In retrospect, experts said he did too little, too late, but taking on Prva at all put the central banker on a collision course with the country’s most powerful men. Prva was about half owned by the family of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic. By the end of 2008, Milo’s brother Aco was by far the largest shareholder with 46 percent; Milo had 2.86 percent, and their sister Ana had one percent, according to a U.S. embassy cable from February 2009. Montenegrin state power group EPCG owns more than 18 percent of the bank.
In 2007, Milo Djukanovic -- at that point between stints as prime minister -- used what he was about to own in the bank as collateral to get a loan to buy shares in Prva Banka, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable.
Typically banks would reject the acquired object as the entire collateral because the purchased asset could decline in value.
But Milo Djukanovic “took a 1.5 million euro loan from an obscure London bank to purchase shares in Prva Banka through his company Capital Invest,” a U.S. diplomat wrote in a 2009 cable.
In a small country where family and social connections matter and business often takes place at cafes and restaurants, fortified by coffee, drink and cigarettes, it’s fair to say that transactions may not always conform to international standards.
During the boom years, deals commonly came with some sort of kickback, according to two private banking officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Corruption was so commonplace, they added, that it became part of a bank’s lending process as well.
“They just kept pouring in, the bribes,” says one banker who expressed concern about the practice. “It could be anywhere from five to 25 percent,” of the overall value of the loan. “There was no real percentage -- it was at the discretion of the client.”
A prospective borrower might telephone with a seemingly innocuous question. “Shall we see each other?” the person might ask, or “should we have a coffee?”, according to an official who received such calls. Another says a bank would often receive a “thank you” gift after approving a loan, such as flowers or a bottle of wine accompanied by an envelope of cash.
It worked, until it didn‘t. When Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008, the resulting global financial crisis led to a run on Montenegrin banks, with depositors pulling 30 percent of their holdings, according to Krgovic. As a major lender, Prva Banka was badly affected.
To calm the markets, the Montenegrin government guaranteed all personal and business deposits without limit. Prva Banka received special support. In December 2008, the government gave the bank an emergency liquidity loan of 44 million euros, which Prva has since repaid. Djukanovic, who was by then prime minister again, has repeatedly said he acted in the best interests of Montenegro, not his own portfolio.
In a December 2009 Reuters interview, Djukanovic said that he had sold off most of his shares in Prva Banka before the start of the world financial crisis. “It was a good situation on the market, so I could sell them and pay off the bank to which I was indebted,” he said.
He also defended the government’s loan to the bank. “I understand that the circumstances that my brother is one of the biggest or the biggest owners of the bank was especially intriguing,” he said in December 2009. “But I don’t understand the request that the bank should sink. We should extend a hand to whatever bank needs help, whoever are its shareholders.”
Despite repeated requests, Djukanovic was not available for comment on this story. A spokesman for his political party cited his busy schedule ahead of an upcoming party congress.
Prva Banka officials have consistently denied that it received special treatment. CEO Predrag Drecun, in charge since August 2009, rejects the charge of favouritism. Deposits from the electricity generator and supplier EPCG account for about a quarter of Prva’s portfolio while another 10 percent come from state entities, he told Reuters. “It is ridiculous; this opinion is a burden on this bank. Everybody thinks you are privileged, that you have a start advantage. No. We have no mother bank. This is our... disadvantage in relation to other banks,” he said.
But according to Krgovic and other critics of the government, including officials at rival banks, government entities to this day favour Prva by keeping large short-term deposits there earning little interest even as the government has taken out expensive loans elsewhere. Unlike neighbours Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Macedonia, Montenegro did not take an IMF loan that offered cheaper rates than commercial borrowing but would have come with stringent conditions, including tough banking regulations. It has turned to more expensive Eurobonds instead.
“Why are we paying eight percent to borrow, when we are keeping so much money in that bank?” asks Krgovic.
International officials, investors and local rivals have long expressed concern about the impact of Prva Banka on Montenegro’s economy. “It has proven a challenge for public institutions to make certain that commercial banks are treated uniformly, irrespective of whether they have close personal links to the executive,” Olters of the World Bank told Reuters.
Nobody understands that challenge better than Krgovic. In October 2008, just before Prva took its 44 million euro government loan, the central bank barred it from making new loans.
Krgovic had known Djukanovic since their university days and later served as the prime minister’s economic adviser. But it was time to act. The special treatment, he argued, had cost “a huge amount of public money” and if the country’s central bank did not function as an adequate regulator Prva’s problems could infect the broader economy.
It was a fight he was destined to lose. After the central bank’s decision to bar Prva Banka from making new loans, Krgovic says a key Prva bank official met some of his close friends to pass along a message: desist or lose your job.
“They said I will pay -- what am I doing?” he recounted. “They wanted special treatment.”
Bank CEO Drecun declined to comment when asked about Krgovic’s description of this attempted intimidation.
Last October, soon after parliament shortened his second six-year mandate, Krgovic was replaced by Radoje Zugic, who had stepped down from the Prva Banka board just months earlier. This February, the ban on Prva making new loans was partially lifted.
As his German shepherd barks from inside a cage at the foot of the house, Krgovic reflects on what he left behind. He had earned 3,800 euros a month after tax as central bank governor, a princely sum in such a poor country. He had jetted around the world as part of government delegations. He had been driven everywhere in his own government car. Now he drives himself in a second-hand Volkswagen Passat.
”It was a one-year public war,“ he said. ”I spent 10 years to build the institution, to build confidence. What did I get in the end?
“I spent the best part of my life and what are the results?” he continued. “Politicians including Milo want to control everything; I tried to develop a different part of the system, according to the law.”
Radoje Zugic, the new central bank governor, criticises his predecessor for failing to stop the real estate bubble and rein in overheating banks. “In retrospect, we can say that one should probably have reacted earlier,” he told Reuters.
Igor Luksic, who took over as prime minister last December, says that the image of Montenegro as corrupt is misleading. “I just don’t believe in many stories that I hear and I treat them rather as gossip,” he said. But in its annual report on Montenegro last November, the European Commission said “corruption remains prevalent in many areas and constitutes a particularly serious problem.” EU concerns about crime and rule of law are one of several key issues slowing the progress of the region, including in Croatia, which is next in line to win membership in the bloc.
Investors have repeatedly said corruption, a lack of transparency, and uncertainty over whether they can gain a fair and speedy hearing in the court system if a deal goes bad have deterred many from coming to the emerging Balkans.
“Someday, somebody will be guilty for this,” says Krgovic.
Luksic, the new prime minister, plays down the differences between the former central banker and the country’s leadership. “From time to time we had policy clashes,” he told Reuters. “But I respect everything Mr. Krgovic did for 10 years as central bank governor.”
Additional reporting by Peter Komnenic in Podgorica and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Writing by Adam Tanner; Editing by Sara Ledwith and Simon Robinson