Some economic experts in Armenia are starting to worry: they believe the Armenian government is taking on too much foreign debt without clear means to finance it.
For some, Armenia’s debt picture is conjuring up images of Greece, though admittedly on a much smaller scale. The tiny South Caucasus country’s $4.6 billion in foreign debt is just a sliver of that which EU-member Greece ran up (360 billion euros, or just over $400 billion, at its height), and Yerevan’s predicament has far fewer potential implications for the international financial system. But on a basic level, some observers in Yerevan are questioning whether the Armenian government is following a Greek pattern by using infusions of outside cash to cover fiscal gaps and postpone economic reforms.
Armenia’s foreign debts have increased by roughly 300 percent over the past seven years, and now account for 46.6 percent of its 2015 Gross Domestic Product of over 4.5 trillion drams ($9.63 billion), according to the country’s Central Bank. The International Monetary Fund already has expressed concern about that debt load.
“We think that Armenia’s external debt is now in the discomfort range, and the … government needs to take measures so that the debt against the GDP index begins to fall,” the International Monetary Fund representative in Armenia, Teresa Sanchez, said in a July 20 interview with the local daily Haykakan Zhamanak.
At nearly $1.6 billion, the World Bank holds roughly 40 percent of Armenia’s foreign debt, the highest portion, the Central Bank states. The IMF ranks as a distant second, with over $442 million, or about 12 percent of the official total. The Asian Development Bank has provided $300.6 million, or nearly 8 percent of the load.
Exact figures for all of Armenia’s annual interest payments and other obligations could not be immediately defined. Experts’ estimates of interest payments range from $80 million to $200 million per year.
As was the case in Greece, foreign debt is growing at a faster rate in Armenia than economic growth. In 2015, debt increased by 10.58 percent, while export rates have decreased by more than 15.7 percent since 2014, official statistics show.
The IMF in late September estimated that Armenia’s economy will expand this year by 2.5 percent. Unemployment stands at 18.2 percent of the estimated working-age population of roughly 2.18 million; unofficial numbers peg the rate much higher. Nearly a third of Armenia’s roughly 3 million inhabitants live in poverty.
Foreign debt, which now outstrips Armenia’s state budget by $1.6 billion, according to the Central Bank, was supposed to help put the country on a sustainable development path, but, so far, the country has little to show for it, said economist Artak Manukian of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Armenia.
“The borrowed funds have not boosted the economy at all, not contributed to the development of promising economic sectors, have not diversified the economy; hence, there is no stable income,” he said. Only “shopping malls and casinos,” rather than “new factories,” have opened recently.
“The issue is not so much about the size of the debt, as it is about … development opportunities,” agreed economist Vilen Khachatrian, a professor at the Armenian State University of Economics in Yerevan, the Armenian capital. “Such a speedy increase in foreign debt is a reason for concern because those funds are used for eliminating the budget deficit and have become an additional burden unfavorable for economic growth.”
Some observers also voice worry about the way loan money is used. For instance, a 2014 investigation by the Control Chamber, which monitors government spending, found that a $13 million World-Bank-financed project to develop 700 hectares of apricot, peach and walnut orchards resulted in only four hectares of crops planted. An inquiry into the use of the loan money remains ongoing.
Beyond the IMF’s comments on the debt in July, representatives of the international financial community have not publicly criticized the government on the issue.
The World Bank’s Yerevan office previously has declined to speak on topics not covered by its usual scope of research. When queried about the debt level by EurasiaNet.org at a September 25 news conference, an IMF representative declined to offer additional comment, and the IMF did not respond to follow-up inquiries.
The Central Bank did not respond to a request for comment.
Estimates vary about the actual size of Armenia’s foreign debt. Former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian, an economist and former World Bank advisor, claims the actual foreign debt is higher than the officially reported $4.6 billion. Multiple government guarantees for corporate debt, such as Soviet-era chemical plant Nairit’s $450 million guarantee, add to the debt level, he alleged.
“We have no precise knowledge of the amount of companies’ and banks’ foreign debts, which also has to be keyed into the grand total,” said Bagratian, now an opposition MP.
Officials and governing party politicians downplay the notion that that Armenia faces any problems from its foreign debt. Gagik Minasian, the chair of parliament’s Standing Committee on Financial Credit and Budget Affairs, told EurasiaNet.org that the $4.6 billion debt was a “moderate, manageable amount.” In 2015, Armenia will use “only about 4 percent of its revenues” to meet obligations on that debt, he estimated.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a freelance reporter and editor in Yerevan.