KIEV, Ukraine — The slogans — pithy, powerful and simple, just black and red lettering on a white background — first appeared this summer and are now plastered throughout the country on street banners, billboards and posters.
“They talk, she works.”
Or: “They promise, she works.”
Or: “They betray, she works.”
Whom the messages were referring to was understood immediately, without any need for explanation. “She” is Yulia Tymoshenko, the country’s golden-braided Prime Minister who is running now for the presidency. “They” refers to every other candidate she opposes, all men, and their political entourages, if not the entire political establishment.
The messages — accurate or not — captured people’s attention. Whether they will succeed is another question. Tymoshenko faces a steep uphill battle.
Though tens of thousands turned out on Kiev’s main Independence Square last weekend to hear her officially launch her campaign, according to the latest opinion poll Tymoshenko trails her main rival Viktor Yanukovich by 11 percentage points — 26.8 to 15.6 percent.
But the prime minister’s ad campaign is significant for another reason: It is the product of advice from the political consulting firm AKPD Message and Media, which ran Barack Obama’s victorious run to the White House — though how much exactly they contributed is unclear.
According to Larry Grisolano, the firm’s CEO, AKPD has been hired in a consultative capacity, though not to run the campaign itself. “Six or seven folks” are working in the Tymoshenko campaign in various capacities, including polling, strategy and message development. Super pollster John Anzalone and Jeff Link — a longtime Democrat consultant who runs his own firm, Link Strategies — are involved on a day-to-day basis in the campaign.
“We’re just a small part of a large camp — we are not leading the campaign in any way,” said Grisolano, who spoke by telephone from AKPD’s headquarters in Chicago, adding that he travels regularly to Ukraine, last visiting the country “two to three weeks ago.” Grisolano declined to say how much his firm is earning from advising the Ukrainian prime minister.
Tymoshenko follows a long line of Ukrainian politicians to enlist the assistance of foreign hired guns. Russians regularly advise the various campaigns; Aleksei Sitnikov for example, a prominent Russian campaign expert, advised Tymoshenko two years ago, the Ukrainian press reported.
The number of Americans coming to Ukraine is also not insignificant. President Viktor Yushchenko hired advisors close to former President Bill Clinton, and Yanukovich himself attracted copious media attention, on both sides of the Atlantic, by hiring Paul Manafort, of the firm Davis Manafort and Freedman, which advised John McCain in the last U.S. presidential election.
The issue is highly sensitive nevertheless. Both Tymoshenko and Yanukovich’s campaigns flatly refused requests to discuss the role of international consultants. Paul Manafort’s office in Alexandria, Va. also did not return telephone calls.
AKPD is speaking to the press, but its participation in Ukraine has nevertheless raised eyebrows. Michael Isikoff, an investigative reporter with Newsweek, asked whether the firm’s involvement contradicted Obama’s stance against lobbyists with foreign ties wielding too much influence, and whether this was an attempt by Tymoshenko to strengthen ties with the Obama administration.
David Axelrod, the “architect” of Obama’s campaign and the firm’s founding member, has left AKPD for the White House; however, his son Michael still works with the firm. Grisolano also confirmed that AKPD still owes the older Axelrod $2 million in staggered payments over the next four years.
Grisolano however rejected the accusation that AKPD is now engaged in the same behavior for which Manafort and his partner Rick Davis (who also worked with Ukrainian steel billionaire Viktor Pinchuk) were criticized. Davis and Manafort worked as lobbyists, he said; his company is acting only as campaign advisors.
The question however is whether some of the magic AKPD performed with Barack Obama can be translated to a country as different — and dysfunctional — as Ukraine. The official campaign is only a little more than a week old, and already the slime is beginning to be flung.
Though the details are still extremely murky, members of Tymoshenko’s political bloc are accused of being involved in a child molestation scandal. And as the election season progresses — the first round is scheduled for Jan. 17 — the accusations will probably only become worse. Whether AKPD’s famously disciplined campaign machine will be able to deal with the swamp that is Ukrainian politics remains to be seen.
Now the advertisements simply say: “She is Ukraine.”