Foreign governments and relief agencies lost millions of dollars in the collapse of a bank in Bosnia that was triggered when the U.S. Agency for International Development called in loans that the bank could not cover, Clinton administration officials said yesterday.
USAID officials said they called in the loans because they suspected that the Bosnia and Herzegovina Bank, or BiH Bank, had provided false information to the U.S. government. Alarmed by USAID's action, relief agencies and embassies began a run on the bank, which became insolvent and was taken over by Bosnia's banking agency on June 25.
American officials revealed USAID's role in the bank's collapse in response to an article in yesterday's New York Times that cited the bank failure as one example of massive corruption in Bosnia and asserted that as much as $1 billion in public and private international aid may have been stolen there.
The U.S. officials said they have long believed that corruption reaches the highest levels of the Sarajevo government, and that the son of President Alija Izetbegovic has become one of the richest men in the country through control of public housing and part of the state airline. But the officials rejected the suggestion that corruption has caused extensive losses to U.S. taxpayers.
"The basic point that suggests that there is criminality, corruption and fraud in Bosnia is correct. We agree with that," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said. "We do not believe that billions of dollars of our assistance has been stolen. We do believe that a significant amount of money of the people of Bosnia is misused and the subject of fraud."
In a statement issued in Sarajevo yesterday, the elder Izetbegovic denied reports of corruption. "I declare that these are lies and assert that they were conjured up to smear the Bosnian government and avert friendly countries from financial and military engagement in Bosnia," he said.
Senior U.S. officials said they believe that the people of Bosnia have, indeed, lost incalculable amounts of money to fraud, kickbacks and diversion of public funds. But "with respect to the U.S. assistance program, we have absolute confidence that there has been no diversion of U.S. government funds," said Craig Buck, USAID's mission director in Bosnia. "We are confident about the direction of our resources. We know precisely where they are going."
Rubin and other U.S. officials also denied that an anti-fraud unit appointed by the chief international representative in Bosnia, Carlos Westendorp, has compiled a 4,000-page report on corruption. There is no such report, they said.
"There are 4,000 pages of documents collected by the Bosnian financial police, based on which Westendorp fired the mayor of Tuzla," a senior U.S. official said.
According to Buck, the United States has provided more than $140 million in reconstruction funds for Bosnia, which was devastated by a civil war among its Croatian, Serbian and Muslim factions in the early 1990s. The funds have provided employment for about 20,000 people, he said.
USAID uses local banks to screen potential borrowers, examine their business plans and test their revenue projections. If a borrower certified by a local bank is unable to repay a loan, Buck said, the screening bank is obliged to cover the payments. He said his agency determined that BiH bank "had not been candid with us" and had provided false information about four of 19 loans the agency funded through that institution.
"So we called the loans," he said. "They were able to pay two, but not the other two."
According to Buck, BiH Bank had been "the darling of the international community" and its depositors included the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Swiss Embassy. "When they learned that AID had called loans, these other organizations began to demand immediate payment. The bank then became insolvent," he said.
Buck estimated that the total U.S. exposure in the two loans BiH could not cover is $500,000. "We will ensure that the money is repaid" as the bank is liquidated by the Bosnian banking agency, he added.
U.S. officials have long complained that Bosnian corruption, combined with an unfavorable business and investment environment left over from Yugoslavia's communist past, has inhibited the foreign investment the country needs to recover from the war's damage. That assessment has not changed, senior officials said yesterday.