Just in time for the elections, and after months of speculation, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili on September 30 unveiled a multi-billion-dollar private equity fund.
The Georgian Co-Investment Fund, a $6-billion vehicle that pools funds from over ten investment groups to finance projects in agriculture, energy, infrastructure, manufacturing, tourism, and “other” business opportunities, has been lauded as the key to bolster Georgia’s rates of foreign direct investment (FDI) and economic growth.
Over the next five years, the fund plans to spend $6 billion -- potentially more money per year than the Georgian economy has received in FDI since before the 2008 war with Russia. Aside from attracting large-scale international investment, its stated intentions include increasing Georgia’s exports and local businesses’ access to financing; all among the government’s economic priorities.
There’s just one catch – Ivanishvili himself, estimated by Forbes to be worth a cool $5.3 billion, is one of the investors.
Critics worry that, with one hand managing the government and the other hand on the fund’s till, the prime minister could end up sinking into a deep conflict of interests.
Ivanishvili, apparently, doesn’t see it. He has vowed to leave politics after Georgia’s October 27 presidential election, and, at a low-key presentation in Tbilisi, promised the country’s business elite that he does not intend to interfere with the fund or its investments.
A spokesperson for the prime minister's office told EurasiaNet.org that Ivanishvili plans to invest $1 billion in the fund, but only after the elections.*
Nonetheless,the sheer size of the fund, operating in an environment where politics and business easily intermingle, is raising some concerns that Ivanishvili’s contribution, and penchant for control, could cause potential problems for businesses and investors who run afoul of the government, which will remain under the control of Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream.
The notion of such problems is not an unfounded one for Georgia. Allegedly, private companies suffered under the government run by President Mikheil Saakashvili when members of the ruling elite clashed with entrepreneurs.
The fund’s management has taken pains to distance itself from the prime minister, however. There are reportedly investors from several different countries and efforts underway to create an independent advisory board. The fund has also sought oversight from non-Georgian law firms during its creation.
But, as is often the case, the devil is in the details; and the details of the Georgian Co-Investment Fund are largely unknown. The Fund’s website is still largely unfinished and lacks basic information about partners and oversight mechanisms.
While Fund Chief Executive Officer George Bachiashvili listed several of the fund’s investors – which, in addition to Ivanishvili, include the family of Badri Patarkatsishvili, the late Georgian oligarch; the Ras Al Khaimah Investment Authority, and the State Oil Fund of the Republic of Azerbaijan – he did not disclose how much each is investing.
Bachiashvili previously had described the private equity fund to EurasiaNet.org as a “completely private entity;” a claim not supported if the prime minister, a public official, has become one of the start-up investors.
Bachiashvili himself has worked simultaneously as the CEO of the Georgian Co-Investment Fund and the government-financed Partnership Fund -- a conflict of interest not lost on Transparency International and other watchdogs concerned with how the prime minister’s money meshes with budget funds and government priorities.
Amidst rampant unemployment, though, the average Georgian voter may be less concerned about such matters.
Georgia desperately needs injections of fresh capital, ideas, and innovation to jumpstart its struggling economy. Whether or not the investment shot should come from the country’s richest man and most powerful public official is debatable, however.
*An earlier edition of this blog reported that the amount of Ivanishvili's disclosure had not been disclosed.