The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development's annual general meeting will kick off May 18 with a lot more drama than usual: a "sudden death" competitive vote amongst shareholders to appoint a new president.
One of biggest events on Emerging Europe's calendar, the EBRD's annual gatherings see prime ministers and captains of industry jammed into the bank's headquarters on Exchange Square in central London to sell their wares (the AGM is held in London every other year) and mix with the cream of London's investment community.
It is a rare opportunity for investment bankers to be able to chat to Grigori Marchenko, the competent governor of Kazakhstan's central bank, at 10:00 am before catching the head of Azerbaijan's state investment agency Azpromo at 11:00, and then do a standing lunch with the chairman of Georgia's Liberty Bank, before finally popping into the session on Albania to see if it has made any progress since last year. In short, it is the premium networking opportunity on the calendar.
But this year the meeting, which has the air of an extended family Christmas party for New Europe veterans, will be overshadowed by the vote for a new president of the bank.
There is a certain irony here. The institution that was specifically set up to promote democracy and free markets (admittedly, more of the latter than the former) usually appoints a president after an agreement is reached through backroom dealing between its 65 shareholders, all governments, rather than through an open race based on merit - the key principle the bank's operations are based on. But the problem is that, like everything else in Europe, the system has broken down.
Thomas Mirow, a German national, would normally be a shoo-in for a second four-year term. However, the French and the Germans are at each other's throats and failed to agree to back Mirow. Instead, the board will now have to decide between a five-person field that also includes: France's Philippe de Fontaine Vive, the UK's Sir Suma Chakrabarti, Serbia's Bozidar Djelic, and Poland's Jan Krzysztof Bielecki.
For what should be a staid international financial institution's annual jamboree, the winner will be decided by several rounds of "celebrity death match" voting. One candidate is excluded after each round of voting, until only one is left standing. And just to make things even more exciting, the winner has to also secure a "double majority" of shareholders' weighted votes, and at least 33 of the 65 governors, so the winner could still lose at the end of the voting. Will there be a room at the bank for journalists to watch the EBRD chalkboard and running commentary on the tactics as the contestants do battle? (Of course, the answer is "No" - this is a bank after all.)
The Financial Times has already found itself in the weird position of sounding more like a sports rag than the erudite beacon of probity that it usually is wring about the vote. "Close observers of the bank see Djelic and Bielecki eliminated first, their candidacies complicated by the fact their countries are net recipients of EBRD lending. The final round seems likely to be either a Mirow-Fontaine Vive or Mirow-Chakrabarti run-off," wrote Neil Buckley earlier this month, the FT's Eastern Europe editor. "The latter could make things particularly interesting. Chakrabarti is understood to have backing, among others, from the US, Canada, Australia and Japan. Mirow is backed by Russia and other former Soviet republics, and some other EU states, and could pick up further EU support, including from France's new administration, if Fontaine Vive is eliminated."
The bank is clearly expecting a fight. It said in a terse statement on the vote: "The election is scheduled to take place on the 18 May. There is no set time at which the results will be announced, but the decision is expected to be made in the evening and will be communicated to the media.
"Let the battle commence," concluded Buckley. Indeed.
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