Last week, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism published a story about a sting against Bell Pottinger, a major British public relations and lobbying firm. Journalists working for the Bureau approached the firm in the guise of seeking PR help for Uzbekistan, the torture-loving former Soviet republic that has been known to boil prisoners to death. A Bell Pottinger representative told the undercover journalists it could introduce Uzbek officials “into political and media circles,” and help them “get better known by a lot of the key decision makers.”

In the course of their research, the Bureau met with lobbyists and PR agents who boasted of their ability to get think tanks to publish sympathetic reports about clients. They also talked about winning favorable media attention by setting up supposedly independent public events and hyping business opportunities for domestic companies.

In the United Kingdom, such international lobbying is virtually invisible.

“In the U.S. there is a measure of statutory transparency: lobbyists working for foreign governments have to publicly disclose their client contracts and state when and why they’ve been in contact with politicians and the media,” the Bureau noted. “In the UK, there’s no such obligation.”

While it’s true that U.S. lobbying and PR firms here are subject to disclosure laws, they and their clients have been able to skirt or even evade them. As I reported here last week, foreign governments and interests seeking influence in Washington use a host of tactics — some identical to what Bell Pottinger was proposing for Uzbekistan — that are largely unregulated and free of disclosure requirements. These include making contributions to think tanks, universities and non-profit groups, and setting up business associations that advocate for better political ties with the U.S. but aren’t legally defined as lobbying organizations.

The Uzbek regime of Islam Karimov, a Soviet-era hack in power since 1991 is a classic example. Uzbekistan does not have official lobbying representation in Washington, yet it has many American friends advocating on its behalf — and because they don’t register as lobbyists it’s hard to know exactly what they’re up to.

Chief among them is the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce (AUCC), whose board is made up of executives from U.S. companies with interests in Uzbekistan, such as Boeing, Honeywell and General Electric. The group’s stated purpose it to “promote trade and investment,” but it also pushes for “strong ties” between the two governments on the basis of its “excellent working relations” with both.

The AUCC is chaired by attorney Carolyn Lamm, a former head of the American Bar Association who in the past has lobbied for such authoritarian states as Libya and the former Zaire, ruled by strongman Mobutu Sese Seko. Between 1997 and 2005 her law firm, White & Case, lobbied for the Karimov regime. Lamm has also served as legal counsel of Zeromax, a Swiss-registered holding company widely reported as controlled by Gulnara Karimova, the president’s powerful daughter. (A September 2005 WikiLeaks cable, written by a U.S. diplomat in Tashkent, described Gulnara as “the single most hated person in the country.”)

Following the 2005 Andijan massacre — in which Uzbek security forces slaughtered hundreds of unarmed protesters — the AUCC’s then-president, James Cornell, wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging her to “not rush to conclusion or ignore the thorough investigation carried out by the government of Uzbekistan,” and saying that downgrading relations with Karimov threatened “several vital interests of the United States.”

More recently, AUCC board members and the Uzbek ambassador to Washington held a briefing with House Foreign Affairs Committee staffers. During their meeting last August, they talked up “job creation” linked to American exports to Uzbekistan and “offered their help, expertise and knowledge” for future congressional visits to Uzbekistan.

Last September 28, the AUCC held its annual Business Forum in Washington, which was attended by representatives of “international financial organizations, think tanks and policy institutions” and featured speeches by Uzbek and U.S. government officials. AUCC President Tim McGraw of NUKEM — the aptly named company that serves as an intermediary between uranium producers and nuclear energy utilities — told the crowd that his group’s efforts sought to “fundamentally strengthen the overall bilateral relationship.”

The same day, in what was surely no coincidence, President Obama spoke with Karimov by phone and “pledged to continue working to build broad cooperation between our two countries.” This was just four days after a Senate committee, at Obama’s request, voted to waive Bush-era restrictions on military aid to the Karimov dictatorship in exchange for its help moving military supplies into Afghanistan.

All of which was surely gratifying to the dignitaries gathered at the AUCC forum.

My request for an interview with Lamm, made through the AUCC, was declined. Asked if the Chamber had advocated for the waiver on military aid to Uzbekistan, Elena Son, the organizations’ executive director, said by email, “The AUCC asked the U.S. Government about the waiver for informational and better awareness purposes.” The Chamber, she said, was “not a lobbying organization” and its “advocacy efforts aim to inform the American public and governing institutions about why better bilateral relations with the Republic of Uzbekistan matter to U.S. geopolitical and business interests.”

The teachings of Starrmenbashi

Among the speakers at the AUCC’s event was Professor S. Frederick Starr of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute (CACI) at Johns Hopkins University, who has been a reliable champion of Karimov and other former East Bloc tyrants. Following the 2005 Andijan massacre, Starr went on NPR and echoed Karimov’s justification of the crackdown as necessary because Islamic militants were behind the demonstration. CACI later co-sponsored an event (along with the Hudson Institute) that debuted a short video offering the Karimov regime’s take on the Andijan crackdown. An account of the event at said that Starr “sought to undermine” critical reports about Andijan by saying journalists “had an anti-government agenda” and “were lying.”

CACI refused to provide me with a current list of donors, but over the years they have included a number of U.S. oil companies active in the region; Newmont Mining, which has big interests in Uzbekistan; and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Intelligence Agency. Caspian governments have funded individual scholars at CACI, which has also boasted in a brochure about the Institute of its “close contacts with the Washington embassies of the various countries in the region.”

In his approving comments about Caspian governments Starr — an advisor on Soviet affairs to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — sounds like one part old-line Soviet apparatchik and one part Borat. One former student of Starr’s told me that he became notorious in the classroom “for his predictable whitewashing of each and every central Asian despot” — even Saparmurat Niyazov — the former leader of Turkmenistan who built a cult of personality to rival Stalin’s and who named himself “Turkmenbashi the Great.” So ardent was Starr in talking up Niyazov that students took to calling him “Starrmenbashi.”

Starr has been just as big a fan of Turkmenistan’s new leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who won office in 2007 with 89 percent of the vote in an election following his predecessor’s death. “I am in complete amazement from everything I have seen here!” the State News Agency of Turkmenistan quoted Starr as saying while touring the country in November of 2010.

Last February, Starr gave a talk at CACI in which he lauded Berdymukhamedov’s commitment to openness and technology. This was less than two months after Turkmenistan had shut down the country’s largest mobile network. Starr also praised Berdymukhamedov’s books — which include a two-volume opus on medicinal plants — which he said had allowed him to “understand the logic of the current unprecedented successes of the Turkmen government.”

In a reply to a request for comment, Starr said that the purpose of his trip to Turkmenistan “was to conduct research on a book on the 8th to the 11th century, to visit archaeological sites connected with that work and to consult with several scholars who have conducted research on the period in question. My trip was paid for by CACI, which receives no money from Turkmenistan or any firm working there, and by me personally.”

Funding friendly commentary

Former Soviet interests have also made good use of other well-known Washington institutions to buff their images. Victor Pinchuk, the Ukrainian oligarch, sits on the board of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and is one of its largest donors. Pinchuk grew rich by buying state-run firms privatized during the 1994 to 2005 reign of President Leonid Kuchma. It has frequently been alleged that Pinchuk was the beneficiary of sweetheart deals, a suspicion encouraged by the fact that he is married to Kuchma’s daughter.

Peterson Institute senior fellow Anders Aslund wrote a book, “How Ukraine Became a Market Economy and Democracy,” which included criticism of Kuchma but on balance presented a flattering portrait. One section, called “Kuchma Saved His Country,” included an interview with the former president, who replied to penetrating questions from Aslund such as, “What was your greatest deed?” and, “What else are you most proud of?”

Last May, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by Aslund that sharply criticized the “sinister” rule of the current government, which he said had used “the judicial system to repress opponents.” He noted in this regard that prosecutors had “surprisingly” charged Kuchma with involvement in the murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze in 2000.

Aslund’s general criticism of the current government of Ukraine is not without merit, but his byline identified him only as a senior fellow at Peterson. Nowhere was it disclosed that he and his think tank receive substantial funding from Pinchuk, whom he portrayed in the piece as a political martyr. Furthermore, Pinchuk’s father-in-law has long been suspected of ordering the journalist’s murder. Whether he is ultimately proved guilty or not, there was little “surprising” about Kuchma being charged in the case.

“In no way does [Pinchuk] try to influence the views expressed by me or other members of the Peterson Institute,” Aslund told me by email. “Obviously, before accepting grants from anybody, you make sure that it will not influence your views or cause any other conflict of interest.”

(Disclosure: Pinchuk has also contributed to programs funded by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, which funds some of my work.)

Kazakhstan is yet another repressive former Soviet republic that has found strong advocates in Washington. In 2008, CACI published three upbeat reports on economic and political developments in the country without mentioning that the Kazakh government had paid for them through one of its Washington lobbying firms, APCO Worldwide.

Last April Kazakhstan held an election in which long-time ruler and de facto president-for-life Nursultan Nazarbayev won 95.5 percent of the vote. Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe noted “serious irregularities.” Two officials from Freedom House described the election, as “devoid of any real choice, much as in the days of Soviet rule.”

But Margarita Assenova, executive director of the U.S.-based Institute for New Democracies (IND), which describes itself as a “nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting good governance,” had a sharply different view.

“The people credit the wise leadership of Nazarbayev for peace, stability, economic development and ethnic harmony in Kazakhstan,” said Assenova of the outcome. The Kazakh government cited her statement as proof that the voting was fair.

Unmentioned in the statement was that the IND’s connections to the Kazakh government. According to its most recent Internal Revenue Service filing, IND seeks to “strengthen U.S.-Kazakh relations.” The documents also show the Kazakh government had previously paid the Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) $290,000 to write reports about alleged democratic reforms under Nazarbayev.

The IND and CSIS also hosted a Washington conference on Kazakhstan that included a few critical voices but was stacked with pro-Nazarbayev viewpoints. The IND published a report on the conference that sanitized criticism of the Kazakh government. (Assenova did not reply to requests for comment.)

The credibility of Kazakhstan’s election was also vouched for by a group of observers sent by the International Tax and Investment Center (ITIC), which is headquartered in Washington and has offices in Kazakhstan. The group is headed by Daniel Witt, a former vice president of Citizens for a Sound Economy, the predecessor organization to Dick Armey’s conservative pro-business group FreedomWorks, which helped spur the Tea Party. The result of the balloting, he said, “bespeaks a yearning to maintain national stability and political continuity in Kazakhstan under the leadership that has delivered growing prosperity to all.”

Though it claims to be an “independent” research center, ITIC’s sponsors include numerous oil companies with stakes in Kazakhstan, as well as the Kazakhstan Petroleum Association. The group’s website even carries an endorsement from Nazarbayev. “ITIC has always insisted upon complete academic freedom for our observers,” Witt told Transitions Online Newsletter, which reported on the organization’s observer role. ITIC also whitewashed Kazakhstan’s 2004 parliamentary and 2005 presidential election.

Frederick Starr, the intrepid professor, served as an observer on both of those missions.

Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations.