ANAKLIA PORT – END OF THE LINE?

The Republic of Georgia’s Anaklia port project looks to be floundering – one of the main partners in the development consortium, US-based Conti Group, has just announced its decision to exit the project while simultaneously the development appears to be threatening Georgia’s reputation as one of the world’s best investment environments (with a top 10 ranking in the World Bank’s annual “Doing Business” survey).

Allegations of crony capitalism surround the project, largely triggered by the Anaklia Development Consortium’s call for deep, and what many parties say is clearly undue, public sector involvement in what is supposed to be a private sector project.

The root of the current problems is, informed sources suggest, the original tender process for the project with questions raised about transparency and undue influence, and overall widely viewed as flawed by sector experts.

The Anaklia Port tender started in 2014. There were only two bidders – the Anaklia Development Consortium (made up of TCB, a Georgian bank, and Conti Group, a US engineering company) and a Chinese consortium (two Chinese engineering companies). This should have been a clear red flag. No established investors/operator active in the international ports sector viewed this opportunity to be a viable project.

So perhaps the Government of Georgia should have shelved the project at this stage and focus edits limited funds elsewhere? Instead, in early 2016 the Georgian-US consortium of TCB Bank and Conti Group was awarded the tender – without any port experience and without the financial ability to carry out the project themselves.

This was very surprising. Worldwide, large scale port tenders always require bidders to meet minimum sector experience and “financial strength” requirements to ensure they can handle a given project. This did not happen in conjunction with Anaklia port – for reasons still not clear. Down the track the negative effects of this are now obvious.

There were other tell-tale signs – notably, in the period since the award of the tender, TCB and Conti Group missed all substantial deadlines to move the project forward. Conti Group’s overall faith in the project is perhaps signposted by its recent decision to exit it entirely? The problem TCB and Conti have faced throughout is not investing any major funds in the project themselves. Instead, they have looked to others to finance the project, but they have been unsuccessful in this quest.

RISK OF UNDUE STATE INVOLVEMENT

To overcome what seems like intractable problems for a purely private sector initiative, the Consortium has attempted to increase the involvement of the Government of Georgia, to a point where the specter of crony capitalism raises its head. This approach has involved three key objectives each of which has a clear association with crony capitalism. They are:

Government to guarantee the financing of the project: TCB and Conti approached the Government to guarantee the loans made to TCB and Conti Group to build the port. So, in case TCB and Conti cannot repay its loans, the Government of Georgia would step in and repay for them. The Government, rightly, refused this highly inappropriate demand.

Exclusivity: The Consortium asked the Government for an exclusivity period for Anaklia Port during which neither Poti nor Batumi ports would be allowed to construct deep-water quays. This would be clear and undue government intervention to favour one private party over others.

A “strategic” project: TCB and Conti initiated a process to lobby politicians in Georgia and the US, arguing that the project is “strategic”. Practically speaking, this is shorthand for “not commercially viable” and requiring government subsidies for “geo-political” reasons. It remains unclear, however, why Anaklia Port is geo-politically important given that Georgia already has a major international port only 30 kilometres away.

The short history of the Anaklia port project has been a chequered one. The chain of events to-date, and ultimately the questionable demand for the project, suggest it is time the Georgian authorities re-evaluated its worth.

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