Salvaging Croatia’s Biggest Private Company Reveals History Of Ingrained Corrupt Practices

 

Maxim Ppletaiv of Russia’s
Sberbank in Zagreb
Photo: Screenshot

Corruption is the abuse of high-level power that benefits the few at the expense of the many, and when corruption occurs on a grand scale it causes serious and widespread harm to individuals and society. The terrifying thought is that corruption on a grand scale often goes unpunished, often gets lost in an uneasy but nevertheless “accepted” as a reality of nebulous political pursuits. Corruption concerns countless number of victims as its effects seep down to impoverished and/or jeopardised livelihoods of ordinary people. Whether the Croatian government’s relatively recent take-over of administration of the country’s troubled largest employer – Agrokor – will eventually reveal cover-ups of corruption on a grand scale through decades, involving perhaps some political elites of the day, is anyone’s guess at this stage but inklings of that nature have certainly got tongues wagging on city squares and town streets.

 

Past days have seen Russian Sberbank (largest Agrokor creditor) deputy president Maxim Poletaiv visit Croatia for meetings regarding saving Agrokor from bankruptcy. A rather telling fact that reeks of dishonesty and most likely corruption in and around Agrokor is embedded in Poletaiv’s revelation that he was being lied to for a long time, by the Agrokor’s head honcho’s (Ivica Todoric) family through presentations of incomplete accounts balances, which has led to Sberbank’s loss of trust in Agrokor.

And so, this week, the Croatian government has entered talks to save Agrokor (an employer of some 60,000 people), Croatia‘s biggest private company and employer, from bankruptcy.

Agrokor’s biggest creditor, Russian bank Sberbank, wants the Croatian government to take over the company’s loan obligations before it considers further financing of the troubled company. It goes without saying that having lost trust in Agrokor, Sberbank will seek that trust in the company (now administered by the government) be restored as trust is undoubtedly the foundation upon which Sberbank’s (or anybody’s) further support will depend.

 

But one’s mind does boggle – why have we not seen any action yet from the government seeking to sue and/or sanction otherwise Agrokor’s head honcho Ivica Todoric for presenting incomplete (even maybe doctored) accounts to the major creditor in the past? The case reeks of corrupt and/or fraudulent behaviour that is manufacturing likely victims (possible massive job loses) that will shake Croatia to the core. It has become evident that Agrokor’s fiscal documentation had been misrepresented with view to deceive and that spells out falsification that any government has the duty to swiftly act upon. So why is Croatia’s government not dealing with this yet? What is it waiting for?

 

Sberbank’s deputy president, Maxim Poletaev, said after meeting Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic that future loans to Agrokor will depend “on the level of cooperation” of the government. In other words, genuine and transparent cooperation – the elements of trust – are the ingredients that have so far been lacking in Sberbank’s dealings with Agrokor and if the Croatian government demonstrate dedication to those elements of trust this may save Agrokor from bankruptcy

 

An optimistic sign emerged as Poletaev said this week in Zagreb: “We had a very straightforward meeting, We talked about many issues and I think we should find a solution.”

Sberbank has said it will not provide new financing for Agrokor until an agreement is reached with the government, which has since April 2017 via extraordinary measures in order to take over the company’s administration been trying to prevent the collapse of the company and to oversee a debt restructuring.

 

Indeed, Sberbank’s Executive Director Herman Gref (former minister of economics and trade – Russia) has in recent days criticised Croatia’s hastlily whipped-up law “Lex Agrokor”, which enabled the government’s take-over of the company’s administration and sought that the Croatian state takes over the company’s debts, since it took over its administration!

 

Agrokor has accumulated an estimated $6.5 billion (5.8 billion euros) in debt, or six times its equity, while rapidly expanding its operations. It owes some 1.1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) directly to Sberbank.

 

 

The company needs new loans to pay its suppliers. If they stop delivering goods, the company, which has stores in several neighbouring countries, would have no choice but declare bankruptcy.

The Croatian prime minister sounded an optimistic note.

“We are in talks and new financing will come, probably under better conditions,” Andrej Plenkovic said.

 

Agrokor, under government administration, expects to complete talks with creditors on a new loan soon, the company’s crisis manager special Commissioner, Agrokor crisis manager, Ante Ramljak said on Monday.

 

The company received an initial cash injection worth 80 million euros (US$89.34 million) in mid-April to keep the business running. A new injection is expected to be worth up to 350 million euros.

“We’re at the end of talks on a new loan for Agrokor. You can soon expect to be given a concrete figure and names of the creditors which include both local and foreign banks,” Ante Ramljak told reporters.

 

“All the creditors are offered a roll-up option. It means that for each kuna offered as a new loan the creditors will be granted a senior status for each kuna or less from previous funding,” Ramljak said after talks with Russia’s Sberbank.

 

To draw a line under Agrokor affair, which has caused a very jittery inflation of the Croatian political crisis, one cannot but fret for Croatian national interests when a Russian bank (Sberbank in this case) (or any other foreign body for that matter) controls important aspects in solving the crisis. Will Croatian leadership be placed in the position of making compromises or allowances to Russian interests is a question that must be asked? If the answer is yes, then are we most likely looking at politically and procedurally elaborate and costly cover-ups of grand corruption that has occurred via Agrokor’s channels throughout the past years? As anticipated, much ugliness has yet to be revealed in the Agrokor saga and the grovernment’s intervention – regretfully. Ina Vukic

 

Croatian Economy: Rogues, Thieves And Other Vermin

Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic (L)
Extraordinary Commissioner for Agrokor Ante Ramljak (R)
Photo: Dragan Matic/HANZA MEDIA

When the government of a former communist country (Croatia) brings about and takes over with forced administration a calamitously failed private company (it subsidised and helped along the way as did the communist Yugoslavia regime via nationalisation of private assets and borrowed money injections) the gut tells you, regardless of the threat of thousands of job losses if that company sinks, you’re more than likely dealing with attempts of cover-ups of major incompetence, possible embezzlement come thefts and politically driven paths to sell and hand over the company or notable parts of it to a new entity. The private company in question is Agrokor (that employs some 60,000 people – dubbed the largest employer in the Balkans) and while the Croatian government is gung ho on bringing in domestic and foreign professionals to save the company from bankruptcy the fact remains that the government will be the one to choose those professionals and some members of the government may well have in their past dealings contributed to the downfall of Agrokor – professionally and/or politically.

Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic is adamant his government is taking the right steps in its chosen path to save Agrokor but that view is certainly not shared by many, including Moody’s Investor Services who have April 11 downgraded Agrokor’s credit rating because of the new moves to restructure Agrokor and its family companies under the new special law passed in Croatian parliament as legislative foundation for the government to take over the administration of the company. Moody’s project that, with the new law (Extraordinary Management Proceedings in Companies of Systemic Significance) default is highly likely for Agrokor, especially due to emerging uncertainties in the restructuring process for the company.

Ringing in my head: when did Croatia’s Prime Minister and his government become expert in strategic corporate management? So far, for the last twenty odd years, including this one, all Croatia’s governments have been “famous” for is their mismanagement of the economy and privatisation, and yet this current government continues to demonstrate its certainty that they always know best, even if the country is in free-fall economically due to government mismanagement, or rather, due to business knowhow incompetency inherited from the communist era.

So, Croatia is struggling to contain the economic fallout from problems at heavily indebted food group Agrokor, the restructuring expert appointed by the government to lead the process Ante Ramljak, now the (extraordinary) Commissioner for Agrokor, has commenced his work a couple of days ago and vows to do his best to save the company from bankruptcy. On the other hand Moody’s would suggest we buckle-up and wait for the inevitable bankruptcy of the company. According to the data from last September, Agrokor’s debts totaled around 45 billion kuna (US$6.42 billion), or six times its equity

On Friday 7th April, Agrokor’s CEO and majority owner, Ivica Todoric, handed over control of the indebted company to the Croatian government. Mr. Todoric activated a process of ‘extraordinary management’ following the passing of the abovesaid special law that was voted through by Croatia’s parliament that same day.

The special law, nicknamed “Lex Agrokor”, applies to companies of systemic importance to Croatia. The company must employ more than 5,000 workers and report revenue of at least HRK7.5 bn (€1bn). The law was formed to avoid the impact of Agrokor’s bankruptcy on the Croatian economy. Agrokor’s revenue stream of €6.5 bn in 2015 made up 15% of Croatia’s nominal GDP, and has 60,000 employees in Croatia and in other Balkan markets.

‘Lex Agrokor’ empowers Croatia’s judiciary to name Agrokor’s overseer and to placed it under the control of the Ministry of Finance. The judiciary’s appointed ‘extraordinary commissioner’ – Ante Ramljak – will oversee the restructure of Agrokor and its debt repayment as well as ensure payments to suppliers and maintain the flow in supply chain in the retail and food and agriculture business segments. The law stipulates that if within 15 months, following the activation of this law, a settlement is not reached between the debtor and lender then bankruptcy proceedings can begin.

From the Croatian government’s website we learn that “the coordinating committee of Agrokor’s financial creditors comprises Erste Bank, Privredna Banka Zagreb, Raiffeisenbank Austria, Sberbank, VTB Bank (Austria) AG and Zagrebacka Banka. The representatives of the banks support the legislative and institutional framework and also offer support to Ante Ramljak, who has been appointed receiver to Agrokor, Plenkovic said after the talks. The banks are ready to give a new loan, that is fresh liquidity to Agrokor, so as to enable this ailing retail and food concern to pay its workers and suppliers and help the group to function.”

The biggest Russian bank Sberbank is doing everything it can to support the Croatian Agrokor concern, to which it is the biggest creditor, stated recently the CEO of that Russian bank Herman Gref, adding that Sberbank does not want to manage retail in Eastern Europe. “We’re in close contact with the owners and management of Agrokor and we continue to support them. We will do everything so that the company remains standing and solves its temporary problems. There is a plan to get out of this situation which has been agreed with us,” Gref said in Moscow, without giving details.

The possibility exists that Russia’s companies could buy significant units in Agrokor – what a way to get Russia’s paws into the Croatian economy! Oh, how the former and current and redesigned communists network! Sadly, no easy sleeps seem possible for many of Croatia’s people in the foreseeable future.

Croatian government’s move to extraordinary and emergency control of Agrokor is nowhere near the concept and practicality of government bailouts we’ve grown to know in Western democracies since the 2007-2008 GFC. What’s happening with Agrokor is a takeover reminiscent of dictatorial entrenchments that do not equally and with same intensity open up to creating new avenues for job creation in case Agrokor does go into bankruptcy at the end of the day. All eggs in one basket so to speak. Not a good way to go. Ina Vukic

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