TBILISI -- Don't you just hate it when you lend your car to someone and they return it with the gas tank empty and the floor mats all sticky with spilled soda?
Well this is how billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili claims to have felt when the Georgian government returned his bank to him after allegedly taking it for a two-week, $50 million joyride.
Cartu Bank, which is part of the opposition figure's Cartu Group of holdings, was taken into government receivership on July 12 because Ivanishvili -- who heads the Georgian Dream movement that is seeking to oust President Mikheil Saakashvili from power -- refused to pay a $45 million fine for alleged political-funding violations.
When Ivanishvili paid the fine on July 25, Cartu Bank General Director Nodar Javakhishvili was able to return to his office. And he wasn't pleased with what he found.
"As soon as they arrived, the first thing they did was to launch negotiations with the European Bank [for Reconstruction and Development, EBRD]. We have an open line of credit with the EBRD, and they claimed they would cover these debts in advance," Javakhishvili says.
The bank director adds that this was "definitely not" in the bank's interests. "Draining the bank of its resources would make it possible for them to declare it insolvent and bring in a temporary administration," he notes. "Or to declare it bankrupt."
Financial 'Sword Of Damocles'
Economist Vladimer Ugulava, who was appointed by the government to manage the bank while it was in state hands, did not respond to repeated requests over two days to comment on this story.
Kakha Barabadze, head of the Public Relations Department of the National Bank of Georgia, also declined to comment.
Javakhishvili also charges that the temporary managers signed loan agreements with four development companies, putting Cartu on the hook for $50 million.
"These agreements violate all laws, rules, and procedures of Georgian banking legislation, as well as international norms. We will not abide by them, most likely," he says.
"But this makes no difference -- I have no authority to annul them, only the courts can do that. And there is virtually no chance of this happening," Javakhishvili continues. "And if they are not annulled, then these obligations hang like a sword of Damocles over the bank. The National Bank will decide these obligations are real and will declare [Cartu] insolvent."
Javakhishvili claims that the temporary managers set themselves the task of destroying the bank, most likely as retaliation for Ivanishvili's political activity. He says the government has been waging "war" against the bank for months now and that Cartu has not won a single legal case against the state over the last nine months.
Political Gain, Economic Loss
In addition, despite having control of the bank for just two weeks, the temporary managers signed an 800,000-lari ($482,000) contract to renovate the bank's branch in the eastern Georgian city of Telavi. Javakhishvili says this is particularly strange because Cartu bought that building for just 500,000 laris. He believes the government's plan -- which was thwarted when Ivanishvili suddenly and unexpectedly agreed to pay his fine -- was to move Cartu's headquarters out of Tbilisi and sell off its opulent building in the capital.
Independent banking analyst Lia Eliava says the main responsibility of the temporary management should have been to maximize Cartu's profits in order to raise the money the government said Ivanishvili owed.
But, Eliava says, that isn't what happened, if Javakhishvili's claims are true. "The actions undertaken by the temporary administration cannot be considered as an intensification of banking operations or a means to maximize profits," the analyst says.
She notes that any bank's main capital is its reputation and that the state's campaign against Cartu has already cost the bank dearly, as growing numbers of creditors, clients, and other partners begin to shun it.
While the struggle against Cartu might be politically beneficial for the Saakashvili government, Eliava says it will certainly cast a shadow over the country's economy.
"The fight between the bank and the government has been going on for almost a year. Finally, as we can see, it looks like the government is winning and the bank is headed toward bankruptcy," Eliava says. "And this is not going to have a positive effect on the image of the country's banking sector."
Robert Coalson contributed to this story from Prague