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16 April, 2018  ▪  Olha Vorozhbyt

The Hapsburg Group: Old Europe at Yanukovych's service?

New details of the accusations against Paul Manafort reveal the side jobs of retired European high-ranking officials

He served the shortest term as Chancellor of Austria in the country's post-war history, although his entire professional life had been dedicated to his Social Democratic Party. Western media include him in lists of those who have advised authoritarian leaders, in particular the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Prior to the last parliamentary elections in Vienna, he advised his colleague, Social Democratic Party chairman Christian Kern, to use the services of Israeli political strategist Tal Silberstein, which transformed the election campaign into the dirtiest in Austrian history. He first came to prominence in Ukraine as head of the supervisory board of the Sustainable Ukraine Foundation, run by former Prime Minister Mykola Azarov's son. Now, everything indicates that he led the so-called Hapsburg Group – a group of "super VIP" European politicians that Paul Manafort hired to whitewash the image of the Yanukovych regime in the West. All this is only a small detail in the biography of former Austrian chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer.

The charge against Paul Manafort, published on the website of the US Department of Justice, refers to the so-called third part of Manafort and Richard Gates' lobbying scheme in favour of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. In 2012, Manafort hired a group of former "top-level European politicians" to voice positions that were beneficial to Ukraine in the EU and US. Informally, they were dubbed the Hapsburg Group, evidently bearing in mind the common history of the politicians' home countries with the Habsburg dynasty, although the spelling was changed a little.

According to Manafort, these, in his own words "super VIP" and "extremely influential", European politicians would be able to act informally, without any visible link to the then Ukrainian government. The group was managed by politician A, a former European chancellor who coordinated his efforts with Manafort. In order to hire these politicians, a non-governmental organisation was created that allegedly acted according to Manafort's instructions. The charge states that in 2013 or close to that time, the group, alongside politician A, went to Washington in order to provide lobbying services to politicians and congressmen there. So who are these politicians and did they have direct contact with Manafort and Yanukovych?

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Since only two European countries have the position of "chancellor" in their governments, it does not require a lot of detective work. Although the document published by the US Department of Justice does not mention any names, media outlets around the world immediately began to report that the group of lobbyists was presumably headed by former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer. Subsequently, official confirmation was found in the FARA database (Foreign Agents Registration Act – a statute providing for the registration of all agents acting on behalf of a foreign state in the US). In particular, it contains information about former Republican congressman Vin Weber's lobbying company Mercury LLC, which appears in special prosecutor Robert Mueller's investigation as it was hired by Paul Manafort to provide services to the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, a Brussels-based NGO. The main objective of the latter was to improve the image of the Yanukovych regime in the West, although officially it was presented under the guise of rapprochement between Ukraine and the EU. The centre was led by German Ina Kirsch. In particular, the Mercury LLC report for FARA states that the company decided to launch a series of awareness raising events and meetings with congressmen, representatives of think tanks and the media in order to highlight the work of the Ukrainian government towards joining the pantheon of Western democracies. Their speakers were representatives of the Ukrainian government and experts from the EU, including ex-president of Poland Aleksander Kwaśniewski, former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer and former Italian Prime Minister and European Commission head, Romano Prodi. These activities from Mercury LLC were commissioned by the aforementioned Centre in Brussels.

Gusenbauer, however, denies the allegations that he worked for Yanukovych's regime: "I was never involved in activities for Yanukovych or the Party of Regions," the ex-chancellor of Austrian stated to the APA when the first suspicions and allegations came to light. In 2012-2013, he was allegedly interested in bringing Ukraine closer to the EU. He added that he had taken part in events in Paris, Brussels and Berlin, so that the EU would conclude an association agreement with Ukraine, but after it became apparent in 2013 that there was no perspective of this happening, he stopped working on it. Gusenbauer also said that his activities were "rewarded", but did not specify anything about the financial details. On the whole, it is difficult to disagree with the Austrian Chancellor when he says that he did not work directly for the Party of Regions and Viktor Yanukovych. He had direct contact only with the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine and the American lobbyist organisation Mercury LLC, although Manafort's charge also suggested that the "former European Chancellor" acted "in concert with Manafort".

The Austrian magazine Profil.at has calculated that in 2012-2013 Gusenbauer acted as a paid adviser at a minimum of 6-7 events in the EU. He participated in most of them alongside Romano Prodi and Aleksander Kwaśniewski. Indeed, on September 20, 2012, Gusenbauer, Prodi and others discussed the topic of "Ukraine on the road to European integration" at the Gartenhotel Altmannsdorf hotel. Gusenbauer was represented there as chairman of the Renner Institute, the political academy of the Austrian Social Democrats (leadership of this organisation was passed to the current head of the Social Democratic Party, Christian Kern, last December). As Profil writes, press releases on the institute's website reference a discussion between Gusenbauer and Prodi during this event.

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In October 2012, Gusenbauer, Prodi and Kwaśniewski, as well as Günter Verheugen, former EU Commissioner for Enlargement in the Romano Prodi Commission, participated in a meeting initiated by the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine entitled "Ukraine and the EU: Elections, Integration and Economic Prospects" . It was organised by the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) analytical centre. In November of that same year, three of the aforementioned politicians attended the conference "Ukraine: A Strategic Crossroads for Europe". The event was also covered by The Ukrainian Week in an article that suspected Gusenbauer of lobbying for Viktor Yanukovych. Another event, according to Profil, took place the following March in Rome, and the same trio was again present. On 5-6 June 2013, Gusenbauer was in Washington, where he met American congressmen alongside representatives of Mercury LLC. Romano Prodi went to Washington in the spring for the same reason. In June, Gusenbauer moderated the discussion "Ukraine on the Road to Vilnius: Prospects for Signing an Association Agreement" in Brussels, in which Romano Prodi also participated. In September 2013, the three politicians met again to participate in a conference on Ukraine in Paris. The Renner Institute was an official co-organiser of this event.

Like Alfred Gusenbauer, Romano Prodi and Aleksander Kwaśniewski deny lobbying in favour of Viktor Yanukovych. In a recent interview referred to by The New York Times, Romano Prodi claims that he has never heard of any Hapsburg Group. "It was Gusenbauer heading the group. We made every effort to have peace in Ukraine," he commented. According to him, experts and ex-politicians met at various events and conferences, but later disbanded when it became clear that "a stronger relationship with the European Union was impossible".

Ex-president of Poland Alexander Kwaśniewski also rejected the allegations of collaborating with Manafort in the local press, saying that he had seen the latter only two or three times during his mission to Ukraine in 2012 and 2013. "At the time, he [Paul Manafort – Ed.] was an adviser to President Yanukovych, whom I also met, so it is natural that our paths crossed several times," commented Kwaśniewski.

In addition, journalists from Tagesschau.de questioned ex-European Commissioner Günther Verheugen regarding his links with the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine and possible remuneration for participating in events on Ukraine in 2012-2013. He also denies receiving fees for participating in them.

So far, the accusations do not reveal the names of those who Paul Manafort hired through intermediaries to whitewash the image of Yanukovych and his associates in the EU. However, it cannot be ruled out that this will happen sooner or later. It is likely that the "suspects" in the Hapsburg Group did not really know about their true "employers", except for, of course, the ex-chancellor.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj  

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