A future for international consulting in Russia?

President Obama’s hot mic moment with outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has brought renewed attention to the recent election in the former Cold War power. Medvedev responded to Obama’s request for “space” by telling the president, “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”

In the early March vote, Vladimir Putin was returned to the country’s top job with 64 percent of the vote. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev put it this way: “If the votes had been counted honestly, the result would have been different.”

Russian democracy, once considered a promising experiment, has lost any semblance of competitiveness.

In the 1990s, though, the country was considered a burgeoning market for U.S. political consultants. The fall of the Soviet Union was expected to lead to the emergence of a powerful Russian democracy, and George Gorton was one of the first American advisers to a Russian presidential candidate. He helped rescue former President Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection campaign when the incumbent faced the prospect of losing to challenger Gennady Zyuganov, who was backed by a revived Communist Party.

Gorton’s experience was immortalized in the movie, “Spinning Boris.” C&E asked the California-based GOP consultant for his assessment of the current Russian consulting market and whether there are any parallels between his experience and what’s happening right now in Egypt, where initial optimism about opportunities for U.S. consultants has evaporated.

C&E: What’s your assessment of Russia today?

Gorton: It is a dangerous place to do work. It was made very dangerous because of the distribution of the economy. There was a lot of killing involved – 90 percent of the [former Soviet] economy has been distributed to those who have been the most ruthless.

C&E: Do you see it staying like that?

Gorton: They are developing some abilities and some aptitudes for consulting, but I think it’s another six to 10 years before an American political consultant can get a gig there. I think there’s a normal learning curve going on with political campaigns. Someday they will be as smart as us when it comes to campaigns.

C&E: Is Egypt following the same arc as Russia, where there’s initial interest in American expertise and then the consultants get chucked out by the new regime?

Gorton: There’s certainly more interest in the beginning. I’m not sure the door closes.

C&E: Russia was once thought of as the next frontier for U.S. consultants. Egypt briefly held that title – is there a new frontier left?

Gorton: Africa’s left. That will come sometime. The market will always be the strongest where they’re moving away from dictatorship. There will always be a market; it is just consultant beware.

C&E: If you could go back to when you first started doing international consulting, what advice would you give yourself?

Gorton: If [the potential client] isn’t willing to pay for your trip over in business class and a decent hotel, don’t go.

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