Brussels is to wave goodbye to Russian lobbyists under new sanctions, ending a 20-year era of influence peddling in Europe.
The Russia PR ban is included in the small print of more drastic EU measures, including an oil embargo, due to enter into force later this month.
“It shall be prohibited to provide, directly or indirectly …. management consulting or public relations services to: the government of Russia; or legal persons, entities or bodies established in Russia”, according to a European Commission proposal dated 4 May and seen by EUobserver.
This covers “advisory, guidance and operational assistance services provided to [Russian] businesses for business policy and strategy”.
It also covers “advisory, guidance and operational services related to improving the image of the [Russian] clients and their relations with the general public and other institutions”.
It’s hard to pin an exact figure on how much Russian lobbying is worth in Brussels alone.
It’s just €3.5 million a year, according to self-declared Russian entities in the EU Commission’s 2022 transparency register.
Six Russian state firms alone spent €2.35 million in 2019 to 2020, according to civil society group Transparency International EU.
Pro-Kremlin lobbying was in its golden age some 15 years ago when Russian president Vladimir Putin was still a smiling face in the pro-Western G8 club.
G-Plus, the top pro-Russian lobby firm in Brussels back then, was raking in several million euros a year by itself and some EU Commission officials were trading in their €120,000 a year EU jobs to earn as much as €480,000 a year in its ranks.
Lobby wars in Europe reached fever pitch when Putin invaded Georgia in 2008.
And the Kremlin changed tactics after first invading Ukraine in 2014, when it began spending hundreds of millions of euros a year on TV and online propaganda instead.
But even so, it was “shocking” for some campaigners that paid pro-Russian influencers were still able to meet EU policymakers as things stood.
“I think this [the proposed Russia PR prohibition] is recognition that lobbying from Russia has been a danger,” Vitor Teixeira from Transparency International EU said.
“It’s the end of an era for Russian lobbying in Brussels,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any going back from here because now there’s a recognition of the danger it can pose,” he added.
It [the PR ban] was “happening 20 years too late, [but] it’s a huge and important step to stop these agents of influence for Putin running around and infiltrating our institutions”, said Bill Browder, a British human-rights campaigner who has battled Russian lobbyists in Brussels, London, and Washington.
“It would be key that EU proposals ban all lobbyists … from representing the interests of repressive regimes such as Russia,” Vicky Cann from pro-transparency group Corporate Europe Observatory said.
Exemption for lawyers
Russia also works with several law firms in the EU capital and in the EU courts in Luxembourg.
Legal services were pointedly excluded from the EU Commission proposal, even though it extended the PR ban to accountancy and other service sectors.
The draft EU sanctions protected “the exercise of the right of defence in judicial proceedings and the right to an effective legal remedy”.
“The exemption for law is logical,” Andreas Geiger, a partner in the Alber & Geiger law firm in the EU capital said.
“You can’t revoke the right to legal defence in a democracy. Also for sanctions,” he said.
But some law firms blurred the line between legal work and broader advocacy in a way that might make it hard for the EU to enforce its crackdown on Russian interests, he indicated.
How come “going to court against [EU] sanctions is fine but telling the Commission and [EU] council the same stuff is not?,” Geiger said. “What about lawyers doing lobbying? Impossible to differentiate,” he said.