Not only in Georgia but in Moldova doubts emerged that the big banks played a role in the national currency devaluation. If in Georgia this suspicion was expressed by Deputy Prime Minister, in Moldova the Prime Minister openly spoke out allegations against the banks.
Georgia is not the only country where the experts and high-ranking state officials are talking about the banks’ involvement in the national currency devaluation. After Kakha Kaladze mentioned the major banks of Georgia in the context of the lari depreciation, “Commersant” raised questions about whether there are grounds to believe that banks, in some form, were involved in the devaluation and it was a deliberate process? Neither the lawyers nor the officials have asked the questions of how to verify suspicions and how the government should react in such a case, when it comes to the country’s financial and political security.
Experts, including the skeptics, though, can’t confirm these facts, however, do not rule out that the banks have contributed to the devaluation though transactions. As it turned out, the government has similar doubts. In his statement Kaladze noted that this topic is discussed at the highest levels and there are serious doubts. Some Georgian experts rule out such a possibility at all, and call it absurd. Suspicions about the involvement of banks in the devaluation are voiced in other countries. The sharpest accusations in this regard are heard in Moldova.
It’s still not entirely clear what happened during a series of questionable banking transactions that took place in Moldova in November, just a few days before the country’s parliamentary elections. What is known, however, is that money amounting to nearly one-fifth of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) — over $1 billion in total — vanished into thin air. The bad loans made by three of Moldova’s biggest banks — the Banca de Economii, Banca Sociala, and Unibank — were discovered earlier this year by the country’s central bank, which was forced to throw an emergency lifeline of 16 billion Moldovan lei ($870 million) to the three or risk immediately tanking the financial system.
The three banks will likely never be able to repay the bailout, meaning the debt will eventually be converted to the country’s sovereign debt and charged to Moldova’s beleaguered taxpayers. It’s a staggering amount of money in local terms, according to Adrian Lupusor, the executive director of the Chisinau-based economic think tank Expert-Grup. Moldova is a small country of fewer than 4 million people. The $1 billion translates into approximately 16 percent of the country’s total annual GDP of $6.2 billion.
“It’s one of the biggest scandals in Moldova’s history,” Lupusor says. “It’s one of the biggest scandals anywhere in the region.” Expert-Grup, in a report published April 15, says it now expects Moldova’s economy to contract by between 0.2 percent and 1.8 percent in 2015, after expanding by 4.6 percent the previous year and an impressive 9 percent in 2013. Not all of the contraction can be attributed to the banking scandal. The economy was already facing stiff headwinds before the full effects of the scandal came to light in early 2015.
Recessions in neighboring Ukraine and Russia this year were already expected to dampen appetite for Moldovan exports. In addition, Russian import bans on important Moldovan products like wine and fruit were expected to take their toll this year. Russia unilaterally imposed bans on wine, in 2013, and agricultural products, in 2014, supposedly on health and safety grounds. The timing of the bans, however, shortly after Moldovan officials assented to a European Union association agreement, led many to believe they were political in nature.
The banking scandal, though, adds an unexpected negative impact that will likely hurt the economy in several different ways. News of the scandal provoked a run on the Moldovan currency, the lei, knocking it down some 40 percent before it regained some ground in recent days. The devaluation of the currency hurts many individuals and companies holding foreign-currency loans. Lupusor says banks are now likely to restrict their lending in order to build up liquidity. Finance officials will also move to tighten fiscal policy, raising taxes and cutting subsidies in order to raise revenue to cover debt payments. The moves will hit the poorest members of society hardest.
Not much is known about how the money was taken, only that the cash appeared to exit the banks via a series of specious loans. The central bank and the U.S. auditing firm Kroll are investigating, and the government is now considering a preliminary report. Officials have declined to comment, saying they don’t want to compromise the investigation.