But the effort can’t stop there. The new Manafort indictment alleges that his operation relied on a network of lobbyists, attorneys, offshore banks, and think tanks. This is a common pattern. Many law firms and bankers provide similar services well within the boundaries of the law. Think tanks such the Dialogue of Civilizations Institute, in Berlin, which is bankrolled by a close Putin ally and where Gusenbauer sits on the board, receive funding through legal channels. (The institute denies any direct connection to the Kremlin.)
Mandatory transparency and awareness-building help leverage one of the key assets of open societies: the power of public debate. Exposing the tools that authoritarian influence-peddlers use could very well curb their freedom. One way to do this would be to compel consultants, along with public-relations and accounting firms and other companies competing for public tenders and government contracts in the EU and the United States, to disclose any business relationship, past or present, with clients working on behalf of authoritarian states. Under such a system, lobbyists would also have to disclose such relationships, as would nonprofits, sports clubs, faith groups, universities, and political parties.
In this context, law firms pose a particularly thorny challenge because of client confidentiality rules. The latest Manafort indictment alleged that a U.S. law firm received $4 million to write a report on the trial of Yanukovych’s rival Yulia Tymoshenko, among other things. Other cases have surfaced wherein former officials used their role as attorneys to lobby on behalf of clients representing authoritarian systems. As Der Spiegel detailed, Otto Schily, a former interior minister of Germany who now works as an attorney, represented the interests of the Kazakh regime, channeling his payment through a Kazakh foundation that an Austrian court found to be a front group for the Kazakh intelligence service. Der Spiegel’s report alleged his tasks mostly involved lobbying, not legal work in the strict sense.
Transparency rules can help raise the costs for western enablers who currently have little to fear from the court of public opinion. But not all manners of influencing would be exposed through these transparency measures, especially influence-peddling operations run through clandestine political and financial channels (as was the case with Manafort). To expose all this, the public needs more cooperation “across the boundaries of journalism, academic and policy research,” as the researchers Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw have written. And where there are legal breaches, investigative authorities need to step in. The Mueller probe has shown what a well-resourced investigation can bring to light. “If one sends a team of 30 top-level prosecutors to any big lobbying or political consulting firm with international clients, there could be a lot of surprises,” a person familiar with Manafort’s operations told the Financial Times last year.
A key aim of the Mueller investigation is to shed light on the influence operations that tainted America’s 2016 presidential election. But the importance of what he’s now alleging goes much broader than that. Getting to the bottom of the morass of authoritarian enablers like Manafort is now an essential front in the defense of liberal democracy worldwide.