Israeli Disinformation Expert Linked to Faked Bank Accounts in Serbian Smear Campaign
A leaked report sheds light on the source of a mysterious media attack on the Serbian president’s political rival.
Until late last year, a mention of Macedonia in the halls of power in Washington, DC, would most likely elicit only shrugs.
But things have changed. In recent months, America’s right has become fervently interested in what one writer termed a “battle royale” within the tiny Balkan country. On one side is Macedonia’s conservative former ruling party, portrayed by its newfound U.S. supporters as a staunch defender of free markets and traditional morality. On the other, they say, are nefarious left-wing opponents backed by billionaire financier George Soros.
Conservative media outlets, such as Breitbart and Fox News, as well as the right-wing Heritage Foundation, have devoted considerable coverage to Soros’ alleged meddling in Macedonia. And more than a dozen Republican congressmen have written critical letters questioning the U.S. embassy and Ambassador Jess Baily for working with Soros-linked NGOs.
Behind these headlines lies another story: a determined lobbying effort in the United States by VMRO-DPMNE, the scandal-plagued nationalist party that formerly ruled the country, an investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Macedonia’s NOVA TV has found. Senior VMRO members and government officials are among hundreds of people questioned since 2015 by a special prosecutor set up to investigate alleged crimes including the illegal mass surveillance of thousands of Macedonians, electoral fraud and large-scale corruption.
Since last year, senior VMRO officials have personally lobbied conservative U.S. politicians and media outlets in an attempt to discredit their domestic opponents and push the anti-Soros narrative, according to interviews and publicly available documents.
Macedonia’s government also hired a Republican-leaning lobbyist, Mercury Public Affairs, for work that may have been for party interests. Mercury also appears to have obscured its Macedonia-related work in the United States by using an apparent front group – a likely violation of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
VMRO’s appeal to the American right follows an earlier, and somewhat more transparent, effort to influence decision makers under the centrist administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama. Filings and confidential transaction records obtained by OCCRP and NOVA show that, between 2015 and early 2017, the party spent more than a million dollars on four U.S.-based lobbyists and public relations firms, three of them aligned with the Democratic Party.
All this has pushed Macedonia onto the agenda in DC. Most recently, it prompted U.S. conservatives to join in on an anti-Soros line of attack favored by Russia and Europe’s authoritarian nationalists. This friendly attention has, in turn, been picked up by media loyal to VMRO in Macedonia, as well as by Russian state media.
VMRO’s influence campaign came amid a protracted political crisis in Macedonia.
The conservative party, which came to power in 2006 under former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, cut taxes and pushed for membership in NATO and the European Union. But it also muzzled critical media, intimidated the civil service, and pursued projects tainted by allegations of graft, such as a baroque revamp of the capital, Skopje, that has cost over US$ 760 million dollars, according to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN).
The country was pushed into the crisis in February 2015, when the leader of the then-opposition Social Democrats, Zoran Zaev, released recordings that allegedly showed that Gruevski had ordered the illegal wiretapping of over 20,000 Macedonians.
Amid street protests, the European Union brokered a deal that saw Gruevski step down, fresh elections scheduled for 2016, and an independent special prosecutor established. The special prosecution began investigating alleged wrongdoing by Gruevski and other key VMRO figures.
The elections, held in December, resulted in a hung parliament. The country was without a government for five months until Zaev finally formed a coalition government with two ethnic Albanian parties on May 31. The interim period was tense, featuring regular protests and the April 27 storming of the parliament by nationalist protesters who beat Zaev and other lawmakers.
Despite its new government, Macedonia remains fragile because VMRO officials “have a lot to lose,” said Florian Bieber, a professor of Southeast European Studies at Austria’s Graz University.
“Losing office means they run the risk of going to jail,” he said. “Any investigations into wrongdoing will be undermined by accusations of a lack of patriotism or of outside interference.”
During the crisis, VMRO and its supporters pursued a concerted anti-Soros campaign, seeing in the U.S.-based philanthropist a powerful foreign patron of their left-leaning opponents. In December, Gruevski called for the “desorosization” of the country, and demonstrators marched against Baily, the U.S. ambassador, for allegedly working with Soros-affiliated NGOs. Shortly after, VMRO supporters launched a “global initiative” called “Stop Operation Soros,” complete with an English-language website.
This has gelled with Russia’s line on Macedonia. Both Russian and Serbian intelligence agencies are at work in the country, spreading propaganda and promoting nationalists in a bid to push it away from NATO membership, OCCRP and partners reported on June 4 after obtaining leaked Macedonian counterintelligence documents.
Since the start of Macedonia’s crisis in 2015, Russia’s government has publicly backed Gruevski, attacked his opponents, and raised the specter of Western interference in the country’s affairs. Russian state media have also warned of a Soros-backed “fifth column” active in Macedonia.
The campaign is part of a wider anti-Soros movement promoted by authoritarian governments in Europe and right-wing populists in the United States. The Hungarian and Polish governments have gone after Soros-funded groups and institutions. In Macedonia’s neighbor, Serbia, nationalist media outlets have attacked Soros as being behind a plan to destabilize the country.
A March conference in Hungary’s capital that brought together populist activists adopted the name of the Macedonian group “Stop Operation Soros.” Ljupcho Zlatev, a right-wing journalist from Macedonia who attended the conference, told OCCRP that Soros was picked as a target because he personifies a liberal, globalist threat to traditional nationalism.
“George Soros is not the only one, but he is a symbol,” Zlatev said. “You can’t go and protest against the British Council or the Swiss development agency, you know.”
Amid its intense conflict with domestic political enemies, VMRO set its sights on the United States, where senior party officials personally met conservative politicians and journalists.
Key to the effort, according to interviews, has been Vladimir Gjorcev, a young and zealous VMRO politician with strong links to conservatives abroad, who traveled to the U.S. several times in 2016 and 2017.
“That’s how the story came to me. Vlad from the Macedonian parliament lobbying on this,” Lee Stranahan, a journalist who wrote about the topic for Breitbart in February, said by phone.
“He was going out talking to people about the situation who didn’t know much about it. I didn’t know much about it,” Stranahan said.
“When you write for a conservative site, any time when you put George Soros’ name in the headline is a good day,” he said, adding that he believed his reporting independently verified Gjorcev’s claims.
Gjorcev referred several requests for interviews to VMRO’s communications center, which did not reply to requests for comment.
At the same time, Mercury Public Affairs, the Republican-aligned lobbying firm, signed a murky – and possibly illegal – contract involving Macedonia.
FARA filings with the U.S. Department of Justice starting in February show the firm to have been engaged by a New York-registered nonprofit corporation, Libertas Foundation, on a $15,000-a-month contract for “Governmental, external and public affairs specific and/or individualized to Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia and Greece.”
Libertas appears to exist in name only. The organization was founded in August, just one day before Mercury filed documents with the U.S. Congress declaring their lobbying work. Libertas is registered as sharing the same address in Brooklyn as the accounting firm that helped incorporate it.
According to the FARA filings, the head – and sole disclosed officer – of Libertas is Bekhzod Isakdjanov, about whom little is known. According to an analysis of social media accounts linked to his declared contact details, he is a 38-year-old of Uzbek origin living in Brooklyn. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
There is also evidence tying Mercury directly to Macedonia. A public procurement declaration made public in May shows that Macedonia’s government agreed in November to pay $144,000 to Mercury’s UK branch for public relations work.
It is unclear if this UK deal is linked to the Mercury-Libertas contract, or if it’s for other work. If they are linked, then there is an unexplained three-month gap between Mercury beginning its work in August and the declared signing of the contract in November – raising the question of who was paying, and how, in the meantime.
The revelation that Macedonia’s government paid Mercury’s UK branch also raises the prospect that VMRO was using taxpayer money for party interests.
A VMRO executive committee member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told OCCRP and partners that the lobbying firm worked for the party in the U.S. – and that Gjorcev was the point man.
“I don’t know who set up Libertas Foundation, but I know that Mercury works for VMRO,” the executive committee member said. “And not just VMRO. There has been some coordination with other interest groups from other countries,” he said, without elaborating.
When asked if Mercury had done work for VMRO, Mercury partner and former Republican congressman Vin Weber said: “We did some work for them but I was not involved in it, so I’d have to refer you to another partner at our firm.”
Ayal Frank, a senior vice president at the firm, said “Libertas is a U.S. NGO” and that Mercury had complied with FARA regulations.
Asked about the foreign principals behind Libertas, Frank ended the interview.
“Now I’m going to have to hang up on you, ok?”
Mercury did not reply to follow-up questions sent by email.
Craig Holman, a lobbying expert at the Washington-based watchdog Public Citizen, said the Libertas-Mercury contract “could be a felony violation.”
“It’s very suspicious activity. FARA is abundantly clear that foreign principals are not permitted to hide behind non-profit front groups. And it is the obligation of the foreign agents, in this case Mercury, to fully disclose the foreign principals that are behind the lobbying effort,” he said.
This is not the first time Mercury and Weber have fallen afoul of FARA rules. Recent reports show that for years it failed to disclose its lobbying, alongside former Donald Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, on behalf of a think tank linked to Ukraine’s pro-Russian Party of Regions. Following the reports, Mercury finally disclosed the work in late April.
Given the Ukraine example, Mercury’s work for Libertas shows the firm “at the very best is acting sloppily, and at the worst may be participating in concealing the foreign principal,” Holman said, adding that the Justice Department rarely prosecutes FARA violations.
It is uncertain what Mercury may have done for Libertas.
Adam Ereli, a former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain who was vice chairman of Mercury from 2013 to 2016, wrote at least two articles about Macedonia. The first, in Handelsblatt Global, came out on July 20, shortly before Mercury commenced its lobbying work for Libertas (Ereli was listed as a lobbyist for Libertas in an August filing to Congress). Another article sharply critical of Macedonia’s special prosecutor was published in The Hill in November, shortly after Ereli left Mercury. Neither article mentions Mercury.
In a phone interview, Ereli said the articles were not part of his lobbying work.
“I wrote them because I’m interested in Macedonia,” he said.
The biggest impact of VMRO’s lobbying came in the U.S. Congress, where more than a dozen representatives and senators signed on to letters critical of Soros and his activity in Macedonia.
The lobbying started as early as last year’s U.S. presidential election season.
On Oct. 5, as Macedonia’s election loomed, Gjorcev, the senior VMRO politician, organized a meeting between Gruevski and Chris Smith, a Republican representative from New Jersey, according to two sources familiar with the matter. A video posted online shows Gjorcev at the meeting between Gruevski and Smith.
Speaking to a Macedonian film crew on the forthcoming poll, Smith warned: “Some on the left are prone to disrupt elections… to falsify and to come up with allegations that really have no standing in fact.”
The representative took the lead in organizing a letter signed by six other congressmen and sent in February to the U.S. Government Accountability Office that requested an investigation into American agencies’ work with Soros groups in Macedonia, according to Jameson Cunningham, a spokesman for another signatory, Rep. Randy Hultgren. Representatives for Smith did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
Mike Lee, a Republican senator from Utah, oversaw the dispatch of two letters, one in January to U.S. Ambassador Baily in Macedonia, and the other, signed with five other senators, in March to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Indications are that - as the Mercury contract suggests - Macedonia was not the only country involved.
Conn Carroll, a spokesman for Lee, said the letters were drafted after the senator was “approached by a group of legislators from a number of foreign nations, including Macedonia” and that “at least three continents were represented.” No lobbyists were involved in setting up any meetings, he said.
The Heritage Foundation, a prominent right-wing American think tank, has also been deeply involved in the Macedonia-Soros story. Since the start of the year, Heritage and its publication The Daily Signal have published more than twelve articles on the topic. At a Heritage event on April 25, Lee criticized American cooperation with Soros initiatives abroad. Judicial Watch, a conservative legal advocacy group, also announced that month that it was suing the State Department and the US Agency for International Development to obtain records of Soros activity in Macedonia.
Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at Heritage, told OCCRP it was “ludicrous” to think that the foundation’s work was linked to any lobbying effort.
However, there is evidence of personal links between Heritage and VMRO figures. Filip Jolevski, the son of Macedonia’s former Washington ambassador, Zoran Jolevski, worked for Heritage for a year between 2013 and 2014. The elder Jolevski met Heritage’s then-president, Jim DeMint, in July 2014, with both men sporting neckties bearing the foundation’s logo.
VMRO’s appeal to the American right followed a more public campaign that targeted the Obama administration and other U.S. decision-makers towards the end of the president’s tenure.
After the EU-brokered 2015 deal that saw Gruevski’s VMRO government step down from power, the party launched a spending spree in the United States to lobby for its interests. FARA filings show that it hired three lobbying and public relations firms: The Daschle Group and New Partners, both companies aligned with the Democratic Party; and Global Security and Innovative Strategies (GSIS), a security advisory firm.
Records of VMRO’s financial transactions obtained by OCCRP and NOVA show the party paid at least $721,000 to New Partners and GSIS between October 2015 and April 2016. FARA filings for the Daschle Group show they received $432,637 between January 2016 and January 2017.
According to FARA filings, the Daschle Group organized meetings with senior State Department officials and congressmen. GSIS organized meetings in January 2016 between Gruevski and Pete Sessions, the Republican chair of the House Rules Committee, and Alan Bersin, a senior Homeland Security official.
New Partners, which worked for VMRO for just over a month in late 2015 and early 2016, wrote press releases and placed two op-eds on the party’s behalf in U.S. media, according to the firm’s FARA filings.
Nathan Daschle, president of The Daschle Group, declined to comment, except to say that the company stopped working with VMRO in February. GSIS, which concluded its contract with VMRO in 2016, declined to comment.
Cara Morris Stern, who previously handled VMRO’s contract with New Partners but has since become a founding partner of New Paradigm Strategy Group , said the company’s work complied with FARA and that the firm “wouldn’t have paid people to write things.”
The VMRO transaction records also contain a previously undisclosed relationship between VMRO and a U.S. political firm: $290,700 in payments to AKPD Message and Media, a political media company established by Obama’s former chief strategist, David Axelrod.
It is unclear what work AKPD did for the party. AKPD has not filed under FARA. Joe Goldberg, a vice president of the firm, declined to answer questions sent by email.
VMRO’s Macedonian lobbying effort hasn’t just been about influencing Americans. The press coverage and think tank events concerning Macedonia that were organized in the United States have been readily picked up by Macedonia’s pro-VMRO mainstream media and repurposed for domestic propaganda purposes. Russian state media, which has targeted the region with local language editions, has joined in.
“All VMRO-controlled media know about paid articles before they’re published,” the VMRO executive committee member said. “Our communications center communicates them, then editors receive them, sometimes even translated, and their job is to republish them and push them in the news as much as they can, for example by doing follow-up debates with our paid experts.”
This dates back to the early days of the lobbying campaign. In December 2015, VMRO’s then-lobbyist New Partners placed an article in The Hill by Democrat-aligned media consultant Michael Meehan accusing the then-opposition of attacking the country’s “free press.” The story was picked up on the following day, becoming a leading item in more than a dozen media outlets loyal to VMRO.
Gruevski and Gjorcev met Meehan, the CEO of Squared Communications, last October. Meehan did not reply to requests for comment.
The November op-ed by Ereli, the former vice president of Mercury, had a similar effect. The article, also published in The Hill, accused the country’s special prosecutor of “polarizing her office, doing the work of the opposition party, and simply pushing their agenda.” The piece was picked up by a slew of outlets, including Puls 24, a website owned by VMRO loyalist Filip Petrovski.
The letters from U.S. congressmen that criticized Soros touched off another explosion of Macedonian and Russian media attention.
On March 14, Mike Lee and five other senators wrote to Secretary of State Tillerson, in the third such letter by congressmen. The following day, conservative cable news channel Fox News carried the story on its website and on television. Over four days, Kremlin outlets RT and Sputnik carried it at least eight times on their sites in English, Serbian and Romanian. The story was on high rotation in Macedonia.
In a March article that accompanied the Heritage Foundation’s heavy coverage of the letters, senior fellow Gonzalez fought back at criticism that U.S. Republicans were aligning with Kremlin propaganda.
The title of the article read:“We don’t have to choose between Putin and George Soros.”
This article was changed on 23 June 2017 to correctly describe a reference to a March 24 article by Mike Gonzalez of the Heritage Foundation.
Additional reporting by Bermet Talant, Vanja Lakic and Jonny Wrate.
This story is the second in our series Spooks and Spin: Information War in the Balkans. Our first story, on Russian and Serbian spy operations, can be found here.
A story on BuzzFeed based on reporting by OCCRP and partners appeared on 12 June 2017, and can be found here.
Disclosure: OCCRP is partly funded by Soros’ Open Society Foundations, and maintains an independent editorial policy. NOVA was founded with the help of Soros grants, but does not currently receive Soros funding.