A freshly published investigation has linked a disgraced election campaign manager for U.S. President Donald Trump with influence-peddling for the Kremlin in Kyrgyzstan, but the report leaves many questions unanswered about how that lobbying actually worked.
The article, published on August 22 by a Russia-focused media start-up called Proyekt, claims Paul Manafort was active in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 in an attempt to get the newly appointed government to close a U.S. airbase outside the capital, Bishkek.
Manafort was at the time on the books of Russian metals tycoon Oleg Deripaska — a businessman whose aluminum company was committing to major investments in Central Asia in the mid-2000s.
Interest in Manafort’s past has resurged this week after a jury in Virginia found him guilty on eight counts of financial crimes, including tax fraud, bank fraud and failure to divulge details of a foreign bank account. The trial had dwelled in particular on the large sums he earned consulting for a political party in Ukraine with Russia-friendly leanings.
Manafort has an extensive background advising and lobbying on behalf of governments and politicians in developing and sometimes deeply authoritarian countries — such as then-Zaire, Nigeria and the Philippines — but his association with Deripaska, which reportedly dates to around 2004, plunged him deep into affairs in the post-Soviet space.
Proyekt has reported, citing unnamed sources, that Manafort’s point-man for work in Kyrgyzstan was Konstantin Kilimnik, who also ran the Ukraine side of his business. In its profile on Kilimnik, news website Politico described him as a graduate of a Soviet military school whose first job was a Russian military interpreter. When Kilimnik got a job with the International Republican Institute, an American-backed democracy-promotion outfit, in Moscow in the mid-1990s, his colleagues there routinely joked that he was an agent with Russian military intelligence.
The lobbying in Kyrgyzstan is said to have taken place in the wake of the 2005 Tulip Revolution, which led to the ascent of the deeply venal and authoritarian-minded President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. In the early days of the post-revolution period, there was considerable speculation about how the domestic ferment could impact geopolitics. Since 2001, the U.S. operated the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan as a waypoint for troops traveling to and from nearby Afghanistan and as a base for military refueling aircraft. Russia had circumspectly given its approval for Washington to install military facilities in a region it considers it strategic backyard, but unease at that presence was quick to follow.
Proyekt cited an unidentified Kilimnik associate as stating that pleading with the new Kyrgyz government to close the U.S. military base was among the tasks set by Manafort’s team.
“I heard about Kyrgyzstan — they went there to strengthen Russia’s position,” one source close to Kilimnik told Proyekt.
Manafort has in the past denied that his work for Deripaska was intended to advance Russia’s interests, but reporting by the Associated Press has suggested otherwise. Memos from 2005 obtained by the news agency show his lobbying strategies had explicitly political objectives.
“We are now of the belief that this model can greatly benefit the Putin Government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitment to success,” Manafort said in a note to Deripaska obtained by the AP.
While Proyekt volunteers no more details on the Kyrgyzstan lobbying, other evidence indicates that Manafort retained at least a tangential connection with the Central Asian nation, which sunk into ever greater levels of corruption under Bakiyev, who was himself ousted in a violent revolt in April 2010.
Last year, allegations surfaced in Ukraine that money was paid to Manafort by the pro-Russia Party of Regions through a notorious Bishkek-based lender called AsiaUniversalBank.
In a 2012 report titled Grave Secrecy, transparency watchdog Global Witness said that “billions of dollars of suspicious transactions” had been processed via AUB before landing in shell companies in offshore destinations and Western bank accounts. AUB was nationalized and taken apart shortly after the 2010 revolution.
If there is substance in those allegations, which were not referenced in Proyekt’s report, it might suggest Manafort and other intermediaries had ties to Bakiyev’s son, Maxim, whose immediate circle ran AUB.
Maxim Bakiyev, however, was by all accounts no Russian patsy — rather a shady operator who would deal with the highest bidder. A leaked U.S. State Department cable describes him as somebody who “could still be an ally on issues important to the [U.S. government], ranging from his support for the [air base's] continued operations to economic reform.” If anything, funneling business through Maxim Bakiyev-related entities will have extended the life of the Bishkek base, not shortened it.
On the business front though, Deripaska was making waves elsewhere in Central Asia. In 2004, his RusAl aluminum giant entered a $2 billion agreement to build the gigantic Roghun Dam in neighboring Tajikistan. Given the intense hazards entailed in getting involved in such costly projects in corruption-riddled countries like Tajikistan, there is every reason the investment was not just blessed by but also actively encouraged by the Kremlin, as a way to deepen Russia’s strategic grip over a former Soviet satellite.
In the end, the Roghun deal produced little but complicated legal acrimony, however, and Tajikistan is now trying going it alone.
If Deripaska had similar plans to acquire or build strategic assets in Kyrgyzstan, which has also long planned to build mega-hydropower dams, they never materialized.
A $300 million loan was issued on preferential terms to Kyrgyzstan by Russia in 2009 for the purposes of investments in the hydropower sector. This was widely viewed at the time as an inducement for Bishkek to finally close the U.S. base. Bakiyev duly called time on the base, but then subsequently had a change of heart, much to Moscow’s chagrin. The younger Bakiyev had allegedly embezzled much of the loan.
In 2012, the Kyrgyz government reached a new agreement with Moscow to build two sets of major hydroelectric power facilities. But the contracts were awarded to two state-affiliated Russian companies with no connection to Deripaska. In the end, neither contract was honored.
According to Proyekt, Deripaska's representative denied all knowledge of the Kyrgyzstan lobbying when contacted by their journalists. A representative for Manafort did not reply at all.
Chris Rickleton is an Almaty-based journalist.