreign government is upfront about it. To require them to immediately disclose when they are hired and to periodically report who they have contacted, what materials they have prepared, and how much they are paid. Though not perfect, and vigorously enforced only recently, for those without such a law the Foreign Agents Registration Act offers a model.
Other steps will likely be required. To help determine which ones, European investigators should interview Mr. Manafort to be sure they fully understand he pimped out politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. He will be easy to find; for the next few years the U.S. Bureau of Prisons will have his cell number. And under his plea agreement he must tell law enforcement authorities if he hopes to walk out of jail rather than leave in a casket.
The EU and several European governments have been victims of Manafort’s deceitful acts. They should assert their right under the U.S. Crime Victims Rights Act to appear at his sentencing and urge the judge to consider the harm they suffered through the lies his Super VIP Group spread. Others thinking of filling the void Manafort leaves might think twice if they see a parade of European officials urging Manafort be given a stiff prison sentence for procuring Super VIPs.
Europe has shown already it is alert to secret propagandizing of behalf of despicable governments and that it will sanction those involved. See the response to Azerbaijan’s “caviar diplomacy.” As a Council of Europe report shows, for years that nation’s government had muffled criticism of its authoritarian, anti-democratic rule by covertly providing selected European MPs with thousands of euros worth of caviar, luxury travel, and other pricey gifts. But this Manafort-like scheme backfired when exposed by European NGOs. The Azerbaijan government’s secret purchase of influence has put it under a dark could, and the MPs its caviar bought are under investigation or already sanctioned.
Paul Manafort’s plea most certainly ends his career of creating Super VIP Groups, of Europeans or others. But so long as there are governments run by the likes of Victor Yanukovych, there will be other Paul Manaforts willing to shill for them and other Super VIPs waiting to betray their principles for a price. Time to make that sales price public.
(The documents recounting the Hapsburg Group’s activities are reproduced in the 117-page filing referenced above. For ease of reference, links to each are below.)