From California to Texas, Catalonia to Crimea, Russia has an extensive track record over the past few years of helping stoke separatist groups across Europe and the United States.
Now, though, a new force may have entered the game of helping secessionists along: former campaign officials for President Donald Trump.
Late last week, a series of reports from local outlets across Bosnia and Herzegovina reported that a pair of former Trump campaign officials met with Zeljka Cvijanovic, the current prime minister of Republika Srpska (RS), a Bosnian Serb enclave whose local leadership has spent the past few years advocating for the breakup of the country.
According to reports in both Alternativna TV and N1, Cvijanovic met in Banja Luka with Jason Osborne and Mike Rubino, a pair of American political consultants. It’s unclear why Cvijanovic elected to meet publicly with Rudino and Osborne, both of whom had key roles on Trump’s campaign and have worked closely with Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager.
“It could mean that [Republika Srpska’s leaders are] trying to reach people around Trump,” Reuf Bajrovic, a former Bosnia and Herzegovina energy minister, told ThinkProgress. “They’ve certainly been trying.”
Whatever the specific reason, the meeting is the latest in a strange series of appearances from former Trump campaign officials with members of anti-democratic governments in the region — some of whom, like Cvijanovic, work directly for individuals sanctioned by the U.S. government, and are building secession movements with the help of Russia.
All the president’s men
A few weeks before Rubino and Osborne touched down in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lewandowski, who had been maintaining a relatively low profile during the Trump administration, popped up nearby in Belgrade. Lewandowski vaguely said he was there to meet with business officials to discuss developments in the United States.
But local reporters suggested he had ulterior motives. During a roundtable event, Lewandowski hobnobbed with some of Serbia’s elite — including, according to Mother Jones, a top Serbian official close to President Alexander Vucic, recently described by Foreign Policy as an autocrat.
Likewise, an opposition politician accused Lewandowski of appearing simply to drum up business for his own consulting work. Another lawmaker “also alleged that Lewandowski offered to set up phone calls” between Vucic and Trump.
Hey @CLewandowski_, hope you had a productive trip to Serbia!
Were you accompanied there by lobbyists from Turnberry – Mike Rubino and James Osborne?
— Vuk Jeremić (@jeremic_vuk) April 24, 2018
Lewandowski denies that he met Vucic, but the suggestion that he was there only to line his pockets by helping an illiberal government isn’t without precedent; the Daily Beast reported that Lewandowski was able to broker a “highly lucrative” deal recently between other Washington lobbyists and the most prominent military contractors in an increasingly illiberal Poland.
But during the trip to Serbia, Lewandowski may not have been the only one glad-handing with Belgrade’s autocratic government. As N1 reported, one Serbian politician wondered aloud if Serbia’s leadership also met with Rubino and Osborne.
Lewandowski, Rubino, and Osborne have a lengthy, convoluted history with both the Trump campaign and their post-election lobbying work.
Lewandowski ran Trump’s campaign until June 2016, when he was reportedly ousted by Trump’s family. Osborne initially worked on Ben Carson’s campaign, before switching over and becoming a senior adviser on the Trump campaign. (He is currently listed as the leader of the Republican Party on the Northern Mariana Islands.) And Rubino helped lead state-level campaigns for Trump, including Virginia and Maryland.
Following the election, Lewandowski set up Avenue Strategies, which Rubino and Osborne would later join. After a series of stories came forward accusing Lewandowski of selling access to Trump, he left Avenue — as did Rubino and Osborne. Shortly thereafter, Rubino founded Turnbery Solutions LLC, a Washington-based lobbying firm.
While Lewandowski has never been officially affiliated with Turnberry — his name has never appeared on any official documents filed — his presence has been impossible to miss at the firm. A 2017 Politico report described Turnberry as the “Lewandowski Embassy,” with one of Lewandowski’s friends even calling it “the Corey Lewandowski galactic headquarters.” (When ThinkProgress called Turnberry its voicemail was full, and emails went unanswered.)
According to lobbying records, Turnberry has accrued a handful of clients since its founding, from the Northern Mariana Business Alliance to T-Mobile. However, despite numerous reports — including a statement from T-Mobile — claiming Lewandowski is a part of Turnberry, the former Trump campaign manager has denied, time and again, that he is a part of the group.
Like Lewandowski, though, Osborne and Rubino have made a habit of seeking out some of the most illiberal and dictatorial governments across Europe.
Politico reported that Turnberry’s team joined Lewandowski in Poland; a Turnberry representative also spoke with Azerbaijan’s ambassador late year, with Lewandowski reportedly offering Azerbaijan’s ambassador access to Trump. Earlier this year, Osborne filed forms indicating he would be helping whitewash Azerbaijan’s dictatorship, which remains a despotic government nearly three decades after breaking off of the Soviet Union.
The recent meeting in Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, indicates Osborne and Rubino may be willing to go a step beyond just helping anti-democratic regimes entrench their rule.
For some time, the leadership of Republika Srpska — a region in which the Srbrenica Genocide took place in 1995 — has advocated for union with Serbia, effectively nullifying the Dayton Accords, the peace agreements that settled the Bosnian War over 20 years ago.
Much of the recent advocacy for such an unprecedented move comes from Milorad Dodik, the current RS president. As Dodik said earlier this year, “The Serb people have two states — Serbia and Republika Srpska — and we want to be one.” Recent public demonstrations, as well as an illegal 2016 referendum on the topic, have all ratcheted tensions in the region.
And RS has been getting help from abroad — specifically, from Moscow. In January, The Guardian reported that “Russian-trained mercenaries were helping build paramilitary units for Dodik.” Further reports confirm increased Russian meddling in support of Dodik’s separatism. (Dodik recently hosted officials from South Ossetia, another Russia-occupied breakaway region in Georgia.)
Thanks to his actions in unsettling Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the broader Balkans, the U.S. decided to finally, formally sanction Dodik in 2017. As the Treasury Department noted, Dodik was “designated for conduct that poses a significant risk of actively obstructing” the Dayton Accords.
As one Treasury official said, “Dodik poses a significant threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
So, the SNSD (whose head, Milorad Dodik has been sanctioned by the US) appears to have bought the services of one Jason Osborne & Michael Rubin, GOP-affiliated consultants ahead of the Bosnian elxns. That seems a lil' dodgy, no @GOP? https://t.co/SmvVjQHFCZ
— Jasmin Mujanović (@JasminMuj) June 7, 2018
While there’s no indication Osborne or Rubino met directly with Dodik, their meeting with Cvijanovic is hardly any better, not least because Cvijanovic is effectively Dodik’s proxy at prime minister — and further denies that a genocide actually took place at Srbrenica.
“Dodik is a man the U.S. ambassador in Sarajevo refuses to meet with because of his… years-long track record of attacking U.S., E.U., and [Bosnia and Herzegovina] officials,” Jasmin Mujanovic, a lecturer at Elon University and recent author of a book on the region’s political dynamics, told ThinkProgress. And when asked if Dodik and Cvijanovic were close, Bajrovic responded, “Very.”
While Osborne’s and Rubino’s end-game remains uncertain, for Mujanovic, their presence — as well as Lewandowski’s recent tramping through Belgrade — is concerning enough.
“I think we need to understand this as part of broader trend with this White House and its respective proxies,” he said. “They are making a habit of reaching out to and associating with regimes which have, traditionally, opposed American and European interests… So the idea that there are now American, GOP-affiliated strategists working with [Dodik] and his government is really quite shocking.”