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Guys, get out How British spin-doctors and Boris Berezovsky tried to help Alexander Lukashenko win over the West

Source: Meduza
Andreas Bastian / Caro / Scanpix / LETA

About a decade ago, after a temporary falling out with Vladimir Putin, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko tried to pivot the country to the West. In this endeavor, he had help from a British PR firm that managed publicity for major clients, including multinational corporations and entire nations. A “rich benefactor who had key interests in Belarus” footed the bill. The campaign was a complete failure: the consultants left empty-handed and Lukashenko became an international pariah once again. Two of the three main characters in this story have since passed away and others prefer to forget it altogether. Nevertheless, after speaking to several people who witnessed the PR campaign and obtaining access to previously unpublished evidence, Meduza investigative editor Alexey Kovalev managed to reconstruct the timeline of Lukashenko’s failed attempt to win over the West.

Lord of Mud

In August 2019, Lord Timothy Bell died in London at the age of 77. The mastermind behind several successful election campaigns for Britain’s Conservative Party and its leader, Margaret Thatcher (which earned Bell his noble title), he was also the founder of Bell Pottinger, once one of the most influential PR firms in the world. The company’s operations were somewhat unorthodox and focused less on traditional advertising than “reputation services” — in other words, Bell helped launder the public images of clients in need of a fresh start.

Bell Pottinger was open for business to both multinational corporations and entire nations. In 2011, the British newspaper The Independent published a report by undercover journalists from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism who met with the firm’s managers, posing as Uzbekistani state officials. In an exchange secretly recorded on camera, Bell Pottinger executives bragged that they could quickly arrange at a client’s request for then UK Prime Minister David Cameron to telephone the head of the Chinese government with a request to support any particular business project. The PR firm’s managers also claimed to have direct access to several other senior British officials. Bell’s people didn’t stop there, either. They offered services to rewrite unflattering Wikipedia articles and even change particular search results on Google. For a million pounds sterling ($1.3 million) per year, for example, Bell Pottinger said it could replace Google’s top search results for “human rights violations in Uzbekistan” with hyperlinks to glowing reports about the country, written by the firm’s own staff.

The revelations caused a public scandal in London, where many (including David Cameron) vowed to fight the encroachment of mud-slinging and “black PR.” Timothy Bell, meanwhile, had no reservations about his clients and argued repeatedly in interviews that everyone deserves “a voice” in public discussions that affect them. 

The Belarusian government was among Bell Pottinger’s illustrious clients. Roughly a decade ago, when a conflict over tariffs on Russian energy products strained the relationship between Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin to the breaking point, the Belarusian president started thinking seriously about repairing his standing in the West. Bell Pottinger volunteered its services in this ambitious “reputation management” endeavor, and Timothy Bell personally developed a strategy to rehabilitate Lukashenko.

The campaign was a failure and Bell Pottinger ended its work with the Belarusian authorities early. Little has been written about the events that entangled the dictator in Minsk and the spin-doctors of London, and most participants are reluctant to discuss this history even now, 12 years later. Meduza nevertheless managed to reconstruct details of the operation’s timeline and identify others who played roles in the Lukashenko-Bell partnership.

Lord Timothy Bell and Margaret Thatcher in London on September 17, 2002
Alan Davidson / Shutterstock / Vida Press

How Bell Pottinger helped Belarus

Evidence collected by former employees and documents presented to Meduza show that Bell Pottinger assigned a whole team of people from various departments in the firm to its Belarusian campaign, beginning around mid-2008. The company’s political desk, for example, was tasked with changing the country’s image as “Europe’s last dictatorship” and improving its overwhelmingly negative portrayal in the international media. The firm’s political strategists also worked with Belarusian officials to overcome international isolation, lift foreign sanctions, and establish ties to organizations like the IMF and World Bank, which could conceivably have helped the country manage the loss of trade with Russia.

Other departments at Bell Pottinger facilitated press tours in Belarus for Western reporters and interviews with Belarusian state officials. These tours led to the publication of articles and supplements in several Western newspapers and magazines about Belarus as a new travel destination. Other staff at Bell Pottinger worked with leading business publications to depict Belarus as more attractive to foreign investors. 

Despite all the manpower devoted to improving Belarus’s image abroad, the campaign stumbled thanks to frequent misunderstandings on both sides, sources familiar with its details told Meduza. Lukashenko’s administration was apparently convinced that it was paying the British PR firm for flattering coverage in the Western media, and officials were outraged whenever “harmful” subjects like political repressions crept into these reports. 

“I was writing an article back then about these attempts to rebrand the country and the Belarusian I.T. sector and Bell Pottinger helped put me in touch with the right people and the officials responsible for this industry,” a British journalist who asked not to be named told Meduza. “I then met with some of the opposition people. When the article came out, [the people from Bell Pottinger] were super upset and suggested that I’d misled them and written a political article.” The journalist says one employee at the firm described the problem as client dissatisfaction: “‘The feedback from president’s office to your story was quite brutal,’ they said. I think [the Lukashenko administration] was under the impression that [Bell Pottinger] could control what themes I wrote on.”

Shortly thereafter, Lukashenko’s government fired Bell Pottinger. The British journalist who spoke to Meduza says he heard afterward that Minsk was extremely unhappy about the experience, having believed that it was simply buying positive media coverage for Belarus.

Before the collaboration ended, however, there were other mishaps, as well. For example, in November 2008, The Financial Times released a special supplement designed to attract more foreign investment to Belarus (the publication was timed to coincide with the Belarusian Investment Forum, which took place in late November that year). In the newspaper’s archives, Meduza managed to find a copy of this supplement, which ironically identified Belarus with the white-red-white flag Lukashenko replaced in 1995 (now a symbol of the Belarusian opposition).

An excerpt from the special supplement on Belarus released by “The Financial Times” on November 18, 2008
The Financial Times

Nigel Gould-Davies, Britain’s ambassador to Belarus from 2008 to 2009, met with Lord Bell and staff at Bell Pottinger and directly witnessed the firm’s work to improve the country’s image in the West. The company’s results, he told Meduza, did not exactly dazzle him. “My impression at the time was that did not really know what they were doing,” Gould-Davies said. “Their work had no discernible impact on the image of the regime. The broad aim of this work was to improve the Lukashenko regime’s international image at a time when he was trying to build relations with the West, but as far as I can tell, they did not succeed at this at all.” Screw-ups like the confusion over the Belarusian flag in The Financial Times left Lukashenko’s people “furious,” the former ambassador recalls.

Mark Hollingsworth, the author of a biography about Timothy Bell and a book about Russian oligarchs titled “Londongrad: From Russia with Cash,” told Meduza that this was how Lord Bell typically did business. “He would overpromise and overcharge, and then he would trade on his past relationship with Margaret Thatcher whom, I suspect, Lukashenko worshipped. That’s how he got all these big contracts with foreign governments. He would negotiate the deal and then try to work out how to do it. Of course, it was almost impossible to get positive coverage about Belarus because it’s a nasty dictatorship. What he should’ve done instead was tell them, look, we can’t get you positive coverage but we can probably limit the damage. But that’s the way he operated.”

Who paid for the PR?

An unnamed third party helped facilitate the business between Bell Pottinger and the Belarusian government. Journalists writing about the company’s work for Minsk have alluded to this other participant. For example, a feature story published two years ago in The New Yorker about Lord Bell and his PR firm describes the work in Belarus in the following terms: “A partner at Bell Pottinger told me that the Belarus account was easy to relinquish because Lukashenko’s Russian handler had stopped paying his fees.” 

In December 2011, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported: “Bell Pottinger’s contract with Belarus was terminated in 2009. While it was assumed that Lukashenko — or the government — was paying for the firm’s services, Bureau journalists were told during the meeting that it was actually paid by ‘a rich benefactor who had key interests in Belarus.’”

Lord Bell, meanwhile, always denied that any third party was involved in his firm’s dealings with the Belarusian government. In an interview with The Independent in 2011, for example, he said, “All invoices were sent to the Belarus government and all payments were received from the Belarus government.”

Meduza has learned, however, that the money paid to Bell’s PR firm for its work with Belarus actually came from the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Several people directly involved in the campaign (who asked not to be named), as well as a source personally familiar with Lord Bell, confirmed this information to Meduza. In fact, a few months before his death, even Timothy Bell finally admitted Berezovsky’s role. In late 2018, Bell granted an interview to the South African journalist Richard Poplak for “The Influence,” Diana Neille’s documentary film about Bell Pottinger, which premiered in January 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival in the United States. Meduza obtained a copy of the interview’s unpublished transcript.

According to Lord Bell, it was Berezovsky who footed the bill for Bell Pottinger’s work on Belarus, though the Russian oligarch apparently never paid in full. The two were longtime friends and maintained a close relationship. Bell said the Belarus campaign was worth roughly 3 million pounds sterling (about $3.9 million), and that Berezovsky supposedly paid him a monthly fee of about 100,000 pounds ($130,250) for various PR services. The best-known product of these labors was a photograph of Berezovsky’s friend, Alexander Litvinenko, recorded in his London hospital room shortly before he died in 2006 from polonium poisoning. This image, which has now traveled the world and become one of the most notorious symbols of the Putin regime’s savagery, was commissioned by the Bell Pottinger agency. 

Alexander Litvinenko not long before his death from polonium poisoning, London, November 2006
Natasja Weitsz / Getty Images

Berezovsky’s naughty apartment

Human rights activist Alexander Goldfarb, who also enjoyed a close relationship with Boris Berezovsky, explained to Meduza how the late oligarch’s cooperation with Bell Pottinger and the Belarusian authorities worked in practice. The idea for the PR campaign, Goldfarb says, was entirely Berezovsky’s. “At some point in 2008, he seized on the idea of tearing away Batka [Lukashenko] from Putin,” Goldfarb told Meduza. “If you remember, Batka’s relationship with Putin back then was tense. Putin’s media beat him up on TV, insulting him and saying all kinds of nasty things in exposés. And Batka at the time, according to Mr. Berezovsky, was incensed. ‘I’m no different from [then Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili. He’s doing exactly the same thing as me, except Saakashvili for some reason is a friend of the West and a champion of democracy, while I’m Europe’s last dictator. It’s unfair. Saakashvili has locked up more people than me.’”

Nigel Gould-Davies, then the UK’s ambassador to Belarus, told Meduza that the attempt to pivot westward was enormously important to Lukashenko, who was supposedly ready to invest significant resources into the project. For Berezovsky, meanwhile, it was mainly a political scheme to create a kind of inter-regional alliance of countries that transported Russian oil into Europe, says Alexander Goldfarb. Ukraine would be brought in, too. Together, the members of this alliance would be able to dictate the terms of tariffs on the transit of Russian oil, which Berezovsky allegedly calculated would undermine Vladimir Putin.

In all this plotting and planning, Berezovsky never forgot about his own financial interests, either. He had designs on Belarusian state-owned enterprises and hoped to earn money on their privatization, says Goldfarb. Timothy Bell told Richard Poplak: “Boris got very close to the contract... to get the copper supplied and it was hundreds of millions that he would have.” 

The main obstacle to rehabilitating “Europe’s last dictator” was Alexander Lukashenko himself. Since 1996, he’d been under harsh Western sanctions for human rights violations, including the disappearance and murder of opposition members, and the falsification of multiple elections. These sanctions designated Lukashenko directly, as well as members of his inner circle and several of the country’s key enterprises, such as the “Belneftehim” State Concern for Oil and Chemistry and the “Naftan” petrochemical complex. 

At the time, according to Goldfarb, Lukashenko had surrounded himself with advisers who fell into one of two camps: pro-Russian or pro-Western. “The pro-Russian party was the KGB, people like [Viktor] Sheiman, and certain oligarchs with ties to oligarchs in Russia. It was mainly political [actors] and people from the security services who didn’t want liberalization because they had something to lose,” says Goldfarb. Viktor Lukashenko (a diplomat and the president’s eldest son) and Vladimir Makei (then Lukashenko’s chief of staff and now the Belarusian foreign minister) allegedly led the pro-Western faction. Makei also oversaw Minsk’s cooperation with Bell Pottinger, sources told Meduza. Timothy Bell also recalled Makei’s role in the publicity campaign, referring to him as a mysterious “chap called Mackie” who “clearly controlled everything.” A source who knew the late Lord Bell told Meduza that he used to say working with such people was like being in a James Bond movie.

Vladimir Makei did not respond to the questions Meduza submitted through the Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s press service.

Berezovsky personally arranged a meeting between Alexander Lukashenko, whom he’d known for many years already, and Timothy Bell, according to Goldfarb and another source close to Bell. Lord Bell later described his new client as “domineering giant of a man who would kill you as soon as you stepped out of line.” Lukashenko instructed his pro-Western advisers to work with Bell Pottinger, and Lord Bell allegedly presented them with a detailed plan he designed himself for the Belarusian political system’s gradual liberalization, modeled on Spain’s reforms in the last years of Francisco Franco’s reign: free the country’s political prisoners, permit moderate oppositionist activity, and gradually move toward greater liberalism, albeit in small steps to prevent the regime’s collapse. Goldfarb says Bell argued that incremental steps were needed to convince potential Western partners that any reforms were part of a long-term plan.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko meets Boris Berezovsky, then the executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Minsk, May 8, 1998
Viktor Tolochko / TASS

Lukashenko approved the operation and gave Berezovsky a heavily guarded mansion outside Minsk, where Bell Pottinger established a temporary headquarters to manage the project. “Berezovsky’s naughty apartment,” Goldfarb calls it (a reference to Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, “The Master and Margarita”). Berezovsky covered all the office’s expenses, he says. 

Lukashenko’s “Western project” falls flat

In the end, the plan to rehabilitate Belarus’s president came to nothing and Bell Pottinger’s “brief, unhappy year,” in the words of Ambassador Gould-Davies, ended early in mid-2009. As promised, ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections in September 2008, Lukashenko freed a handful of political prisoners, including Alyaksandr Kazulin, an opposition leader who ran for president in 2006 and was arrested shortly afterward. But Lukashenko still didn’t dare flirt with even superficially free voting. Officials refused to register even a single opposition candidate, observers were denied access to vote tabulations, and a spokesperson for the OSCE said the elections fell short of international democratic standards, despite minor procedural improvements.

By late 2009, it was clear that Lukashenko’s “Western pivot” was doomed. Bell Pottinger’s contract with Minsk ended in mutual disappointment, the partnership was terminated early, the firm’s representatives left the country, and Timothy Bell moved on to other projects. Boris Berezovsky stayed behind at first, but his time there was also coming to an end. According to Alexander Goldfarb, Berezovsky was in Belarus under Lukashenko’s personal security guarantee, despite objections from the British intelligence officials charged with monitoring the high-profile political refugee’s safety. London supposedly worried that Russian agents could get to Berezovsky in Minsk. The situation changed dramatically after the 2010 presidential election, when officials awarded almost 80 percent of the vote to Lukashenko and not a single Western country recognized the results. Opposition protests ended in mass arrests and attacks against Lukashenko’s rivals in the race and their supporters. “Batka’s nerves finally snapped,” Goldfarb remembers.

Afterward, he says, Lukashenko’s administration ceased all pursuit of Western integration and asked Berezovsky and his associates to leave the country. “They said, ‘Guys, you should take off because other people are calling the shots now,’” Goldfarb told Meduza. “In other words, if the president’s administration was in charge of everything before, now it was in the hands of the [Belarusian] KGB — and Moscow was behind the KGB. So we grabbed our stuff and hightailed it out of there. And Batka told Berezovsky: ‘Boris, I’m sorry. I can no longer guarantee your safety. It’s a different story here now, so don’t come back.’”

An all-out defeat

Alexander Lukashenko’s failure to win over the West was good news for Belarusian oppositionists, who begged the international community in interviews with foreign journalists to resist appeasing the president’s regime, warning that it only “extends the Belarusian people’s agony.” According to Timothy Bell, his PR firm not only earned nothing from its campaign in Minsk but wasn’t even reimbursed for its expenses. 

Three years after the termination of Bell Pottinger’s contract in Belarus, following the defeat of his lawsuit in London against fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich, Berezovsky was forced to borrow money to cover millions in legal fees. Some of this money came from Lord Bell, he claimed, and Berezovsky apparently never paid back the last million pounds sterling (almost $1.3 million) of the loan. In March 2013, roughly six months after the end of his lawsuit against Abramovich, Berezovsky was found dead in his own home outside London in Berkshire county.

Before long, Bell Pottinger itself folded under the weight of all its scandals. The fatal blow proved to be the firm’s contract with the Gupta family — a powerful group of businessmen in South Africa with ties to then President Jacob Zuma’s ruling political party — and a plot to inflame racial tensions for the Guptas’ benefit. After journalists learned about the scheme, Bell Pottinger’s board of directors fired Lord Bell from his own company and the firm’s clients all fled. In 2017, Bell Pottinger declared bankruptcy and ceased to exist. Two years later, Timothy Bell died.

As badly as it flopped, the campaign to render Alexander Lukashenko more likeable in the West left its mark in the photo-ops the Belarusian president stages to this day. One journalist familiar with Bell Pottinger’s efforts in Minsk told Meduza that it was Lord Bell who urged Lukashenko to cultivate a family man’s image, in order to make him more relatable. Supposedly ever since, the president has made a point of appearing in public with his youngest son, Nikolai. Meduza was unable to verify this rumor, but in interviews Timothy Bell regularly mentioned Lukashenko’s appearances with his son and he praised the Belarusian president for posing with Nikolai while casting his ballot in the 2008 parliamentary elections.

Lukashenko and his son, Nikolai, cast a ballot in Belarus’s parliamentary elections, Minsk, September 28, 2008
Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
Lukashenko and his son, Nikolai, meet Pope Benedict XVI during an official visit to the Vatican on April 27, 2009
Chris Helgren / Pool / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

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Story by Alexey Kovalev, edited by Tatyana Lysova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock