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By John Helmer, Moscow

Not every despotic and corrupt ruler of a former Soviet state is the target of US Government plots to overthrow him, not even those whose taste in interior decoration and jewellery is as awful as Victor Yanukovich’s, the ex-president of Ukraine.

Emomali Rahmon (image), the president of Tajikistan since 1992, has been the target of corruption allegations by the US Government in the past. But for the time being he is protecting himself with a Washington lobbying campaign costing at least $100,000 per month. For his exterior decorator Rahmon has hired James Fabiani, a former congressional staffer turned public relations agent. His eponymous lobbying company employs an Englishman named Alex Botting to arrange meetings with US Government officials, US Congressional staff, and also, according to Botting, Washington-based executives of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Forbes, the New York business magazine, has been engaged by Fabiani and Botting to gild as much of Rahmon’s lily as the latter has agreed to pay for. At least, that was until very recently when Forbes management opened an investigation of the lobbying operation.

Just how obliging US Government officials are towards Rahmon is revealed by Fabiani and Botting this week. They say they recently received an exemption from reporting publicly as Rahmon’s foreign agents after the US Department of Justice reviewed their year-long contract for a British Virgin Islands-registered company Rahmon controls. According to a January 30 filing signed by Fabiani to the Foreign Agents Registration unit of the Justice Department in Washington, his fifteen-month old contract to represent the Tajikistan Aluminium Company (Talco) had been “terminated”. In fact, on January 10, twenty days earlier, Botting had said “the relationship is ongoing”. Though the December filing was overdue, Botting said then, “I would anticipate renewing the contract”. This week he acknowledged this is exactly what happened. “Our relationship with Talco is ongoing, though we do not comment on any specifics regarding contracts owing to confidentiality agreements with our clients.”

Fabiani told the Justice Department a different story. “The Company’s covered representation of foreign principals 1) Azerbaijan American Alliance Corporation Board of Directors, through Azerbaijan America Alliance, and 2) Talco Management Ltd. were terminated on 5/31/2013.” By that, Fabiani said he meant that “the covered connection with the foreign principal [Talco] ended during the covered period [to May 31, 2013]. Fabiani & Company does not represent other foreign principals, and therefore terminated its registration under FARA [Foreign Agents Registration Act].”

Magnifying glassYou need a magnifying glass to understand what this umbrella language is covering. Botting (right) explains that Fabiani didn’t mean what the filing seems to say; but that he did mean that the Fabiani company is still gainfully employed as Rahmon’s Washington lobbyist. Fabiani had requested the Justice Department review, Botting says, of whether the law requires the lobbying company to continue reporting what it has been doing on Talco’s behalf since the start of its contract.

That contract, signed on September 12, 2012, says its purpose is “increasing The Republic of Tajikistan’s investment profile and improving the country’s overall political, social, cultural and commercial relationships in the US”.

Now, according to Botting, the Justice Department has ruled that because the foreign principal isn’t a government, and is nothing more than a management company registered in the British Virgin Islands, Fabiani’s activities on its behalf, the payments it receives each month, and the meetings it has with US officials, no longer come under the Act and are no longer reportable. Talco Management, the Justice Department was told, is nothing more than a commercial business.

“Fabiani & Company,” said Botting this week, “typically chooses to [sic] ‘over disclosure’ in order to ensure that we are beyond reproach regarding our legal requirements.” The Justice Department refuses to confirm that it has issued an exemption for Fabiani to report its representational activities for Talco. “The Department does not make statements or render legal opinions to third parties regarding the possible applicability of the FARA [Foreign Agents Registration Act] statute”, said spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle.

“An individual or organization does not apply to us for exemptions. FARA is a disclosure/registration statute, not a licensing statute, and we do not issue exemptions. Individuals and firms may write to us to request a Rule 2 advisory opinion under 28 C.F.R. § 5.2 as it pertains to a specific set of facts and circumstances. In our response we may advise whether or not they are exempt from registration, but it is not a requirement that a person or organization write to us to obtain an exemption. As a matter of policy, the Department does not comment on whether any person or organization has, or has not, requested an advisory opinion.”

The reference to 28 CFR §5.2 confirms that Justice has been investigating the Fabiani file, at Fabiani’s request. It has also been investigating the ownership of Talco Management of British Virgin Islands (BVI) by Tajikistan Aluminium Company of Tajikistan, and the ownership of the latter by the Tajik Government. Fabiani and Botting were asked to clarify who owns their client Talco and its parent. They refuse to say.

The section of the statute which Fabiani’s application cited to the National Security Division at Justice requires disclosure of “(1) the identity(ies) of the agent(s) and foreign principal(s) involved; (2) The nature of the agent’s activities for or in the interest of the foreign principal.” When Fabiani signed for his company, the statute requires that “such person signing the review request must certify that the review request contains a true, correct and complete disclosure with respect to the proposed conduct.” Thereafter, says the statute, the lobbying firm must provide “any additional information or documents the National Security Division may…request in order to review a matter.”

The small print isn’t hair-splitting. The original Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) was introduced in 1938 to allow the US Government to prosecute Nazis and Communists if they couldn’t be caught at espionage, but tried to conceal their propaganda activities. In 1966 the statute was amended to cover and require reporting by those who promote the interests, not only of foreign governments, but also of foreign enterprises closely connected to a foreign government. A current Justice Department advisory says the requirement to report “covers most lobbying, advertising, public relations, and fundraising for ‘foreign principals’ as defined, that is not of a commercial nature.”

What has happened in the Talco case is that Rahmon, who – according to World Bank documents – is directly in charge of Talco, insisted that his Washington dealings through Fabiani should be kept secret. For an account of how the secret became known to the Kremlin, and of the attempt by United Company Rusal to expose Rahmon’s corrupt skimming of Talco’s revenues, read this.

Botting claimed in January that the lobbying activities which had been reported to May 31, 2013, and those which he and Fabiani were due to report through December 31, were aimed at “raising awareness”, not only of Tajikistan’s hydro-electric power generating project at Rogun, but to “help [government officials] understand Tajikistan. Money isn’t something we have been directly calling for.”

Before Christmas, US Government money happened to fall into Rahmon’s, er the Tajik government’s lap. On December 11, 2013, the State Department said it was “pleased to commit $15 million in financing towards the Central Asia-South Asia [CASA] electricity transmission project (CASA-1000). We believe CASA-1000 can be a potentially transformative project, helping create a regional energy grid that connects Central and South Asia for the first time. We hope U.S. financial support for CASA-1000 will help leverage other donors to support the project and encourage the World Bank to present the project to its Board of Directors for final approval next year. When completed, CASA-1000 will allow Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to profit from existing, unused summer generation capacity by selling electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan would doubly benefit from the project as a consumer (300 MW) and as a transit country generating revenue.”

State was being coy in not revealing that the $15 million is to be spent in Tajikistan; and that the announcement followed just after US officials had participated in discussions of CASA-1000 in Dushanbe. Further CASA-1000 meetings have followed in Washington this month. Without US backing, and lobbying at the State Department and the World Bank, the project would have collapsed when the Asian Development Bank (ASB) called it “peripheral”, and said it wouldn’t support it. That was in October of last year.

Two reasons for the ADB’s reluctance were that it suspected there wouldn’t be as much low-price electricity from Tajikistan to export to the other countries as CASA-1000 proposed; and that the eventual cost of the power would be much higher than the project plans call for, and consumers in Afghanistan and Pakistan can afford to pay.

To make the CASA export scheme profitable, Rahmon himself has said the Rogun hydroelectric project must be built first. But Rogun is opposed by Uzbekistan, Tajikistan’s neighbour to the west; it fears the volume of its downstream water for farm irrigation will be sharply curtailed. Before the ADB refused to commit its money last year, the Russian government also had serious misgivings about the project, not least because of the concern that Rahmon would direct as much of Rogun’s new power as he could into aluminium production at Talco, and take the profit himself through Talco and other offshore companies managing the plant’s export revenues.

A State Department cable of 2010, released by Wikileaks, reported the assessment of the US Embassy in Dushanbe that “the Tajiks have some unrealistic ideas about what we [US] can offer them — mainly large infrastructure projects including questionable power plants, tunnels to Pakistan, and bridges to nowhere.” Because Talco draws a third to half of all the electricity in the country, the cable said, and because Rahmon controls Talco, “the Roghun campaign looks like a means to ensure Talco’s continued profitability… Though it is technically state-owned, most of its revenues end up in a secretive offshore company controlled by the President, and the state budget sees little of the income.”

The Justice Department’s recent review of Fabiani’s claims about Talco Management of BVI either didn’t know, or rejected the State Department view that it is a money-laundering front for Rahmon. Hornbuckle did not say whether the National Security Division review of Fabiani’s application had obtained State Department, CIA and other agency information regarding the ownership and beneficiaries of Talco Management.

The statute requires the ruling of the Justice Department on Fabiani’s application to be signed by the Assistant Attorney-General for national security. That authorization, according to the law, “can be relied upon by the requesting party or parties to the extent the disclosure was accurate and complete and to the extent the disclosure continues accurately and completely to reflect circumstances after the date of issuance of the review letter.”

The Assistant Attorney-General’s letter wasn’t in Fabiani’s hands on January 10; it came just before the filing of the “termination” notice on January 30. Because the statute requires the National Security Division to respond to an exemption application within 30 days, Fabiani’s move to keep its Talco lobbying secret appears to have been initiated in mid-December – after State had decided to award $15 million for the Tajik Government’s work on its Rogun and CASA-1000 plans.

At Christmas Talco managers, along with Rahmon, had reason to be pleased that the $1.2 million paid to Fabiani through October 2013 had been repaid twelvefold from the State Department. According to Botting, “we weren’t engaged on financing. No direct or indirect US financing options [for Tajikistan] were discussed. We’ve never been asked to go out and get financing.”

A source in a position to know claims Fabiani told Justice his firm was engaged in making introductions to US companies potentially interested in investing in Rogun, or in supplying the project with equipment. The lobbying strategy, according to another US source, requires Fabiani portraying Tajikistan as just one element in the larger CASA-1000 project, whose immediate value is to sustain Afghanistan’s economy after the US withdraws its forces shortly. The conditional – no Rogun dam, no CASA-1000 – is in the fine print, as carefully camouflaged as Fabiani’s claim that his contract to represent Talco has been “terminated”. “Rogun is the primary focus,” Botting claims, “but in order to get them to this stage you need to walk them through the steps.” The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is one, Botting said. Russian troop bases and political pressure on Rahmon is another.

But why is the BVI-registered Talco Management paying for this? “That’s sensitive”, Botting replies.

In addition to lobbying US officials, Fabiani has also worked to promote Tajikistan in the US media. Publications which resulted in Forbes, authored by Hilary Kramer, are now under investigation by the Forbes management in New York, according to Forbes spokesman Mia Carbonell. Forbes calls Kramer a regular contributor. On the magazine website she says: “I am an equity analysts [sic] and investment manager… I am one of Wall Street’s most successful equity analysts and investment managers, with a reputation as a leading expert on today’s market movements, stock trends and economic outlook.”

“We go to her when there’s an investment angle,” a Fabiani source has said. According to Carbonell, “we’re reviewing some of Ms. Kramer’s posts internally. We removed them from public view while we continue the review process.” In September, in a case of an article promoting a US business interest in Venezuela, another of Kramer’s pieces in Forbes was removed.

kramerAsked whether the Forbes review has confirmed that Kramer (right) was engaged to report on Tajikistan by Botting of the Fabiani company, Carbonell said: “we have no further comment.” What relationship has Botting had with Kramer before she began publishing on Tajikistan, he was asked. He won’t say. Kramer refuses to respond to questions about her relationship with Botting and the Fabiani company.

In January Botting was asked whether he and Fabiani had promoted a visit to the US by the Tajik president. “He didn’t visit during the contract [to September 30, 2013]. There are obviously issues we’d like to work with him on. We were hired to help move Rogun forward. The broader issues were incidental, contextual.”

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