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[Washington Babylon]

Bonker’s for APCO

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As I reported here yesterday, the lobbying firm APCO was well-represented at Congressional hearings concerning Kazakhstan’s bid to chair the 56-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). A source who attended the hearings told me that APCO, which has been paid nearly $500,000 this year to represent Kazakh President-for-Life Nursultan Nazarbayev, dispatched at least four employees to the hearings.

APCO’s lead lobbyist yesterday was Don Bonker, a former member of Congress from Washington state. Indeed, he sat behind the panel, which was chaired by Congressman Alcee Hastings of Florida, and apparently buttonholed Hastings after the hearings.

I met former congressman Bonker back when I was a student at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Even then it was clear that he had the principles of a marshmallow. At liberal Evergreen he’d be so fervent in his opposition to American imperialism in Central America he’d come across like Che Guevera; then, a few days later there’d be a newspaper account of a speech he’d given to a conservative group in which he sounded like Ronald Reagan-lite. While I question his ethics in supporting Kazakhstan, I’m glad he’s working at full capacity.

For years Nazarbayev’s regime has been desperately seeking to head up the OSCE, but its efforts have always been blocked because of Kazakhstan’s poor record on human rights. Among the speakers who testified yesterday was David Merkel, a former staffer for Senator Jesse Helms who served as director for European and Central Asian affairs at the National Security Council under George W. Bush. At that post, he was a leading cheerleader for Nazarbayev. (Merkel, as I’ve previously reported, also once worked for the International Republican Institute in Moscow, where, according to people who knew him then, he learned almost no Russian and spent much of his time at the Starlight Diner, an expat hangout known for its cheeseburgers.)

Merkel has said that he’s not on the Kazakh payroll, so I would like to commend President Nazarbayev for lining up his services free of charge. He began his testimony by acknowledging “the indisputable fact that Kazakhstan has not held an election that the OSCE has found to meet international standards,” but that it should be allowed to chair the organization anyway. President Nazarbayev “has created an economic engine that is bringing an increased quality of life, better education and health services to more and more Kazakhstani citizens,” Merkel purred. “Kazakhstan is an exporter of stability in a region that is still too unstable.”

Despite APCO’s best efforts, the hearings did not amount to a victory for Nazarbayev. Robert Herman of Freedom spoke in opposition to Kazakhstan’s bid, saying it “would irreparably damage the OSCE’s legitimacy and ability to defend those working on the front lines for democratic change.” Taking the same position was Yevgeniy Zhovtis, head of Kazakhstan’s Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law.

Next month the OSCE will make a final decision on Kazakhstan’s bid. The United Kingdom, the Czech Republic and, more surprisingly, the U.S. State Department have all thus far said they will oppose Nazarbayev’s regime on the matter.

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