Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

The lobbyist and the quilt

I try to keep an eye on stories about PR and lobbying firms that work on behalf of dictatorial governments, like our oil-rich friends in Equatorial Guinea and the ever-complicated nation of Rwanda. (See this recent piece by Geoffrey York for more on Rwanda’s use of PR firms and lobbyists.) So this piece by Vijaya Ramachandran on the Center for Global Development blog caught my attention. It discusses the complexity of obtaining information on lobbyists working on behalf of foreign governments and points to a tool developed by the Sunlight Foundation and ProPublica, the Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker.

Like many of the tools from the Sunlight Foundation, it’s both very exciting, and a couple of steps away from what I’d hope it could be. You can poke through and find the six different entities connected to Equatorial Guinea that have hired lobbyists… but it would take some serious legwork to compare how much money different nations are spending on lobbying, and who they’re trying to influence.

I got distracted looking at which countries had sought lobbyists in Washington. The answer: pretty much every nation you’ve ever heard of, and a few you’ve probably never heard of. Alongside established, UN-recognized nation-states, there are unrecognized states, like Abkhazia, the Sahwari Democratic Arab Republic, Puntland, Nagorno-Karabagh. Most of those are long-standing proto-states that I can place on a map. But I’d never heard of “The People’s Republic of Nagalim”.

Nagalim is an aspirational state for the Naga people, who are chiefly located in Nagaland, a state in north-eastern India, one of the seven states connected to the rest of the nation by a narrow land bridge (the Siliguri corridor) above Bangladesh. Some of these states are seeking partial or total independence from India, and there’s ongoing violence in the region connected with insurgencies. The organizers of Nagalim.us see the Indian state of Nagaland as insufficient, and are seeking an independent Nagalim including parts of India and Burma.

It’s unclear what form of governance the Nagalim movement is seeking, beyond independence from India. The National Socialist Council of Nagalim – which maintains Nagalim.us – wants to avoid misconceptions about their identity:

To clarify misconceptions: “national socialist” should not be confused with national socialism, or Nazism. “National” refers to the Naga nation. “Socialist” should not be confused with Communism, Eastern European or Chinese-style socialism. Although modern socialist principles have influenced the Nagas – as they have Western democracies (e.g. social security and medicare in the United States), traditional Naga society emphasized certain collective social principles – sharing, cooperation, lack of a class structure, etc. It is these ideals which the Nagas wish to retain and reinvigorate as they build a modern nation.

Some of the supporters of the Naga people’s aspirations would add an additional term to “national” and “socialist”: “Christian”. American Baptist missionaries were highly active in Nagaland in the late 19th and early 20th century. As a result of their efforts, the Naga people are roughly 90% Christian, and the vast majority (75% of the population of Nagaland State) are Baptist, making Nagaland the most Baptist state in the world, well ahead of strongholds like Alabama or Mississippi. Evangelist and former Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson wonders whether we should refer to Nagalim as “The Baptist Tibet”. The plight of the Naga is a popular topic for ASSIST news services, a service that strives to document persecution of Christians around the world.

The lobbyist representing The People’s Republic of Nagalim in Washington is Grace Collins, who is referred to on some Nagalim websites as Honorary Ambassador from Nagalim to the US. She doesn’t seem shy about using Baptist-influenced language to offer her blessings to Nagalim on the occasion of the nation’s 62nd independence day in 2008 (I’m assuming this is independence from the British…) A profile on Naymz.com explains that Ms. Collins began her cultural diplomacy for Nagalim in 1997, and was asked by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim to represent the nation, full-time, in 2003.

And according to her lobbying records, she’s been busy. Lobbying disclosures are usually pretty formulaic. Here’s an example, from McDermott, Will and Emery, lobbying on behalf of Equatorial Guinea: “to gather information in order to better advise the Foreign Principal on ongoing reforms. Registrant did not advance a specific policy position.” That same text is cut and pasted several times into the database – most lobbying disclosures are carefully constructed lawyerspeak, designed to ensure compliance.

Ambassador Collins seems less concerned about compliance, which makes her disclosures a far more interesting read:

On behalf of GPRN/NSCN I attended networking functions that exposed me to a high level of professional. I also hosted the President and his cabinet, talked with congressmens offices, met NGO leaders, and churches. I attended many inauguration parties and committee functions. I am constinuing to raise awareness for the Naga orphans through the Malcolm Project. I went Ramstein, Germany and met with some US army people in order to tie in the Wounded Warriors of our government with the Nagas army. Tha Nagas are creating a goodwill guilt as a way of showing support and honoring our troops as the Naga fought side by side in WI and WII against the Japanese occupation.

The “goodwill guilt” appears to be a quilt, made from remnants of Naga shawls: “Sent Nancy Shinder $100 plus shawl remnants to make a quilt from the Naga government to our US Army in Ramstein, Germany”. Cultural diplomacy also involves attempts to make a film:

I decided to break out of lobbying on the Hill and start branching out to Hollywood celebrities to help me. I have been searching for the right script writer and publicists to find a celebrity to champion the Naga cause. I have spoken at the International Society of the Arts Salon in Los Angeles and hosted a Nagalim Discovered Event in Hollywood. Because I was planning to go to Nagaland in February and initially the Indian government gave me a visa, I purchased four tickets and then the Indian government, with no explanation, revoked my visa. I decided to take the Film documentation and Continental Airlines to Small Claims court in Los Angeles for not reimbursing me the cost of my air tickets. The Judge Judy Show found my story and asked me to appear on the show. I did this in order to back door the Nagalim story to 10 million audience.

Collins did appear on the Judge Judy Show, according to a transcript from December 29, 2009, though it’s not clear whether the dispute over a canceled airline ticket forwarded the Naga people’s cause.

It’s easy to poke fun at Collins’s disclosures, particularly when they include her cat: “Clarence is my cat. We are putting him in the Wounded Warrior program.” But her accounts read like the work of someone trying very, very hard to figure out how best to gain recognition for a country no one has ever heard of.

It’s not an easy problem to figure out – state recognition, ultimately, is up to the decisions of other states. Sometimes it’s pretty easy for states to make up their mind – Sudan holds a referendum, the majority of people in Southern Sudan vote for independence, and other states recognize the new state. Sometimes, it’s much, much messier – Abkhazia is recognized by Russia and by other Russian-aligned self-declared states, including South Ossetia and Transnistria, but not by many other nations. Nagalim is evidently seeking recognition from the US as a main strategy for independence, both because religious ties make recognition more likely and because US recognition might well lead to pressure on India to offer a path to independence.

For those less inclined to improvise, there are firms that focus on helping unrecognized states get recognized. Independent Diplomat specializes in representing states like Somaliland and Western Sahara, as well as the now-recognized Southern Sudan. A profile in the New York Times offers some background on the founder of the organization, and the reasons nations might need to hire a non-profit diplomatic corps.

I have no doubt there are more important stories contained within the data contained within the Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker, and that most of them are less quirky and more depressing than this story. But sometimes the beauty of data is the snippet that catches your eye, the American Baptists seeking recognition for a state in South Asia through films, cats and quilts.

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