By Eka Janashia (08/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On June 27, Georgia’s parliament passed, in the first reading, a bill that deprives the National Bank of Georgia (NBG) of its supervisory function of financial institutions, assigning these tasks to an independent agency.
The proposal, initiated by the Georgian Dream (GD) ruling coalition a month earlier, has faced a spate of sharp criticism not only from the political opposition but also from influential international financial institutions, civil society and the business sector. President Giorgi Margvelashvili pledged to veto the bill in case it was endorsed.
According to the amendments, a new body – the Financial Supervisory Agency (FSA) – will monitor and conduct oversight of Georgia’s banking sector and financial institutions, a function currently carried out by NBG. A seven-member board, including a representative and the president of NBG, as well as five government nominees, will run FSA after the parliamentary confirmation. The board members, in turn, will name the head of the agency, which should also be approved by the parliament.
The critics of the bill discern political motives behind the proposal, arguing that it is designed to undermine the position of NBG’s President Giorgi Kadagidze, who is affiliated with the formerly ruling United National Movement (UNM) party.
The legislation’s timing coincides with an escalating confrontation between senior GD politicians and Kadagidze. The initial attacks against Kadagidze took place in February last year, when the depreciation of Georgia’s national currency reached a dramatic level. Former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili lashed out at the NBG president, blaming him for inaction to prevent the currency crisis by using the national reserves (See 03/18/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst). Since then, Kadagidze, whose term in office will expire in February 2016, has become a frequent target of attacks from GD politicians.
Opponents of the bill also question the financial advisability of moving banking supervision from the NBG, arguing that there is no economic and financial rationale justifying the damage implied by the planned changes.
Reputable financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and Asian Development Bank have warned PM Irakli Gharibashvili and Parliament Speaker Davit Usupashvili that splitting the NBG’s functions will weaken “the independence and quality of banking supervision in Georgia” and challenge both stability in the banking sector and the sustainability of economic growth. In particular, they warn against empowering the parliament to appoint FSA Board members, which will undermine the principle of checks and balances practiced in the current appointment procedures for the NBG Board. Such a shift risks leading to a politicization of banking supervision, damaging its independence and autonomy, the institutions assert.
By contrast, GD argues that the amendments will grant “more independence” to the banking sector. A co-sponsor of the bill, GD MP Tamaz Mechiauri, who chairs the parliamentary committee for finances, explained that the proposal will lead to the de-politicization of NBG’s currently politicized board, which “do not reflect at all the interests of those forces, which are currently in power.”
Against the background of such statements, UNM insists that bill was initiated and backed by Ivanishvili, who aspires to obtain a “key” to the banking sector – the only sector that is not under his control.
The president’s office rejected the bill for its lack of professionalism and also lamented that the way it was elaborated contradicts Georgia’s commitments under the Association Agreement with the EU. According to the 2014-2016 Association Agenda, Georgia is obliged to boost the NBG’s independence by revising its legislation according to EU best practices and with the support of experts including from the European Central Bank. In fact, neither NBG, nor local or foreign experts, or representatives of Georgia’s business community, were invited to participate in the preparation process of the draft bill. Moreover, the sponsors of the bill failed to provide the political, financial and economic rationale justifying the prospective reduction of NBG’s functions and the need for creating a new agency.
If the bill is approved, GD will obtain real levers on the FSA Board, which will increase the perception of political motives behind the new amendments.
The president’s pledge to veto the bill will be largely symbolic since GD is well positioned to override it. The coalition holds 86 seats in parliament – 10 more than it needs to overturn a presidential veto.
Given the overall economic context – decreasing exports and investment as well as a slowdown of economic growth in Georgia, the endorsement of the bill will even further fuel speculations on the government’s agenda vis-à-vis NBG, and will complicate Georgia’s relations with financial donor organizations.