Economic growth slows as remittances from expatriate workers in Russia decline
Against all expectations, Tajikistan's economic activity remained solid in 2022. Close ties with Russia ultimately benefited growth, with the number of Tajik workers in Russia rising by 51.8% over the year in response to increased Russian defence orders and the mobilisation of domestic workers. Combined with the appreciation of the rouble, the resulting rise in remittances, as well as the arrival of Russian refugees and their capital, have largely fuelled household consumption (+14.5% year-on-year in 2022). However, economic growth is set to slow in 2023 and 2024 as its main growth driver, i.e., workers' remittances (37% of GDP, the majority of which comes from Russia) runs out of steam. Flagging demand for foreign workers in Russia amid the stalemate in the war in Ukraine will have a negative impact on household consumption for which remittances are often the main source of income. Similarly, net imports will make a negative contribution to growth. The country, a net importer of oil, will suffer from durably high global oil prices and the fall in the prices of its narrow export base (mainly gold and aluminium). These headwinds aside, economic growth will be driven by public investment, with the government relying on a handful of flagship infrastructure projects to generate growth and create jobs. Among them, the Rogoun hydroelectric project, which began in 2016 and is due for completion in 2029, aims to build the world's highest dam, capable of producing as much electricity as three nuclear reactors.
In addition, monetary easing should encourage growth in private sector investment, which is still in its infancy (15% of total investment, 30% of industrial production and around 13% of formal employment). The National Bank of Tajikistan (NBT) recently eased its monetary policy in order to accelerate growth and investment by reducing its main key rate by 100 bp to 10% in May 2023. After a cumulative rise of 275 bp between January 2021 and August 2022, the reduction in interest rates was made possible by falling inflation against a backdrop of the release of the country's strategic food reserves and weaker commodity prices, with the 2.6% appreciation of the somoni against the dollar helping to curb external price pressure.
Expansionary fiscal policy and falling remittances: deterioration in the public and external accounts
After three consecutive years of surpluses, the current account is expected to move into deficit in 2023, before widening in 2024. The large deficits in the trade balance (-27.1% of GDP in 2022) and the services balance (-4.3% of GDP in 2022) will widen under the combined effects of falling gold exports, as well as buoyant imports of consumer goods, inputs and services for infrastructure projects. While these deficits are usually offset by net inflows to the income accounts, the surplus on secondary income (12.4% of GDP in 2022) will suffer from less remittances from expatriate workers in Russia and Kazakhstan. The current account deficit, particularly relating to infrastructure projects, will be financed by external borrowing on concessional terms ($453 million in 2022). In this context, and in view of the growing level of foreign exchange reserves (8 months of imports), the external debt (49% of GDP, 60% of which is public), mainly owed to China, remains sustainable, especially as it is on a downward trajectory, thanks to the rise in GDP and the appreciation of the somoni.
Despite the authorities' resolve to remain close to a balanced budget, the public deficit will continue to widen in 2023, before stabilising in 2024. This negative trend in public finances is the result of the government maintaining its policy of social spending in most areas (energy and agriculture, in particular), as well as heavy investment in the construction of the Rogoun hydroelectric power station. Despite the tax breaks provided for in the new tax code introduced in January 2022, revenues will be maintained but will not compensate for the government's expansionary policy. The public deficit will continue to be financed largely by external resources, in particular by the extension of loans from China and the arrival of new funding from multilateral lenders. Public debt (34.8% of GDP, 90% of which is denominated in foreign currencies) will continue to fall.
A more repressive regime and neighbouring Afghanistan
The President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, wields political repression and is gradually ensuring that his family is entrenched in power. His son, Rustam Emomali, was elected President of the Upper House of Parliament in April 2020, putting him in prime position to succeed his father, who has ruled the country since the early 1990s. While popular discontent linked to widespread poverty, unemployment and a lack of freedom continues to grow, the risk of a popular uprising remains limited given the government's severe repression, so that Emomali Rahmon and those close to him are likely to remain in power until the next Parliamentary and Presidential elections in 2025 and 2027, respectively. However, one of the main domestic risks concerns the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) in eastern Tajikistan, where fresh demonstrations took place in May 2022, which were violently repressed. Unrest was provoked by the population's growing dissatisfaction with local representatives of central government.
Externally, Tajikistan has so far maintained a neutral stance on the war in Ukraine, no doubt because of its security and human ties. Afghanistan, with its one-quarter Tajik population, porous 1,357km border and Tajik government disapproval of the Taliban regime, poses a risk. While the Russian military presence seems to have diminished since the war in Ukraine, Tajikistan has strengthened its ties with China, which has become the most important bilateral partner in terms of investment and capital.