Tajikistan is asking creditors to defer debt payments and simultaneously is applying for the new loans. Experts doubt that the authorities will be able to find sources to repay loans.
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Tajikistan is unable to pay off its external debt due to the deteriorating economic situation in the country after the coronavirus outbreak in 2020 and the decline in migrant remittances.
First Deputy Prime Minister of Tajikistan Davlatali Said wrote in his address to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) that due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Tajik economy is in a ‘force majeure’ situation and the country needs assistance.
Tajikistan’s request to defer external debts appeared amid reports that the government plans to borrow another $562 million from foreign countries and organisations in 2021; partially, the loan will be allocated for Rogun Hydropower Plant construction.
The World Bank December Update stated that Tajikistan has a high risk of debt distress. The World Bank believes that “any new non-concessional borrowing adds to the pressure on public debt sustainability”.
The World Bank reported that Tajikistan joined the group of countries that recently applied to the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) created to help developing countries.
“The DSSI’s objective is to support low-income countries by suspending official bilateral debt servicing through mid-2021,” the World Bank Update notes.
According to the World Bank, by now, only China agreed to Tajikistan’s request to defer the external debt payment until mid-2021.
After the World Bank Update publication, on January 19, the Ministry of Finance of Tajikistan issued a statement – it commented the undisclosed media’s publications about Tajikistan being on the verge of default.
“The main goal of the Republic of Tajikistan joining this initiative is to mitigate the consequences of the crisis by concentrating public expenditures on countering COVID-19 pandemic, and not relieving the debt burden on the country’s financial situation, as those published articles claimed,” the Ministry of Finance stated.
The Ministry of Finance assured that “the funds freed up after suspension of external debt servicing were allocated to the country’s healthcare sector”.
As part of this initiative, on September 3, 2020, Tajikistan signed a corresponding memorandum with the Paris Club.
“As a result, the parties came to the agreement to suspend payments on debt obligations to China’s Export-Import Bank (Eximbank) and Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development for $43 million and the German KfW Development Bank for €363 thousand,” the statement said.
According to the Ministry of Finance, as of October 1, 2020, the total amount of Tajikistan’s external debt is $3 billion 163.2 million, or 36.9% of the country’s GDP. $149.2 million was allocated to servicing the country’s external debt for 9 months of the last year.
At the same time, according to the global analytical organisation Transparency International, corruption is widespread in Tajikistan. According to the 2019 ranking, Tajikistan ranks 153 out of 180 countries by corruption level. The disproportionate wealth and large foreign assets of Tajik officials are highlighted in a number of studies and investigations by international think tanks and media. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published the latest investigation on this topic in June 2018.
Another major problem associated with the scarcity of the state budget is smuggling. Various reports and studies on Tajikistan also mention it.
The experts say the coronavirus pandemic is not over yet, and it is unlikely that Tajikistan will be able to pay off its foreign debt in the second half of 2021.
Economic expert Abdumannon Sheraliev said that after the second half of 2021, Tajikistan is unlikely to be able to pay off its external debt. According to him, the impact of the pandemic on the economy will continue at least until the middle of this year, when the economic crisis will reach its peak.
“The chances of repaying loans are very low not only in the first half of the year, but even in the second. The only way is to use gold (gold reserve), but considering the rate at which the government spends it on domestic needs, the prospects for debt repayment are very remote,” said the Tajik expert.
According to Sheraliev, the external debt’s growth will lead to default on credit.
“This means that in the near future, most financial institutions and countries, except for China, will not provide loans to Tajikistan,” Sheraliev said.
With the external debt’s growth from year to year, the country’s budget expenditures on interest payments and the loan amount increase. In particular, in 2021, Tajikistan will spend $213.5 million from its budget to pay off the external debt and interest, in 2022 – $238.2 million, and in 2023 – $243.3 million.
According to Doctor of Economics Khojimuhammad Umarov, the government’s plans to pay off external debt after the first half of 2021 are too optimistic and difficult to implement.
“The Tajik government should work on the strategy in case if these plans fail,” Umarov said.
He believes that Tajikistan can start paying off the loans no earlier than in the second half of 2021.
Can China Cooperate?
The main Tajikistan’s creditors are the government and banks of China, which account for half of the country’s external debt. Kyrgyzstan, a neighbouring state with Tajikistan, announced fundraising from citizens to pay off its external debt. However, this initiative did not find support and raised the criticism against corrupt officials and irresponsible authorities’ actions, which caused a sharp increase in external debt.
Rising debt to China increases the risk of country’s dependence, raising concerns among Tajik civil society activists. They believe that China, in exchange for repayments of debts, may demand taking control of deposits of gold or other minerals from Tajikistan.
Tajik economist Firuz Saidov believes that considering the political motivation, China can play along with Dushanbe’s plans, and either prolong the loan payments or discharge part of the debts.
“Excessive debt makes the country more dependent on the creditor state. This is part of the strategy of relations between the states: the way they cooperate and, most importantly, from whom they take loans,” added Saidov.
Economic observer Zulfikor Ismoiliyon says the only way to pay off Tajikistan’s external debt is to borrow from China again and pay other creditors.
“China realizes that Tajikistan will not be able to repay the debt, therefore, in exchange for the debt payments, the provision of the precious metals mines or part of Tajikistan’s territory will be required,” Ismoiliyon said.
According to him, the country needs to become independent of the migrant funds and develop its own economy in order to pay off external debts.
“Tajikistan is living off the migrants’ remittances for more than twenty years. Migrants cannot send money today. As a result, people do not know how to earn for a living,” concluded the Tajik economist.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with financial support from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.