Exclusive: Cherie Blair's legal firm hired by Serbian government

Robert Mendick
·5-min read
Cherie Blair and her husband, former prime minister Tony Blair - Yui Mok 
Cherie Blair and her husband, former prime minister Tony Blair - Yui Mok

Cherie Blair’s legal firm has been awarded a contract to defend an ‘autocratic’ regime that receives advice from her husband’s company.

Mrs Blair’s firm, Omnia Strategy, has been hired by Serbia over allegations the Balkan State is harassing an independent television and internet company, in an attempt by the ruling party to “tighten its grip on power”.

Tony Blair, through the eponymous Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, has been advising Serbia for the past six years. The contract was originally funded by the United Arab Emirates.

Last night the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change insisted neither they nor Mr Blair played “any role” in securing the contracts for Mrs Blair’s law firm, saying she is a “well established lawyer” whose firm “has clients all over the world”.

Mrs Blair’s involvement with Serbia was made public in legal documents seen by The Telegraph. It lists the barrister as the first point of contact in the dispute and identifies five other individuals working for her at her law firm Omnia Strategy, which is based in a townhouse in central London.

It is unclear what Omnia’s legal costs will be to the Serbian taxpayer but Mrs Blair, a QC and former part-time judge who made her name as a human rights lawyer, is known to charge more than £1,000 per hour for her legal services.

It is not the first time Mrs Blair’s firm has undertaken legal work for governments who are separately advised by her husband’s company

The Telegraph previously disclosed how Omnia Strategy agreed a deal worth hundreds of thousands of pounds with Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Justice to conduct a review of the country’s “bilateral investment treaties”.

The deal in 2014 came three years after Mr Blair began advising the country’s autocratic ruler Nuruklstan Nazarbayev in a deal worth millions of pounds. The Telegraph reported how Mr Blair’s organisation gave Mr Nazarbayev advice on how to manage his image after the deaths of 14 unarmed civilians shot and killed while protesting against his regime.

Since 2017, Omnia has also provided legal support to the Gambian government in an oil dispute. Mr Blair’s institute also works with the Gambian government.

According to its website, Omnia "is an official adviser on international arbitrations to the Government of Rwanda”. The Tony Blair Institute has been providing official “strategic advice” to the Rwandan government since 2008 and Mr Blair is close to President Paul Kagame, who has been frequently accused of political repression and human rights abuses during his 20-year rule.

Cherie Blair in 2009  - Barry Batchelor 
Cherie Blair in 2009 - Barry Batchelor

Omnia Strategy and Tony Blair Institute are separate companies and are understood not to share information about any clients.

Last week, Mr Blair’s office confirmed that his not-for-profit organisation deploys a number of staff in Serbia “supporting the strategic implementation of modernisation reforms”.

The country’s president Aleksandar Vucic has been branded an autocrat and ‘populist strongman’ in recent times amid claims he is trying to strangle press freedoms and crack down on the opposition. Serbia, the country has slipped from 67th to 93rd in a world press freedom index compiled by Reporters without Borders.

Mr Vucic has been president since 2017 and first rose to prominence as Minister of Information under Slobodan Milosevic, who was subsequently charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for alleged atrocities committed in Kosovo.

Mr Blair was not always a welcome guest in Serbia and led the Nato bombing of the capital Belgrade in 1999 that earned such opprobirum that Mr Vucic, now his friend, was listed as an editor of a book titled ‘English Gay Fart Tony Blair’.

In its lawsuit against the Serbian Government, a Dutch-owned media company United Group BV said its telecoms venture Serbia Broadband (SBB) was being subjected to harassment. It alleges the state-owned media company Telekom Srbija has been buying television stations for more than they are worth and then turning them into pro-government outlets.

It claimed it had uncovered documents which cited the “complete destruction of SBB” as Telekom Srbija’s goal. In a statement United Group said: "The country's ruling establishment is attempting to tighten its grip on power and ensure its own survival through an ongoing and nefarious campaign using government resources to undermine one of the most important pillars of democratic society — a free, independent and professional media."

United Group’s main channel in Serbia N1TV has blamed Mr Vucic for stoking a campaign of harassment against it, a claim the president denies. Reporters Without Borders has alleged in November 2019 that the channel’s journalists have been victims of a campaign to “intimidate and scare” them and that they have been the target of an “unprecedented explosion of public anger stirred up by the president's allies and pro government media”.

The Tony Blair Institute currently operates in 18 countries as well as the UK where it is based according to its website.

Serbia is the only European nation receiving advice from the institute, which employs more than 200 staff and also has offices in the US.

According to the institute’s website: “Tony Blair is the sole owner and Executive Chairman of the Institute, as set out in the Articles of Association, and he receives no remuneration for his work at TBI, to which he devotes at least 80% of his time.”

A spokesman for the institute said: “Neither Mr Blair nor TBI has played any role whatever in seeking or securing contracts for Mrs Blair’s law firm Omnia. Mrs Blair is a well established lawyer and Omnia has clients all over the world. It is a legal practice which has nothing to do with the work of TBI.”

Omnia strategy did not respond to a request for comment.