Ed Gillespie, the consummate Republican insider who's running for the U.S. Senate from Virginia, was a paid lobbyist for a media company owned by a longtime close associate of Slobodan Milosevic, the late Serbian president and indicted war criminal.
Quinn Gillespie & Associates, the Washington lobby firm Gillespie co-founded, was paid $300,000 by Belgrade-based Pink International Corporation for lobbying work in 2007, lobbying disclosure records reviewed by msnbc show. Gillespie himself, along with two other employees of the firm, is listed as having personally lobbied for Pink on “general business issues,” as well as on “visa issues.”
Pink International, founded and owned by media entrepreneur Zeljko Mitrovic, runs Pink TV, a popular music and entertainment channel in Serbia. Mitrovic was a high-ranking member of the Yugoslav Left party, run by Milosevic’s wife and political partner Mirjana Markovic, and was personally close with the Milosevic family. Pink played a key role in Milosevic’s wartime cultural propaganda machine, Serbian media experts and journalists say, and the regime eagerly provided Pink with state media resources—support that they say was crucial to the company’s rapid expansion.
In 2007, Pink International, which also owns a radio station, a fashion TV channel, and a film production studio, reported profits of around $5.5 million.
A former RNC chair and top adviser to President George W. Bush and Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign, Gillespie’s and his firm’s lobbying work on behalf of corporate clients including Enron, the tobacco industry, and the American Petroleum Industry have drawn media attention. But his work for Pink has so far escaped scrutiny.
Asked about that work—which came seven years after Milosevic was forced from power, and after Mitrovic had become a supporter of Serbia’s pro-western government—Gillespie's campaign did not respond directly.
"Ed Gillespie and Quinn Gillespie were well-respected advocates for their clients when he worked there over six years ago," Paul Logan, a spokesman for the campaign, told msnbc via email.
After Gillespie left Quinn Gillespie in mid-2007 to work in the Bush White House, the lobbying firm, today known as QGA, continued to represent Pink into 2011, disclosure records show.
"We are proud of the work that we did for Pink," QGA said in a statement to msnbc. It added that the work included "helping to build relationships with the U.S. government and to reach out to American businesses," as well as "overseeing an overhaul of its news department to improve the quality of news reporting along accepted American journalistic standards."
During the Balkan wars that Milosevic instigated, NATO appeared to see Pink as a de facto extension of his regime. In 1999, NATO bombed a Belgrade office building that housed Pink TV’s studios and transmitters, as well as those of several other media outlets with ties to the regime. The building also housed the headquarters of the political parties of both Milosevic and his wife.
The attack aimed to demonstrate that NATO “would now hit the business interests of President Slobodan Milosevic's family and friends,” the New York Times reported at the time. It described Mitrovic as a “family friend” of the Milosevics, and a “prominent member” of Mirjana Markovic’s Yugoslav Left party.
Even once the U.S. lifted sanctions against Serbia after Milosevic’s ouster in 2000, Mitrovic remained on a U.S. Treasury list of people with whom U.S. companies were barred from trading. That status was lifted in 2003, Columbia Journalism Review reported in a 2005 story, not posted online, about Mitrovic and Pink.
According to Dejan Anastasijevic, a Serbian journalist who was a committed Milosevic critic, Pink's rapid mid-90s expansion came after the Milosevic regime handed state media resources—studios, frequencies, and transmitters, among other things—over to the company. In return, Pink was supposed to produce some TV shows for state media, but it never did so, Anastasiyevic said.
Mitrovic “created his empire by stealing public money,” added Anastasijevic, who has written about the episode in the Serbian news media. “Since he was politically connected with Milosevic, nothing ever came of it.”
A QGA representative said via email that the firm believes the democratic government of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who succeeded Milosevic, essentially cleared Pink of having illegally profited from ties to the Milosevic regime. To support that claim, QGA said Pink never paid a tax that was levied on companies found to have benefited from deals with the regime.
But Anastasijevic called the tax "more an idea than a program." He said only a few oligarchs ever paid it, out of "hundreds" who became rich under Milosevic. The law assessing the tax was overturned by Serbia's high court in 2004.
By all accounts, Mitrovic wasn’t a pro-Milosevic true believer. Rather, he was a businessman who was willing to do what was necessary to grow Pink TV. And Pink didn’t produce explicit pro-Milosevic propaganda. Its steady diet of low-brow music and entertainment fare—often featuring scantily clad women—mostly avoided coverage of news or politics. But Serbian media experts say Pink served Milosevic’s aims by providing a distraction from the succession of bloody regional wars that he initiated.
“His role was to placate the people, to create the illusion that everyone’s having a really good time and there’s no reason to fuss about politics,” said Anastasijevic, referring to Mitrovic.
Pink also heavily promoted “Turbofolk” music, a modern version of Serbian folk music that came to be associated with the Serbian nationalism that enjoyed a revival under Milosevic and helped fuel his aggressive foreign policy. In 1995, Pink broadcast the day-long wedding ceremony of Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic, a paramilitary leader and crime boss, who was marrying Turbofolk diva Ceca. Raznatovic, a frequent guest on Pink talk shows, was indicted by the U.N. for crimes against humanity, and was assassinated in 2000 before his trial.
Mirjana Markovic, Milosevic's widow, described her relationship with Mitrovic in a 2012 book published in exile in Russia. She recounted Mitrovic begging her to include him on a list of candidates for a party committee, which Markovic did. "A little later we joined my husband," Markovic wrote. "I explained to him what it was about ... then I called a few companions, so we went to dinner at a small restaurant in Ada. Zeljko was comforted."
“They were close,” Snjezana Milivojevic, a professor of media studies at Belgrade University, said of Mitrovic and Milosevic. Trashy commercial television is nothing new, in Serbia or elsewhere, Milivojevic added. “But trashy commercial TV everywhere does not have the burden of having close ties to a criminal regime.”
Milosevic died in 2005 while awaiting trial by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). ICTY prosecutors claimed that Milosevic started wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo as part of a scheme to create a “Greater Serbia,” and that he aimed to do so by forcibly removing non-Serbs from Serb–populated areas. Milosevic was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, among many other crimes, in connection with Serbia’s wars in the Balkans.
Gillespie, who has never before run for public office, is the frontrunner among four candidates for the Republican nomination to face Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat. Early polls show Warner leading Gillespie by a wide margin.