“I have a very good team of extraordinarily experienced, highly successful consultants, a couple of people in particular who have done races around the world,” said Mitt Romney at the now-infamous private fundraiser in Boca Raton where he attacked the “47 percent.” While those comments seized the country’s attention, these strange remarks largely escaped notice: “These guys in the U.S.—the Karl Rove equivalents—they do races all over the world, in Armenia, in Africa, in Israel,” he said. “They do these races, and they see which ads work, and which processes work best, and we have ideas about what we do over the course of the campaign.”
“I’d tell them to you,” Romney joked, “but I’d have to shoot you.”
For Romney to brag behind closed doors that his consultants are using tactics honed in foreign elections is peculiar, to say the least. The well-traveled consultants he praised were almost certainly his chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, and Stevens’ longtime sidekick, Russ Schriefer. And before taking charge of Romney’s presidential campaign as its “Karl Rove equivalent,” Stevens helped lift at least two foreign strongmen into power, guiding them to victory in elections rife with irregularities and violence.
Stevens, whom The New Republic profiled in August, says he relishes politics “for the smell of napalm in the morning,” and, by his own admission, his political work is driven by something like a sublimated aggression—it provides “an outlet for my violent tendencies.” An article last month in Politico that portrayed Stevens as the target of vicious sniping within the campaign mentioned in passing that he worked in Albania and the Congo. But it didn’t name the leaders whose campaigns he ran: Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha and Congolese President Joseph Kabila, authoritarian figures who have alarmed human rights groups and, at times, the U.S. State Department.
The depth of Stevens’ involvement in the campaigns of Berisha and Kabila is evident from the LinkedIn profile of Joel Frushone, a former deputy at Stevens’ consulting firm, the Stevens & Schriefer Group. His resume says the firm managed almost every aspect of their election bids, from “high level multimedia campaigns” to “fundraising,” “policy development,” “in-depth opposition research,” and “political strategy, media plans and tactics”—virtually the same services Stevens provides Romney.
Frushone offered only a brief comment. “I know the intimate details of what we did there,” he said, “and it was all above board.”
According to an insider from the 2005 Albanian campaign, Stevens was recommended to Berisha by a Bosnian middleman, Damir Fazlic, whom the U.S. State Department has described as “shady.” (State Department cables say Fazlic worked closely with Berisha on the campaign and received legal protection from his government. He has been followed in the Eastern European press by rumors of mafia ties. He did not reply to requests for comment.) Stevens was joined in Albania by a consort from Washington’s BGR Group, and the Americans had their work cut out for them: Berisha’s image needed serious rehab. His previous reign over Albania had ended in a surreal, almost apocalyptic catastrophe.
As an apparatchik in the country’s former Stalinist dictatorship, Berisha rode a democratic uprising to the presidency in the early 1990s and imposed a right-wing, one-party regime. While secret police kept order, monumental pyramid schemes grew to consume much of the GDP. When they crashed in 1997, Albania plunged into violent anarchy. Girding for civil war, Berisha surrounded himself with a paramilitary gang as his party handed out guns at campaign offices. In late 1997, he resigned under intense international and American pressure. The violence killed an estimated 2,000 people.
When Stevens was hired to resell Berisha’s leadership to the Albanian populace in 2005, Berisha’s image at home and abroad was that of a washed-up despot. Audaciously, Stevens and the BGR specialists set about crafting a platform based almost entirely on a pledge to reduce corruption. Thus, one of Eastern Europe’s most unsavory ex-rulers was resurrected as a crusading reformer.
Stevens framed Berisha as an agent of grand, visionary change. In a presentation at Albania’s Sheraton Hotel that was reported by a local newspaper, he insisted that Berisha embodied American values just like George W. Bush did. Berisha himself stepped forward to say something nice about Stevens. Stevens, said the candidate, was his campaign’s “magician,” and he and Stevens worked together like “Siamese twins.”
An opposition figure in Albania, Erion Veliaj, who leads a small left-wing party and a youth activist group that has received American funding, said in a telephone interview that Stevens played dirty during the campaign. Shortly before the election, Veliaj told reporters that he received a threatening phone call from one of Berisha’s consultants. At the time, he did not identify the caller. Today, he says it was Stevens. Veliaj says Stevens “went berserk,” demanding he withhold the results of a poll commissioned with help from the British and Dutch embassies and conducted by Gallup International (which is unrelated to America’s Gallup organization). The poll showed an uncomfortably close race for Berisha. According to Veliaj, Stevens said he would use his influence in Washington to cut off future U.S. visas for Veliaj if he didn’t scrap the poll. Veliaj released it.
“He struck me as a cheap bluffer,” Veliaj says.
Gary Kokalari, an Albanian-American activist (and Romney supporter), says Veliaj told him about the confrontation at the time. Kokalari says he called Stevens to tell him to “back off.”
Berisha won the election in July 2005 by a five-percent margin, but monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the election a “disappointment,” saying it failed to comply with international standards because of “serious irregularities,” intimidation, vote-buying and “violence committed by extremists on both sides.”
Since the election, the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, which tracks world governments, has continued to classify Albania as a hybrid of authoritarianism and democracy, and Berisha’s government has birthed lurid scandals. In 2008, on a secretly recorded phone call, an American arms dealer complained that his scheme to sell illegal ammo from Albanian junkyards to the U.S. Army had become entangled in an Albanian “mafia” involving Berisha and his son. When protesters were shot dead outside Albania’s parliament last year, Berisha claimed they were trying to launch a coup with guns disguised as umbrellas and pens and called the independent prosecutor investigating their deaths a “boulevard whore.” And when the newspaper that reported on Stevens’ loving speech at the Sheraton Hotel ran afoul of Berisha after the 2005 election, it was briefly shut down by police, and its publisher’s car firebombed, in an incident condemned by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Though Berisha has remained a close American ally under the Obama administration—and even joined NATO four years ago—a 2010 State Department cable written by the U.S. ambassador warned that Berisha was attempting to rebuild a secret police force and, along with the Socialist opposition, evinced “an authoritarian streak.” Since leaving his post in Albania, the ex-ambassador, John Withers, has become one of Berisha’s most vocal critics, accusing him of driving Albanian democracy into the ground since his return to power in 2005. His leadership has run “exactly contrary to democracy-building,” Withers said in an interview with Albanian media in March. His government “has routinely bullied the courts ... striven to curtail media freedoms through restrictive and undemocratic laws,” manipulated the electoral process, and “shown an active, even obsessive interest in only one objective: the pursuit of power by any means at its disposal.”
After his triumph electing Berisha, Stevens went to work on a 2006 election in the Democratic Republic of Congo. By then, Kabila had been in power for four years, after assuming the presidency upon his father’s assassination. Though he ruled by diktat, he also held promise as a reformer, helping negotiate a partial end to an immense regional war and passing a liberal constitution.
In the run-up to the election, however, human rights groups began protesting a campaign of suppression waged by Kabila’s government against the opposition. A Human Rights Watch report detailed violent incidents. In one raid, “agents of the special police” stormed a Christian television station, arresting a pastor critical of the political process, beating technicians and destroying the broadcasting equipment. The government also imprisoned a journalist for “insulting the head of state,” and soldiers routinely shot protesters.
As The Economist put it at the time, Kabila was “making full use of his control of the security services and his monopoly of the state media” to secure the election. But, “leaving nothing to chance,” and lest his security forces and media monopoly prove insufficiently persuasive, he had hired the Stevens and Schriefer Group. “As Mr. Kabila starts campaigning at rallies, the Stevens and Schriefer Group’s slogans, television advertisements and mobile cinemas are being dispatched to every corner of Congo,” said the magazine.
Shortly before the election, the leading opposition figure, Etienne Tshisekedi, dropped out of the race, insisting it was rigged in advance. Kabila’s main challenger then became one of his own vice-presidents, a former warlord who would later be tried for war crimes in an international court. Kabila won the election by a wide margin. When the results were announced, however, there was tension and sporadic violence in the capital, with fears the country would fall into civil war. His challenger ultimately conceded, and despite irregularities the United Nations declared the election a success for a country that hadn’t seen a vote in decades.
Though there were “an awful lot of irregularities,” Tom Turner, an expert on the Congo with Amnesty International, said he believed Kabila was probably the lesser of two evils in the election—emphasizing that it was the withdrawal of the most credible opposition candidate that left voters with no palatable alternative. Turner also suggested Stevens overlooked human rights abuses in view of his contractual obligation to win.
“If you’re doing propaganda—if I can use that term as neutrally as possible—and some human rights abuses are directed at journalists, political parties and human rights organizations, you have kind of a conflict of interest,” he said.
Though Stevens’ firm produced a campaign film promising the Congolese people a brighter future under Kabila’s leadership, almost immediately after the election Kabila unleashed a wave of slaughter and mass arrest that prompted Foreign Policy magazine to label him the “new Mobutu,” referring to the infamous megalomaniac who ruled Congo for the latter part of the 20th century. Since the election, the magazine said, “Kabila's regime has amassed one of the world's worst human rights records.”
A Human Rights Watch dossier in 2008 alleged that Kabila's government killed “an estimated 500 people and detained about 1,000 more, many of whom have been tortured, in the two years since elections that were meant to bring democracy … Some were kept chained for days or weeks and many were forced to sign confessions saying they had been involved in coup plots against Kabila.” When Kabila was reelected late last year, the State Department dismissed the vote as “seriously flawed” and a “disappointment,” and a UN fact-finding mission shortly afterward confirmed his government has tortured and disappeared political opponents.
To be sure, Stevens is far from alone is selling his know-how to candidates abroad. Among top-flight consultants, such work is almost a rite of passage. For example, one of President Obama's senior admen, Jim Margolis, directed campaigns on four continents, though the only foreign client his firm names on its website is Nelson Mandela. (Stevens’ counterpart in the Obama campaign, David Axelrod, doesn’t appear to have run international campaigns, aside from one in Ontario, but it's difficult to know for sure: consultants aren’t required to disclose their clients as long as they refrain from lobbying officials in the United States.)
Stevens’ ability to run campaigns for foreign despots and now for the potential next president of the United States typifies the global omnipresence of America’s consultants, but it also calls into question the extent to which he believes what he peddles. In Albania, Stevens ran Berisha on an anti-corruption platform; his government has since been implicated in horrendous corruption scandals. In the Congo, Stevens sold Kabila as a great hope; today, political opponents vanish into his regime’s dungeons. But to Stevens, now at the height of his career and at a comfortable remove from Albania and the Congo, those promises are likely of little significance. In Big Enchilada, his account of working in Bush’s inner-circle on the 2000 election, Stevens wrote of his “astonishment” at discovering that campaign officials believed Bush would keep his promises once elected. Their attitude, he wrote, was “highly admirable and terribly unnecessary.”
No one expected candidates to keep their promises, he explained.
The Romney campaign did not respond to questions for this article, and neither did Stevens. Among the questions the campaign didn’t answer are whether Stevens still regards Berisha and Kabila as the worthy, upstanding leaders he sold them as to tens of millions of people, and whether he was aware of abuses during their campaigns or took action to stop them. But in what is perhaps a tell, Albania and the Congo used to be on his consulting’s firm website, listed among clients the firm says it’s “proud to have worked with.” At some point this year, they were removed.