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Azerbaijan Mulls Ways To Soften Blow To Loan Defaulters


Azerbaijan's banks, squeezed for revenue themselves amid the crisis, are not exactly in a charitable mood when it comes to delinquent loan customers.

Four years ago, Lala Bunyatova decided to help a friend out by co-signing for a bank loan in Azerbaijan.

Proving no good deed goes unpunished, Bunyatova is not only being hounded now by the bank for her friend's failure to pay down the loan. On October 17, she was arrested and sentenced to 10 days in jail.

Her family, including her sister, was outraged. "This is certainly unjust, because my sister has a place to live; she has a job; and they [the bank] already want to garnish her wages [to pay off the loan]," Leyla Tagiyeva says.

To the family's relief, Bunyatova was released from jail in Baku on October 25. But her problems with the bank are likely far from over.

Consumers have taken it on the chin over the past two years in Azerbaijan, an energy-rich country in the Caucasus ruled by authoritarian President Ilham Aliyev since 2003.

In 2015, the Azerbaijani Central Bank twice devalued the country's currency, the manat, as slumping global prices for oil and natural gas sent the economy reeling. The currency lost half of its value vis-a-vis the U.S. dollar and average Azeris lost half their life savings as a result.

For those holding bank debt there was the extra burden of having to pay back the loans -- fixed in U.S. dollars -- with devalued manats.

A sharp rise in the suicide rate in Azerbaijan is being blamed, in part at least, on the growing consumer-debt crisis there.

And banks, squeezed for revenue themselves amid the crisis, are not exactly in a charitable mood when it comes to delinquent loan customers.

Akram Hasanov, a lawyer specializing in banking practices, says that at least 10 people have been jailed just recently for refusing to make payments on consumer debt. According to Hasanov, the law in Azerbaijan allows the authorities to detain only those who "deliberately" fail to pay off bank debt.

Hasanov believes the authorities are making the arrests to send an intimidating message to other debt defaulters: pay up or you could end up in jail as well.

Hasanov says the arrests are adding to tensions already percolating through Azerbaijani society.

Will The Government Help?

Outstanding consumer debt in Azerbaijan has ballooned to some 1.8 billion manats ($1.07 billion), according to Vahid Ahmedov, a member of the country's parliament.

Parliament is now considering a bill to ease the penalties on those who refuse to pay off bank debt.

Ahmedov says debtors need more time to pay off loans, and the current legislation is wrong.

However, lawmakers don't appear all that sympathetic to the plight of those facing financial hardship.

The country's parliament, the Milli Majlis, is not proposing doing away with jail terms for deliberate defaulters, but merely making it a bit more lenient by reducing the maximum prison sentence for refusing to pay off debt from three to two years.

All the while, more and more Azeris are finding themselves in the crosshairs of the law over debt. The courts are backlogged with literally tens of thousands of delinquent loan-payment cases, according to Ahmedov.

"This is a very serious issues and it creates serious problems for our financial markets. It can impact our national economy, and it's getting worse," Ahmedov warns.

The authorities apparently agree, to some degree. The Financial Markets Control Chamber, the country's financial watchdog, has been tasked with looking into the problem of outstanding loans.

Other than that, the cabinet has yet to take any serious measures to tackle the problem, Ahmedov claims.

The Financial Markets Control Chamber did not respond to requests for comment by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service.

Critics says the government could have taken steps two years ago to lessen the impact of the currency devaluation.

The Central Bank of Azerbaijan came under criticism in 2015 for allowing banks to increase monthly loan repayments. Critics argued that borrowers should have been allowed to repay loans at the exchange rate that existed prior to the devaluation.

The Central Bank did institute new rules to require banks to be more selective when issuing loans. Under the new rules, a potential borrower had to be employed, excluding entrepreneurs and those in the informal economy.

Dark Times

But for those already saddled with debt, there has been little or no relief. And as personal debt rises, so too does the number of people taking their lives.

In 2015, the year the Central Bank twice devalued the manat, suicide rates in Azerbaijan rocketed up, nearly quadrupling. A total of 535 suicides were recorded in 2015, according to a Health Ministry official.

Some argue that the spiking suicide rate had more to do with the overall erosion of rights in Azerbaijan.

Aliyev has overseen the systematic dismantling of the country's once-vibrant civil society. Dozens of activists, journalists, and human rights defenders have been arrested and convicted on what critics say are bogus, politically motivated, charges. Independent media outlets have also been shut down.

Debt, too, is weighing more and more on Azeris.

In one of the first cases to grab the public's attention, Cabrail Hasanov, a 39-year-old father of three, was found hanged from a bridge in his hometown of Sabirabad on March 6, 2015. The Azadliq newspaper reported that he left a suicide note explaining that he was unable to repay his loans.

Despite the despair, few if any banks in Azerbaijan are in the mood to cut their customers a break.

Falling oil prices affected the whole of Azerbaijan's economy, including its banking sector. A quarter of all bank assets have gone bad, and small lenders have closed. The country's largest bank, the International Bank of Azerbaijan, has been saddled with $3 billion in bad loans.

And with banks pinched, people owing them money -- even indirectly, like Lala Bunyatova -- can expect little if any sympathy.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service
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