The management of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) have refused to comment on the dubious transactions, non-transparent ownership, and instances of possible conflict of interests related to the operations of the company headed by Dragan Šolak.
The Wild West rules
Despite the unquestionably controversial business practices of Šolak and his political and business partner Dragan Đilas, which Kurir has been reporting on and backing up with numerous pieces of evidence, the EBRD management have obviously decided to turn a blind eye to the fact that the company which the EBRD is a shareholder in is in gross violation of the standards and values that this bank promotes and bases its international reputation on. By avoiding to answer our highly specific questions regarding the business activities of its Balkan partner, one may be led to conclude that individuals from the EBRD are aware that Šolak’s companies’ business practices are in direct contradiction to the bank’s goals, as well as that such practices are obviously tacitly supported by these individuals.
The EBRD’s financial injections into Šolak’s business have always been essential in the expansion of his empire, so it is not an exaggeration to say that United Group could not dream of being a regional market player without this investor. The EBRD first invested in Šolak’s cable operator SBB in April 2004. This project meant a loan to the operator SBB in the amount of up to 18.5 million euros and investing up to two million in the capital stock, through which the EBRD purchased one million SBB shares. This money would help Šolak significantly expand his network all across Serbia, buy an additional 25 local providers, introduce new services, and offer broadband internet access. Ten years later, the KKR investment fund became the majority owner of United Group, which had been founded in the meantime, with the EBRD retaining a minority share. In February 2014, a new investment in SBB was made, in the amount of 50 million euros. After in March 2019 the BC Partners investment fund became the majority owner of United Group, the EBRD remained a minority owner.
Giving them credibility
Although investments and business expansion are usual and desirable elements of any business, what defies understanding is that some EBRD managers strategically support a company that conducts its business in the region according to Wild West rules. Stifling competition, a hidden ownership structure, trading in assets acquired in dubious ways, secret transactions, conflicts of interests, prohibited media campaigns, form but a portion of the business operations of Šolak’s United Group.
Kurir sent a series of questions to the EBRD Director for Western Balkans Zsuzsanna Hargitai, asking her to explain how all of this fits with the principles and values that the EBRD upholds. However, this financial institution hid behind form, offering the answers of Axel Reiserer, Head of Media Relations, which are nothing more than the EBRD eschewing responsibility for the business activities of United Group.
Firstly, we asked the EBRD for its view on the United Group buying Direct Media, a company formerly owned by Dragan Đilas. The reason being that, according to the criteria of the EBRD itself, Đilas is a politically prominent figure, which means that the banks enters into business connections with such persons only after rigorous checks have been conducted and with a great deal of caution. In the world of business, this serves to reduce the risk of becoming entangled in corruptive processes involving people in public offices. The contentious assets of United Group were acquired precisely at a time when Đilas held a high public office, but the EBRD has not made it known whether such checks had taken place. This is why the dilemma remains whether in this instance the EBRD failed to implement the usual procedure or whether the management of United Group kept its London partner in the dark regarding the information that Direct Media has quite a bit to do with Đilas. Šolak and Đilas masked that connection using an entire web of offshore companies, but the investigation by Kurir has clearly shown that the trace of this transaction leads to just these two.
Our question about whether the suspicious circumstances surrounding this transaction came to the attention of the management of the bank co-owning the United Group remains unanswered, as does the question whether this resulted in an investigation of possible instances of corruption and misconduct. What is especially scandalous is the silence of the EBRD regarding the issue of the United Group-owned media’s widespread practice of attacking Šolak’s competitors and mounting prohibited media campaigns against them. The spokesperson of this financial institution has refused to answer the question we asked, justifying this by saying that in practice, the bank avoids commenting on topics related to specific legal entities or natural persons collaborating with the bank.
Wishing to point out to our interlocutors from the EBRD that their silence was not in line with the rules of this institution regarding the transparency and integrity of business activities and their adherence to market principles, we sent them a set of follow-up questions. In these questions, we asked the management, among other things, to provide information on who the end owners of the remaining shares in the United Group are. The EBRD management once again gave us answers containing a great deal of formality and no real explanation. And the fact remains that the EBRD’s reputation and credibility, its status as a minority owner notwithstanding, serve the interests of United Group and its aspirations to increase its own credibility. The EBRD’s support intentionally creates an image of a credible company for Šolak’s Group, one whose ownership and business operations are neither problematic nor contentious.
Đilas as the hidden owner?
However, the EBRD’s silence in response to Kurir’s questions is quite problematic, and this is why a question arises of who from the EBRD protects Dragan Šolak and his political and business partner Dragan Đilas. Whether the silence lends support for the practices of Šolak and Đilas’s business and political lobby, and gives rise to suspicions that they achieve their goals by bribing people serving on domestic and foreign regulators, as well as the companies which are United Group’s competitors.
If it is understandable that Dragan Šolak as a co-owner of this company participates in such practices, the same sort of explanation cannot hold for his partner Dragan Đilas, who has no formal connections to the activities of the United Group. However, his political ‘contribution’ to protecting the interests of this company suggests otherwise. The sale of his Direct Media can be interpreted along similar lines: through a web of offshore companies, Direct Media ended up in the ownership of Šolak’s United Group for the sum of 17.7 million euros, even though its value at the time of sale was much higher. This is why the question arises whether Dragan Đilas used this transaction to enter into the ownership structure of United Group. If this turned out to be true, it would be a major political scandal which would travel far beyond Serbia’s borders.
Given that the topics and questions we asked of the EBRD are, according to the legal and media practices of the EU member states, legitimate subjects of public interest, especially in light of the importance of the transparency of ownership and assets owned by persons in public offices, Kurir will continue to insist on getting answers that the management of this financial institutions have so far refused to provide.
This is how the EBRD avoided to provide specific answers to Kurir’s questions
Below are the answers that Kurir has received in two separate emails from the EBRD representatives.
’The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) continues to support the United Group as a leading telecommunications and media provider in south-eastern Europe, with operations in seven countries. The EBRD has provided own-capital funding for the expansion of the Group over the years. After the company was taken over by BC Partners, the EBRD now has a minority share in United Group, which is in line with our mandate to support innovative companies’ growth in the region.
’It is not the EBRD‘s practice to publish its views on individuals and companies, other than the information it provides in public announcements. Here is a link to the EBRD‘s approach to examining projects and other contracting parties, which it considers solid and proportionate in accomplishing its mission: https://www.ebrd.com/integrity-and-compliance.html.
’Thank you for your interest in issues regarding compliance and integrity. We would be grateful if you could publish this communication with the EBRD in full.
’The EBRD has responded to your questions in line with its data access policy, in which the issues of integrity and the internal decision-making process are exempt from publishing.
'The Bank applies its policies consistently to its investments, including policies that relate to corporate governance and integrity, and ensures that the companies in whose operation it is involved contribute to the high standards of corporate governance. The EBRD is accountable to its Board and shareholders for general policy alignment.
’As regards the ownership structure of United Group, please contact the company as a privately-held corporation. The EBRD staff are subject to the Code of Conduct for EBRD Personnel, and it is the EBRD’s view that they fully complied with their duties under the Code of Conduct at all relevant times related to this project.‘
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICAL PARTNERSHIP
The offshore area an ideal haven for Šolak and Đilas
In its comprehensive investigation, Kurir has uncovered that Šolak and Đilas have tight business and political ties. The sale of Đilas’s company Direct Media in 2014 was completed through a complex web of offshore companies behind which were Šolak’s associates. It was not until 2018 that United Group officially announced the purchase of this company, denying that it had any dealings with Đilas. The Multikom Group commercial property, co-owned by Đilas, also passed into the ownership of United Group in 2017, but this transaction between Đilas and Šolak was masked as well by numerous offshore area front companies. Kurir has also discovered that Šolak paid two and a half times more money for the property (app. 4.5 million euros), raising suspicions that this sort of deal served to finance Đilas’s campaign in the 2018 Belgrade election via secret channels. United Group also bought the company Media Point from Dragan Ješić, Đilas’s business buddy of many years. As we have discovered, the many Ješić’s companies were regularly hired by the City of Belgrade when Đilas was mayor.
WHAT IS EBRD
- The EBRD was founded in 1991. Based in London, its aim is to facilitate the transition of the economies of seven former Socialist republics in Eastern Europe.
- The bulk of the EBRD funds is directed to privatization loans, their use conditional on respecting human rights, developing a multi-party democracy, building the rule of law, and market orientation.
- As many as 69 countries are members of the EBRD (including Serbia), as well as the EU and the European Investment Bank.
- Each member is represented in the bank’s Board of Governors.
IVAN NINIĆ, FOUNDER OF THE CENTRE FOR THE RULE OF LAW
‘The EBRD invests where it sees both economic and political interest.’
The founder of the Centre for the Rule of Law Ivan Ninić says that the EBRD is guided by economic as well as political interests in making decisions on where to invest.
‘This financial institution has a strong presence in the countries of the Western Balkans, because it is a region that has not yet completed the process of transformation from the Socialist system. Wherever it sees an opportunity to act, develop, and exercise influence, the EBRD directs its funds there. Recently they have been investing in profitable economic activities, such as agriculture, green energy, and the IT sector. It is evident that all these business decisions are only related to the political circumstances. The EBRD wants to channel the economic, monetary, and political flows in the countries in which it is present,’ Ninić says.
Kurir.rs, Photo: Shutterstock, Zorana Jevtić, Screenshot