Since its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has made significant progress toward creating a market economy and has achieved considerable results in its efforts to attract foreign investment. As of January 1, 2020, the stock of foreign direct investment in Kazakhstan totaled USD 161.2 billion, including USD 36.5 billion from the United States, according to official statistics from the Kazakhstani government.
While Kazakhstan’s vast hydrocarbon and mineral reserves remain the backbone of the economy, the government continues to make incremental progress toward its goal of diversifying the country’s economy by improving the investment climate. Kazakhstan’s efforts to remove bureaucratic barriers have been moderately successful, and in 2020 Kazakhstan ranked 25 out of 190 in the World Bank’s annual Doing BusinessReport.
The government maintains an active dialogue with foreign investors, through the President’s Foreign Investors Council and the Prime Minister’s Council for Improvement of the Investment Climate.
Kazakhstan joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2015. In June 2017 Kazakhstan joined the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Declaration on International Investment and Multinational Enterprises and became an associated member of the OECD Investment Committee.
Despite institutional and legal reforms, concerns remain about corruption, bureaucracy, arbitrary law enforcement, and limited access to a skilled workforce in certain regions. The government’s tendency to legislate preferences for domestic companies, to favor an import-substitution policy, to challenge contractual rights and the use of foreign labor, and to intervene in companies’ operations continues to concern foreign investors. Foreign firms cite the need for better rule of law, deeper investment in human capital, improved transport and logistics infrastructure, a more open and flexible trade policy, a more favorable work-permit regime and a more customer-friendly tax administration.
In July 2018 the government of Kazakhstan officially opened the Astana International Financial Center (AIFC), an ambitious project modelled on the Dubai International Financial Center, which aims to offer foreign investors an alternative jurisdiction for operations, with tax holidays, flexible labor rules, a Common Law-based legal system, a separate court and arbitration center, and flexibility to carry out transactions in any currency. In April 2019 the government announced its intention to use the AIFC as a regional investment hub to attract foreign investment to Kazakhstan. The government recommended foreign investors use the law of the AIFC as applicable law for contracts with Kazakhstan.
1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment
Kazakhstan has attracted significant foreign investment since independence. According to official statistics, as of January 1, 2020, the total stock of foreign direct investment (by the directional principle) in Kazakhstan totaled USD 161.2 billion, primarily in the oil and gas sector. International financial institutions consider Kazakhstan to be an attractive destination for their operations, and international firms have established regional headquarters in Kazakhstan.
In June 2017 Kazakhstan joined the OECD Declaration on International Investment and Multinational Enterprises and became an associate member of the OECD Investment Committee.
In its Strategic Plan of Development for the current period (through 2025), the government stated that raising the living standards of Kazakhstan’s citizens to the level of OECD countries is one of the plan’s strategic goals.
In August 2017 the government adopted a new 2018-2022 National Investment Strategy, developed in cooperation with the World Bank, which outlined new coordinating measures on investment climate improvements, privatization plans, and economic diversification policies. The strategy aims to increase annual FDI inflows as a percentage of GDP from 13.2 percent in 2018 to 19 percent in 2022.
The government of Kazakhstan has incrementally improved the business climate for foreign investors, and national legislation does not discriminate against foreign investors. Corruption, lack of rule of law and excessive bureaucracy, however, do remain serious obstacles to foreign investment.
Over the last couple of years, the government has undertaken a number of structural changes aimed at improving how the government attracts foreign investment. In April 2019 the Prime Minister announced the creation of the Coordination Council for Attracting Foreign Investment, which the Prime Minister will chair. He will also act as Investment Ombudsman. In December 2018 the Investment Committee was transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is now in charge of attracting and facilitating activities of foreign investors. The Investment Committee at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs takes responsibility for investment climate policy issues and works with potential and current investors, while the Ministry of National Economy interacts on investment climate matters with international organizations like the OECD, WTO, and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Each regional municipality designates a representative to work with investors, and Kazakhstani foreign diplomatic missions are charged with attracting foreign investments. Specially designated front offices in Kazakhstan’s overseas embassies promote Kazakhstan as a destination for foreign investment. In addition, the Astana International Financial Center (AIFC, see details in Section 3) operates as a regional investment hub, with tax, legal, and other benefits. In 2019, the government founded Kazakhstan’s Direct Investment Fund, which is located at the AIFC and expected to attract private investments for diversifying Kazakhstan’s economy. The state company KazakhInvest is also located in the AIFC and offers investors a single-window for government services.
The government maintains a dialogue with foreign investors through the Foreign Investors’ Council chaired by the President, as well as through the Council for Improving the Investment Climate chaired by the Prime Minister.
The COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented low oil prices changed the country’s economic development plans. In March 2020, the government approved a USD 13.7 billion stimulus package, mostly oriented at income smoothing, supporting local businesses and implementing an import-substitution policy.
Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
By law, foreign and domestic private firms may establish and own business enterprises.
While no sectors of the economy are legally closed to investors, restrictions on foreign ownership exist, including a 20 percent ceiling on foreign ownership of media outlets, a 49 percent limit on domestic and international air transportation services, and a 49 percent limit on telecommunication services. The December 2017 Code on Subsoil and Subsoil Use (the Code) mandates the share of the national company Kazatomprom be no less than 51 percent in new uranium producing joint ventures.
As a result of its WTO accession, Kazakhstan formally removed this limit for telecommunication companies, except for the country’s main telecommunications operator, KazakhTeleCom. Still, to acquire more than 49 percent of shares in a telecommunication company, foreign investors must obtain a government waiver. No constraints limit the participation of foreign capital in the banking and insurance sectors. Starting from January 2020 the restriction on opening branches of foreign banks and insurance companies was lifted in compliance with the country’s WTO commitments. In addition, foreign citizens and companies are restricted from participating in private security businesses. The law limits the participation of offshore companies in banks and insurance companies and prohibits foreign ownership of pension funds and agricultural land.
Foreign investors have complained about the irregular application of laws and regulations and interpret such behavior as efforts to extract bribes. The enforcement process, widely viewed as opaque and arbitrary, is not publicly transparent. Some investors report harassment by the tax authorities via unannounced audits, inspections, and other methods. The authorities have used criminal charges in civil disputes as a pressure tactic.
Foreign Investment in the Energy & Mining Industries
Despite substantial investment in Kazakhstan’s energy sector, companies remain concerned about the risk of the government legislating or otherwise advocating for preferences for domestic companies, and creating mechanisms for government intervention in foreign companies’ operations, particularly in procurement decisions. Recent developments range from a major reduction to a full annulment of work permits for some categories of foreign workforce. (For more details, please see Part 5, Performance and Data Localization Requirements.)
In April 2008 Kazakhstan introduced a customs duty on crude oil and gas condensate exports. In general, oil-related revenue in Kazakhstan goes to the National Fund, a sovereign wealth fund that is financed by direct taxes paid by petroleum industry companies, other fees paid by the oil industry, revenues from privatization of mining and manufacturing assets and from the disposal of agricultural land. In contrast, the customs duty on crude oil and gas condensate exports is an indirect tax that goes to the government’s budget. Companies that pay taxes on mineral and crude oil exports are exempt from that export duty. The government adopted a 2016 resolution that pegged the export customs duty to global oil prices – as the global oil price drops and approaches USD 25 per barrel, the duty rate approaches zero.
The Code defines “strategic deposits and areas” and restricts the government’s preemptive right to acquire exploration and production contracts to these areas, which helps to reduce significantly the approvals required for non-strategic objects. The government approves and publishes the list of strategic deposits on its website. The list has not changed since its approval on June 28, 2018: http://www.government.kz/ru/postanovleniya/postanovleniya-pravitelstva-rk-za-iyun-2018-goda/1015356-ob-utverzhdenii-perechnya-strategicheskikh-uchastkov-nedr.html.
The Code entitles the government to terminate a contract unilaterally “if actions of a subsoil user with a strategic deposit result in changes to Kazakhstan’s economic interests in a manner that threatens national security.” The Article does not define “economic interests.” The Code, if properly implemented, appears to be a step forward in improving the investment climate, including the streamlining of procedures to obtain exploration licenses and to convert exploration licenses into production licenses. The Code, however, appears to retain burdensome government oversight over mining companies’ operations.
The Ministry of Energy announced in April 2018 that Kazakhstan is ready to launch a CO2 emissions trading system. It is unclear, however, when actual quota trading will begin. In January 2018, the government adopted a National Allocation Plan for 2018-2020, and in February 2018 the Ministry of Energy announced the creation of an online CO2 emissions reporting and monitoring system. The system is not operational, and it is likely to be launched after the new Environmental Code is passed into law; the draft Code is currently in the lower chamber of parliament. Some companies have expressed concern that Kazakhstan’s trading system will suffer from insufficient liquidity, particularly as power consumption and oil and commodity production levels increase. The successor of the Energy Ministry for environmental issues, the Ministry of Ecology, Geology, and Natural Resources, started drafting the 2050 National Low Carbon Development Strategy in October 2019.
The OECD review recommended Kazakhstan undertake corporate governance reforms at state-owned enterprises (SOEs), implement a more efficient tax system, further liberalize its trade policy, and introduce responsible business conduct principles and standards. OECD also said it is carefully monitoring the country’s privatization program that aims to decrease the SOE share in the economy to 15 percent of GDP by 2020.
In 2019 the OECD and the government launched a two-year project on improving the legal environment for business in Kazakhstan.
The 2020 World Bank’s Doing BusinessReport ranked Kazakhstan 25 out of 190 countries in the “Ease of Doing Business” category, and 22 out of 190 in the “Starting a Business” category. The report noted Kazakhstan made starting a business easier by registering companies for value added tax at the time of incorporation. The report noted Kazakhstan’s progress in the categories of dealing with construction permits, registering property, getting credit, and resolving insolvency. Online registration of any business is possible through the website https://egov.kz/cms/en
In addition to a standard package of documents required for local businesses, non-residents should submit electronic copies of their IDs and any certification of their companies from the country of origin. Both documents should be translated and notarized. Foreign investors also have access to a “single window” service, which simplifies many business procedures. Investors may learn more about these services here: https://invest.gov.kz/invest-guide/business-starting/registration/.
According to the World Bank, it takes four procedures and five days to establish a foreign-owned limited liability company (LLC) in Almaty. This is faster than the average for Eastern Europe and Central Asia and OECD high income countries. A foreign-owned company registered in Kazakhstan is considered a domestic company for Kazakhstan currency regulation purposes. Under the Law on Currency Regulation and Currency Control, residents may open bank accounts in foreign currency in Kazakhstani banks without any restrictions.
In 2019-2020, the government undertook some measures facilitating business operations for investors. The General Prosecutor’s Office adopted an order in January 2020 that would decriminalize the tax errors of prompt taxpayers. In July 2019 the government adopted the Road Map for further attraction of foreign investments. In order to facilitate the work of foreign investors, the government recommended using the law of the Astana International Financial Center (AIFC) as the applicable law for investment contracts with Kazakhstan and planned other measures to showcase the AIFC as an investment hub, including tax preferences, liberalization of visa and migration rules, and the creation of additional international transportation and media links.
The government neither incentivizes nor restricts outward investment.
2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties
The United States-Kazakhstan Bilateral Investment Treaty came into force in 1994, and the United States-Kazakhstan Treaty on the Avoidance of Double Taxation came into force in 1996.
Kazakhstan is also party to the Eurasian Economic Union Mutual Investment Protection Agreement, which came into force in 2016. Some foreign investors allege Kazakhstani tax authorities are reluctant to refer double taxation questions to the appropriate resolution bodies. Among other tax issues that concern U.S. investors is the criminalization of tax errors and VAT refund issues.
Eurasian Economic Integration and WTO
Kazakhstan joined the WTO in November 2015. Kazakhstan entered into a Customs Union with Russia and Belarus on July 1, 2010 and was a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) created on May 29, 2014 among Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, and Russia. The EAEU is governed by the Eurasian Economic Commission, a supra-national body headquartered in Moscow, and is expected to integrate further the economies of its member states, and to provide for the free movement of services, capital, and labor within their common territory.
Kazakhstan’s trade policy has been heavily influenced by EAEU regulations. While Kazakhstan asserts the EAEU agreements comply with WTO standards, since joining the Customs Union Kazakhstan doubled its average import tariff and introduced annual tariff-rate quotas (TRQs) on poultry, beef, and pork. Per its WTO commitments, Kazakhstan will lower 3,512 import tariff rates to an average of 6.1 percent by December 2020. As a part of this commitment, Kazakhstan applies a lower-than-EAEU tariff rate on food products, automobiles, airplanes, railway wagons, lumber, alcoholic beverages, pharmaceuticals, freezers, and jewelry. After December 2020, Kazakhstan will have a three-year break prior to starting tariff adjustment negotiations with its EAEU partners.
Kazakhstan is a signatory to the Free Trade Agreement with CIS countries, and as a member of the EAEU, is party to the EAEU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement and the Interim Agreement on formation of a free trade zone with Iran.
3. Legal Regime
Transparency of the Regulatory System
Kazakhstani law sets out basic principles for fostering competition on a non-discriminatory basis. Kazakhstan is a unitary state, and national legislation accepted by the Parliament and President are equally effective for all regions of the country. The government, ministries, and local executive administrations in the regions (“Akimats”) issue regulations and executive acts in compliance and pursuance of laws. Kazakhstan is a member of the EAEU, and decrees of the Eurasian Economic Commission are mandatory and have preemptive force over national legislation. Publicly-listed companies indicate that they adhere to international financial reporting standards, but accounting and valuation practices are not always consistent with international best practices.
The government consults on some draft legislation with experts and the business community; draft bills are available for public comment at www.egov.kz under the Open Government section, however, the comment period is only ten days, and the process occurs without broad notifications. Some bills are excluded from public comment, and the legal and regulatory process, including with respect to foreign investment, remains opaque. All laws and decrees of the President and the government are available in Kazakh and Russian on the website of the Ministry of Justice: http://adilet.zan.kz/rus.
Implementation and interpretation of commercial legislation is reported to sometimes create confusion among foreign and domestic businesses alike. In 2016, the Ministry of Health and Social Development introduced new rules on attracting foreign labor, some of which (including a Kazakh language requirement) created significant problems for foreign investors. After active intervention by the international investment community through the Prime Minister’s Council for Improving the Investment Climate, the government canceled the most onerous rules.
The non-transparent application of laws remains a major obstacle to expanded trade and investment. Foreign investors complain of inconsistent standards and corruption. Although the central government has enacted many progressive laws, local authorities may interpret rules in arbitrary ways for the sake of their own interests.
Many foreign companies say they must defend investments from frequent decrees and legislative changes, most of which do not “grandfather in” existing investments. Penalties are often assessed for periods prior to the change in policy. For example, foreign companies report that local and national authorities arbitrarily impose high environmental fines, saying the fines are assessed to generate revenue for local and national authorities rather than for environmental protection. Government officials have acknowledged the system of environmental fines requires reform. In response, the government submitted a draft of a new Environmental Code (Eco Code) to Parliament, where it is currently under review in the lower chamber. Oil companies complain that the emission payment rates for pollutants when emitted from gas flaring are at least 20 times higher than when the same pollutants are emitted from other stationary sources. In February 2020, the Ecology Minister reported that fines for unauthorized emissions of hazardous substances would be raised tenfold.
In 2015, President Nazarbayev announced five presidential reforms and the implementation of the “100 Steps” Modernization program. The program calls for the formation of a results-oriented public administration system, a new system of audit and performance evaluation for government agencies, and introduction of an open government system with better public access to information held by state bodies. Initial implementation of this plan has already improved accountability. For example, in addition to the Audit Committee that monitors government agencies’ performance, ministers and regional governors now hold annual meetings with local communities.
President Tokayev, elected in June 2019, has affirmed his commitment to the reforms initiated by former President Nazarbayev.
Public financial reporting, including debt obligations, explicit liabilities, are published by the Ministry of Finance on their site: http://www.minfin.gov.kz/. However, authorities have indicated that contingent liabilities, such as exposures to state-owned enterprises, their cross -holdings, and exposures to banks, are not fully captured there.
International Regulatory Considerations
Kazakhstan is part of the Eurasian Economic Union, and EAEU regulations and decisions supersede the national regulatory system. In its economic policy Kazakhstan declares its adherence to both WTO and OECD standards. Kazakhstan became a member of the WTO in 2015. It notifies the WTO Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade about drafts of national technical regulations (although lapses have been noted). Kazakhstan ratified the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) in May 2016, notified its Category A requirements in March 2016, and requested a five-year transition period for its Category B and C requirements. Early in 2018, the government established an intra-agency Trade Facilitation Committee to implement its TFA commitments. By the end of 2018, Kazakhstan notified the WTO Trade Facilitation Committee that it has fulfilled its implementation commitments for Category A at 57 percent, for Category B at 19 percent, and for Category C at 24 percent.
Legal System and Judicial Independence
Kazakhstan’s Civil Code establishes general commercial and contract law principles. Under the constitution, the judicial system is independent of the executive branch, although the government interferes in judiciary matters. According to Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report for 2018, the executive branch dominates de facto the judicial branch. Allegedly, pervasive corruption of the courts and the influence of the ruling elites results in low public expectations and trust in the justice system. Judicial outcomes are perceived as subject to political influence and interference. Regulations or enforcement actions can be appealed and adjudicated in the national court system. Monetary judgments are assessed in the domestic currency.
Parties of commercial contracts, including foreign investors, can seek dispute settlement in Kazakhstan’s courts or international arbitration, and Kazakhstani courts will enforce arbitration clauses in contracts. Any court of original jurisdiction can consider disputes between private firms as well as bankruptcy cases.
The Astana International Financial Center, which opened in July 2018, includes its own arbitration center and court based on British Common Law and is independent of the Kazakhstani judiciary. The court is led by former Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Harry Woolf, and several other Commonwealth judges have been appointed. The government advises foreign investors to use the capacities of the AIFC arbitration center and the AIFC court more actively. Provisions on using the AIFC law as applicable law are recommended for model investment contracts between a foreign investor and the government.
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
The following legislation affects foreign investment in Kazakhstan: the Entrepreneurial Code; the Civil Code; the Tax Code; the Customs Code of the Eurasian Economic Union; the Customs Code of Kazakhstan; the Law on Government Procurement; and the Law on Currency Regulation and Currency Control. These laws provide for non-expropriation, currency convertibility, guarantees of legal stability, transparent government procurement, and incentives for priority sectors. Inconsistent implementation of these laws and regulations at all levels of the government, combined with a tendency for courts to favor the government, have been reported to create significant obstacles to business in Kazakhstan.
The Entrepreneurial Code outlines basic principles of doing business in Kazakhstan and the government’s relations with entrepreneurs. The Code reinstates a single investment regime for domestic and foreign investors, in principal, codifies non-discrimination for foreign investors. The Code contains incentives and preferences for government-determined priority sectors, providing customs duty exemptions and in-kind grants detailed in Part 4, Industrial Policies. The Code also provides for dispute settlement through negotiation, use of Kazakhstan’s judicial process, and international arbitration. U.S. investors have expressed concern about the Code’s narrow definition of investment disputes and its lack of clear provisions for access to international arbitration. The government’s single window for foreign investors, providing information to potential investors, business registration, and links to relevant legislation, can be found here: https://invest.gov.kz/invest-guide/
A revised Law on Currency Regulation and Currency Control, which came into force July 1, 2019, expands the monitoring of transactions in foreign currency and facilitates the process of de-dollarization. In particular, the law will treat branches of foreign companies in Kazakhstan as residents and will enable the National Bank of Kazakhstan (NBK) to enhance control over cross-border transactions. The NBK approved a list of companies that will keep their non-resident status; the majority of these companies are from extractive industries (see also Part 6, Financial Sector).
The Entrepreneurial Code regulates competition-related issues such as cartel agreements and unfair competition. The Committees for Regulating Natural Monopolies and Protection of Competition under the Ministry of National Economy are responsible for reviewing transactions for competition-related concerns.
Expropriation and Compensation
The bilateral investment treaty between the United States and Kazakhstan requires the government to provide compensation in the event of expropriation. The Entrepreneurial Code allows the state to nationalize or requisition property in emergency cases, but fails to provide clear criteria for expropriation or require prompt and adequate compensation at fair market value.
Post is aware of cases when owners of developed businesses had to sell their businesses to companies affiliated with high-ranking and powerful individuals.
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
Kazakhstan has been a member of the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) since December 2001 and ratified the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards in 1995. By law, any international award rendered by the ICSID, a tribunal applying the rules of the UN Commission on International Trade Law Arbitration, Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, London Court of International Arbitration, or Arbitration Commission at the Kazakhstan Chamber of Commerce and Industry is enforceable in Kazakhstan.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
The government is a signatory to bilateral investment agreements with 47 countries and 1 multilateral investment agreement with EAEU partners. These agreements recognize international arbitration of investment disputes. The United States and Kazakhstan signed a Bilateral Investment Treaty in 1994.
In July 2017, a U.S. investor initiated arbitration proceedings against Kazakhstan under the BIT, accusing the government of indirectly expropriating its ownership stake to explore and develop three hydrocarbon fields.
Kazakhstan does recognize arbitral awards by law. Four cases against Kazakhstan have been under review by ICSID as of March 2, 2020. In October 2018, ICSID ordered Kazakhstan to compensate a foreign company for USD 30 million in investments in oil transshipment and storage facilities. In 2015, this company appealed to ICSID for Kazakhstan’s breach of its bilateral investment treaty and Energy Charter Treaty. In March 2016, a foreign gold explorer and producer sought compensation for breaches of its BIT and the 1994 Foreign Investment Law of Kazakhstan. The Entrepreneurial Code defines an investment dispute as “a dispute ensuing from the contractual obligations between investors and state bodies in connection with investment activities of the investor,” and states such disputes may be settled by negotiation, litigation or international arbitration.
Investment disputes between the government and investors fall to the Nur-Sultan City Court; disputes between the government and large investors fall under the competence of a special investment panel at the Supreme Court of Kazakhstan. The Supreme Court is currently preparing changes to regulation so that any disputes between the government and investors, including large ones, will be in hands of the Nur-Sultan City Court, while the Supreme Court will be a cassational instance. A number of investment disputes involving foreign companies have arisen in the past several years linked to alleged violations of environmental regulations, tax laws, transfer pricing laws, and investment clauses. Some disputes relate to alleged illegal extensions of exploration schedules by subsurface users, as production-sharing agreements with the government usually make costs incurred during this period fully reimbursable. Some disputes involve hundreds of millions of dollars. Problems arise in the enforcement of judgments, and ample opportunity exists for influencing judicial outcomes given the relative lack of judicial independence.
To encourage foreign investment, the government has developed dispute resolution mechanisms aimed at enabling aggrieved investors to seek redress without requiring them to litigate their claims. The government established an Investment Ombudsman in 2013, billed as being able to resolve foreign investors’ grievances by intervening in inter-governmental disagreements that affect investors.
Kazakhstani law provides for government compensation for violations of contracts guaranteed by the government. Yet, where the government has merely approved or confirmed a foreign contract, the government’s responsibility is limited to the performance of administrative acts necessary to facilitate an investment activity (e.g., the issuance of a license or granting of a land plot). The resolution of disputes arising from such cases may require litigation or arbitration.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
The Law on Mediation offers alternative (non-litigated) dispute resolutions for two private parties. The Law on Arbitration defines rules and principles of domestic arbitration. As of April 2020, Kazakhstan had 17 local arbitration bodies unified under the Arbitration Chamber of Kazakhstan. Please see: https://palata.org/about/. The government noted that the Law on Arbitration brought the national arbitration legislation into compliance with the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) Model Law, the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, and the European Convention on International Commercial Arbitration. Judgements of foreign arbitrations are recognized and enforceable under local courts. Local courts recognize and enforce court rulings of CIS countries. Judgement of other foreign state courts are recognized and enforceable by local courts when Kazakhstan has a bilateral agreement on mutual judicial assistance with the respective country or applies a principle of reciprocity.
When SOEs are involved in investment disputes, domestic courts usually find in the SOE’s favor. By law, investment disputes with private commercial entities, employees, or SOEs are in the jurisdiction of local courts. According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s 2014 Judicial Decision Assessment, judges in local courts lacked experience with commercial law and tended to apply general principles of laws and Civil Code provisions with which they are more familiar, rather than the relevant provisions of commercial legislation.
Even when investment disputes are resolved in accordance with contractual conditions, the resolution process can be slow and require considerable time and resources. Many investors therefore elect to handle investment disputes privately, in an extrajudicial way. In February 2018, a U.S. company initiated arbitration against the Kazakhstani government for failure to pay approximately USD 75 million for the return of two hydropower plants, operated under a 20-year concession agreement. In April 2018 the government responded by denying liability and seeking over USD 480 million in counterclaims. The final evidentiary hearing took place July 22-26, 2019. As of June, 2020, the parties continue to await the arbitrator’s decision.
Kazakhstan’s 2014 Bankruptcy and Rehabilitation Law (The Bankruptcy Law) protects the rights of creditors during insolvency proceedings, including access to information about the debtor, the right to vote against reorganization plans, and the right to challenge bankruptcy commissions’ decisions affecting their rights. Bankruptcy is not criminalized, unless the court determines the bankruptcy premeditated. The Bankruptcy Law improves the insolvency process by permitting accelerated business reorganization proceedings, extending the period for rehabilitation or reorganization, and expanding the powers of (and making more stringent the qualification requirements to become) insolvency administrators. The law also eases bureaucratic requirements for bankruptcy filings, gives creditors a greater say in continuing operations, introduces a time limit for adopting rehabilitation or reorganization plans, and adds court supervision requirements. Amendments to the law accepted in 2019 introduced a number of changes. Among them are a more specific definition of premeditated bankruptcy, the requirement to prove sustained insolvency when filing a bankruptcy claim, the potential for individual entrepreneurs to apply for a rehabilitation procedure to reinstate their solvency, and an option to be liquidated without filing bankruptcy in the absence of income, property, and business operations.
4. Industrial Policies
The government’s primary industrial development strategies, such as the Concepts for Industrial and Innovative Development 2020-2025 and the National Investment Strategy for 2018-2022, aim to diversify the economy from its overdependence on extractive industries. The Entrepreneurial Code and Tax Code provide tax preferences, customs duty exemptions, investment subsidies, and in-kind grants as incentives for foreign and domestic investment in priority sectors. Priority sectors include agriculture, metallurgy, extraction of metallic ore, chemical and petrochemical industry, oil processing, food production, machine manufacturing, and renewable energy. Firms in priority sectors receive tax and customs duty waivers, in-kind grants, investment subsidies, and simplified procedures for work permits. The government’s preference system applies to new and existing enterprises. The duration and scope of preferences depends on the priority sector and the size of investment. All information on priority sectors and preferences is available at: https://invest.gov.kz/doing-business-here/regulated-sectors/.
The Investment Committee at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs makes decisions on each incentive on a case-by-case basis. The law also allows the government to rescind incentives, collect back payments, and revoke an investor’s operating license if an investor fails to fulfill contractual obligations.
Potential investors can apply for preferences through the government’s single window portal; these are special offices for serving investors, located in the capital and at district service centers in every region of Kazakhstan. Submission for investment preferences requires a number of documents, including a comprehensive state appraisal of a proposed investment project. More information is available here: https://invest.gov.kz/invest-guide/ and at https://irm.invest.gov.kz/en/support/
A governmental guarantee or joint government financing are normally used for large infrastructure projects.
To facilitate the work of foreign investors, especially in targeted, non-extractive industries, the government has approved visa-free travel for citizens of 73 countries, including the United States, Germany, Japan, United Arab Emirates, France, Italy, and Spain. Residents of these countries may stay in Kazakhstan without visas for up to 30 days. The government has temporary suspended these rules due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since January 2019, foreigners may obtain business, tourist, and medical treatment visas to Kazakhstan online at: www.vmp.gov.kz. Electronic tourist visas are available for citizens of 117 counties; business and medical treatment visas can be issued electronically for citizens of 23 countries. This system is applicable only for visitors who have letters of invitation and enter Kazakhstan through the Nur-Sultan or Almaty airports. Businesses registered in the AIFC have a relaxed entry visa regime, allowing them to obtain entry visas upon arrival at the airport and to obtain five-year visas for employees.
Starting from 2020, the government introduced a more liberal regime for visa regulation violations. Now, foreign visitors are permitted to only pay administrative fines for first and second violations. The government is currently considering a bill on changes to tax legislation and further improvement of the investment climate. The bill is expected to introduce new measures to facilitate business activity, including expanded access to investment tax credits, lowered thresholds for tax preferences for investments in the textile industry, measures designed to stimulate public-private partnership development, and procedures for non-resident foreign investors to register businesses in Kazakhstan remotely.
Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation
The Law on Special Economic Zones allows foreign companies to establish enterprises in special economic zones (SEZs), simplifies permit procedures for foreign labor, and establishes a special customs zone regime not governed by Eurasian Economic Union rules. A system of tax preferences exists for foreign and domestic enterprises engaged in prescribed economic activities in Kazakhstan’s thirteen SEZs. In April 2019, President Tokayev signed amendments which extend the rights of SEZ managing companies and set up a single center to coordinate the activities of all SEZs and industrial zones in Kazakhstan.
Performance and Data Localization Requirements
The government requires businesses to employ local labor and use domestic content, though the country’s WTO accession commitments provide for abolition of most local content requirements over time. In 2015, Kazakhstan adopted legislative amendments to alter existing local content requirements to meet accession requirements. Pursuant to these amendments, subsoil use contracts concluded after January 1, 2015 no longer contain local content requirements, and any local content requirements in contracts signed before 2015 will phase out on January 1, 2021.
Kazakhstan’s WTO accession terms require that Kazakhstan relax limits on foreign nationals by increasing the “quota” for foreign nationals to 50 percent (from 30 percent for company executives and from 10 percent for engineering and technical personnel) by January 1, 2021.
Despite these commitments, the government, particularly at the regional level, continues to advocate for international businesses to increase their use of local content. The USD 36.8 billion investment into the Tengiz oilfield by Tengizchevroil includes an agreement that 32 percent of total investment will be used to procure local content. The Ministry of Energy announced in March 2017 that foreign companies providing services for the oil and gas sector would need to create joint ventures with local companies to continue to receive contracts at the country’s largest oilfields. Although these recommendations are not legally binding, companies report feeling obliged to abide by them. Some companies reported these forced joint ventures or consortia led to the creation of domestic monopolies, rather than to the stimulation of a healthy domestic market of oil service providers. For example, the Ministry of Energy and the Karachaganak Petroleum Operating Consortium reportedly agreed that a Kazakhstani design research company would carry out at least 50 percent of the design work at the Karachaganak expansion project.
The government regulates foreign labor at the macro and micro levels. Foreign workers must obtain work permits, which have historically been difficult and expensive to obtain. Amendments to the Expatriate Workforce Quota and Work Permit Rules: (a) eliminate special conditions for obtaining a work permit for foreign labor (e.g. requirements to train local personnel or create additional vacancies); (b) eliminate the requirement that companies conduct a search for candidates on the internal market prior to applying for a work permit; (c) reduce the timeframe for issuance or denial of work permit from 15 to 7 days; (d) eliminate the required permission of local authorities for the appointment of CEOs and deputies of Kazakhstani legal entities that are 100 percent owned by foreign companies; and (e) expand the list of individuals requiring no permission from local authorities (including non-Kazakhstani citizens working in national holding companies as heads of structural divisions and non-Kazakhstani citizens who are members of the board of directors of national holding companies).
The Ministry of Energy, Ministry of Industry and Infrastructure Development, and Sovereign Welfare Fund Samruk-Kazyna monitor firms compliance with local content obligations, and there are various enforcement tools for companies that do not meet performance requirements.
Following the June 2019 violence at Chevron-operated Tengiz oilfield that reportedly resulted from discontent with wage discrepancy between local and foreign workers with similar qualifications, the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection has sought to revisit the definition of administrative liability and administrative violation to make state control over employers with foreign workers more effective.
The foreign labor quota approved by the government for 2020 reduced the number of work permits for employees of category 3 (specialists) by 37 percent and for category 4 (qualified workers) by 23 percent. The largest decreases are in administration; real estate; wholesale and retail; construction; professional, scientific and technological activities; and accommodation and catering. To replace the gap in the foreign workforce, the government is introducing an obligation to replace foreign workers with skilled Kazakhstani labor.
Foreign investors may in theory participate in government and quasi-government procurement tenders, however, they should have production facilities in Kazakhstan and should go through a process of being recognized as a pre-qualified bidder. In 2019, the government enacted new procurement rules by which only pre-qualified suppliers will be allowed to bid for government contracts. A key requirement for being recognized as pre-qualified bidder is that the company’s product should be made in Kazakhstan and be added to a register of trusted products. While this requirement is applied to some selected sectors at the government procurement (e.g. construction, IT, textile), it has been practiced since 2016 for procurement at quasi-sovereign companies under the National Welfare Fund Samruk-Kazyna.
In addition, the National Chamber of Entrepreneurs Atameken introduced in 2018 an industrial certificate which serves as an extra (and costly) tool to prove a company’s financial and production capabilities to participate in tenders. The industrial certificate also acts as an indirect confirmation of a company’s status as a local producer. Thus, a foreign investor who plans to bid for government and quasi-government contracts should obtain an industrial certificate.
In 2019, the government introduced significant recycling fees on the importation of combines and tractors. Although major Western brands were granted a waiver for the fees, the government is expected to revisit the exception. The government has suggested that foreign producers start local production of their equipment and become eligible for preferential treatment.
5. Protection of Property Rights
Private entities, both foreign and domestic, have the right to establish and own business enterprises, buy and sell business interests, and engage in all forms of commercial activity.
Secured interests in property (fixed and non-fixed) are recognized under the Civil Code and the Land Code. All property and lease rights for real estate must be registered with the Ministry of Justice through its local service centers. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business Report, Kazakhstan ranks 24 out of 190 countries in ease of registering property.
Under Kazakhstan’s constitution, land and other natural resources may be owned or leased by Kazakhstani citizens. The Land Code: (a) allows citizens and Kazakhstani companies to own agricultural and urban land, including commercial and non-commercial buildings, complexes, and dwellings; (b) permits foreigners to own land to build industrial and non-industrial facilities, including dwellings, with the exception of land located in border zones; (c) authorizes the government to monitor proper use of leased agricultural lands, the results of which may affect the status of land-lease contracts; (d) forbids private ownership of: land used for national defense and national security purposes, specially protected nature reserves, forests, reservoirs, glaciers, swamps, designated public areas within urban or rural settlements, except land plots occupied by private building and premises, main railways and public roads, land reserved for future national parks, subsoil use and power facilities, and social infrastructure. The government maintains the land inventory and constantly updates its electronic data base, though the inventory data is not exhaustive. The government has also set up rules for withdrawing land plots that have been improperly or never used.
In 2015, the government proposed Land Code amendments that would allow foreigners to rent agricultural lands for up to 25 years. Mass protests in the spring of 2016 led the government to introduce a moratorium on these provisions until December 31, 2021. The moratorium is also effective on other related articles of the Land Code that regulate private ownership rights on agricultural lands.
Intellectual Property Rights
The legal structure for intellectual property rights (IPR) protection is relatively strong; however, enforcement needs further improvement. Kazakhstan was not included in the United States Trade Representative (USTR) Special 301 Report or the Notorious Markets List. To facilitate its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and attract foreign investment, Kazakhstan continues to improve its legal regime for protecting IPR. The Civil Code and various laws protect U.S. IPR. Kazakhstan has ratified 18 of the 24 treaties endorsed by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO): http://www.wipo.int/members/en/details.jsp?country_id=97.
The Criminal Code sets out punishments for violations of copyright, rights for inventions, useful models, industrial patterns, select inventions, and integrated circuits topographies. The law authorizes the government to target internet piracy and shut down websites unlawfully sharing copyrighted material, provided that rights holders had registered their copyrighted material with Kazakhstan’s IPR Committee. Despite these efforts, U.S. companies and associated business groups have alleged that 73 percent of software used in Kazakhstan is pirated, including in government ministries, and have criticized the government’s enforcement efforts.
To comply with OECD IPR standards, in 2018 Kazakhstan accepted amendments to its IPR legislation that would streamline IPR registration and enforcement. The law set up a more convenient, one-tier system of IPR registration and provided rights holders the opportunity for pre-trial dispute settlement through the Appeals Council at the Ministry of Justice. In addition, the law included IPR protection as one of the government procurement principles that should be strictly followed by government organizations. The Ministry of Justice is working with the World Bank on developing new IPR legislation based on OECD norms, including patent protection of IT products.
Kazakhstani authorities conduct nationwide campaigns called “Counterfeit”, “Hi-Tech” and “Anti-Fraud” that are aimed at detecting and ceasing IPR infringements and increasing public awareness about IP issues. The Ministry of Justice and law enforcement agencies regularly report the results of their inspections. In 2019, they conducted 276 inspections and initiated 236 cases on violations of trade mark use, resulting in USD 32,900 in penalties. In addition, authorities reportedly seized over 44,000 units of counterfeit goods worth around USD 52,570. Customs officials seized counterfeited goods at border crossing worth around USD 14.4 million. IPR violations are prosecuted regularly. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported 31 criminal copyright violations in 2019. Of these 31 cases, three cases were closed, five were resolved by the conciliation of parties, and the rest remain in litigation.
Although Kazakhstan continues to make progress to comply with WTO requirements and OECD standards, foreign companies complain about inadequate IPR protection. Judges, customs officials, and police officers also lack IPR expertise, which exacerbates weak IPR enforcement.
6. Financial Sector
Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
Kazakhstan maintains a stable macroeconomic framework, although weak banks inhibit the financial sector’s development (described further in next section), valuation and accounting practices are inconsistent, and large state-owned enterprises that dominate the economy face challenges in preparing complete financial reporting. Capital markets remain underdeveloped and illiquid, with small equity and debt markets dominated by state-owned companies and lacking in retail investors. Most domestic borrowers obtain credit from Kazakhstani banks, although foreign investors often find margins and collateral requirements onerous, and it is usually cheaper and easier for foreign investors to use retained earnings or borrow from their home country. The government actively seeks to attract foreign direct investment, including portfolio investment. Foreign clients may only trade via local brokerage companies or after registering at the Kazakhstan Stock Exchange (KASE) or at the AIFC.
KASE, in operation since 1993, trades a variety of instruments, including equities and funds, corporate bonds, sovereign debt, foreign currencies, repurchase agreements (REPO) and derivatives, with 200 listed companies in total. Most of KASE’s trading is comprised of money market (87 percent) and foreign exchange (10 percent). As of March 31, 2020, stock market capitalization was USD 37.3 billion, while the corporate bond market was USD 31 billion. The Single Accumulating Pension Fund, the key source of the country’s local currency liquidity, accumulated $26.1 billion as of March 31, 2020.
In 2018, the government launched the Astana International Financial Center (AIFC), a regional financial hub modeled after the Dubai International Financial Center. The AIFC has its own stock exchange (AIX), regulator, and court (see Part 4). The AIFC has partnered with the Shanghai Stock Exchange, NASDAQ, Goldman Sachs International, the Silk Road Fund, and others. AIX currently has 53 listings, including 24 traded on its platform.
Kazakhstan is bound by Article 8 of the International Monetary Fund’s Articles of Agreement, adopted in 1996, which prohibits government restrictions on currency conversions or the repatriation of investment profits. Money transfers associated with foreign investments, whether inside or outside of the country, are unrestricted; however, Kazakhstan’s currency legislation requires that a currency contract must be presented to the servicing bank if the transfer exceeds USD 10,000. Money transfers over USD 50,000 require the servicing bank to notify the transaction to the authorities, so the transferring bank may require the transferring parties, whether resident or non-resident, to provide information for that notification.
Money and Banking System
Kazakhstan has 27 commercial banks. As of March 1, 2019, the five largest banks (Halyk Bank, Sberbank-Kazakhstan, Forte Bank, Kaspi Bank and Bank CenterCredit) held assets of approximately USD 43.6 billion, accounting for 62.2 percent of the total banking sector.
Kazakhstan’s banking system remains impaired by legacy non-performing loans, poor risk management, weak corporate governance practices at some banks and significant related-party exposures. Over the past several years the government has undertaken a number of measures to strengthen the sector, including capital injections, enhanced oversight, and expanded regulatory authorities. In 2019, the NBK initiated an asset quality review (AQR) of 14 major banks jointly holding 87 percent of banking assets as of April 1, 2019. According to NBK officials, the AQR showed sufficient capitalization on average across the 14 banks and set out individual corrective measure plans for each of the banks to improve risk management. As of March 2020, the ratio of non-performing loans to banking assets was 8.9 percent, down from 31.2 percent in January 2014. The COVID-19 pandemic and the fall in global oil prices may pose additional risks to Kazakhstan’s banking sector.
Kazakhstan has a central bank system, led by the National Bank of Kazakhstan (NBK). In January 2020, parliament established the Agency for Regulation and Development after Financial Market (ARDFM), which assumed the NBK’s role as main financial regulator overseeing banks, insurance companies, stock market, microcredit organizations, debt collection agencies, and credit bureaus. The National Bank of Kazakhstan (NBK) retains its core central bank functions as well as management of the country’s sovereign wealth fund and pension system assets. The NBK and ARDFM as its successor is committed to move gradually to Basel III regulatory standard. As of May 2020, Basel III methodology applies to capital and liquidity calculation with required regulatory ratios gradually changing to match the standard.
Currently foreign banks are allowed to operate in the country only through their local subsidiaries. Starting December 16, 2020, as a part of Kazakhstan’s WTO commitments, foreign banks will be allowed to operate via branches subject to compliance with regulatory norms prescribed by the NBK and ARDFM.
Foreigners may open bank accounts in local banks if they have a local tax registration number.
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
There are no restrictions or limitations placed on foreign investors in converting, transferring, or repatriating funds associated with an investment (e.g. remittances of investment capital, earnings, loan or lease payments, or royalties). Funds associated with any form of investment may be freely converted into any world currency, though local markets may be limited to major world currencies.
As of July 2019, foreign company branches are treated as residents, except for branches of foreign banks and insurance companies or non-financial organizations treated as non-residents based on previously made special agreements with Kazakhstan. Foreign banks and insurance companies’ branches will be treated as residents from December 2020. With some exceptions, foreign currency transactions between residents are forbidden. There are no restrictions on foreign currency operations between residents and non-residents, unless specified otherwise by local foreign currency legislation. Companies registered with AIFC are not subject to currency and settlement restrictions.
Kazakhstan abandoned its currency peg in favor of a free-floating exchange rate and inflation-targeting monetary regime in August 2015, although the National Bank admits to intervening in foreign exchange markets to combat excess volatility. Kazakhstan maintains sufficient international reserves according to the IMF. As of March 2020, international reserves at the National Bank, including foreign currency and gold, and National Fund assets totaled USD 87.4 billion.
The U.S. Mission in Kazakhstan is not aware of any concerns about remittance policies or the availability of foreign exchange conversion for the remittance of profits. Local currency legislation permits non-residents to freely receive and transfer dividends, interest and other income on deposits, securities, loans, and other currency transactions with residents. However, such remittances would be subject to the reporting requirements described in the “Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment” Section above. There are no time limitations on remittances; and timelines to remit investment returns depend on internal procedures of the servicing bank. Residents seeking to transfer property or money to a non-resident in excess of USD 500,000 are required to register the contract with the NBK.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
The National Fund of the Republic of Kazakhstan was established to support the country’s social and economic development via accumulation of financial and other assets, as well as to reduce the country’s dependence on oil sector and external shocks. The Fund’s assets are generated from direct taxes and other payments from oil companies, public property privatization, sale of public farm lands, and investment income. The government, through the Ministry of Finance, controls the National Fund, while the NBK acts as National Fund’s trustee and asset manager. The NBK selects external asset managers from internationally-recognized investment companies or banks to oversee a part of the National Fund’s assets. Information about external asset managers and assets they manage is confidential. As of March 2020, the National Fund’s assets were USD 57 billion or around 37 percent of GDP.
The government receives regular transfers from the National Fund for general state budget support, as well as special purpose transfers ordered by the President. The National Fund is required to retain a minimum balance of no less than 30 percent of GDP.
Kazakhstan is not a member of the IMF-hosted International Working Group of Sovereign Wealth Funds.
7. State-Owned Enterprises
According to the Ministry of Finance, as of January 1, 2020, the government owns 3,661 state-owned enterprises (SOEs), including all forms of SOEs from small veterinary inspection offices, departments on anti-monopoly policy or hospitals in regions to large national companies, controlling energy, transport, agricultural finance and product development.
In 2019, President Tokayev introduced a moratorium on establishing new parastatal companies that will be effective until the end of 2021. A bill on improving the business climate approved by the Majilis, the lower Chamber of Parliament, in April 2020 makes it more difficult to establish new parastatal companies. Despite these positive developments, the share of SOEs in the economy is still large. According to the 2017 OECD Investment Policy Review, SOE assets amount to USD 48-64 billion, approximately 30-40 percent of GDP; their net income was approximately USD 2 billion. The preferential status of parastatal companies remains unchanged; parastatals enjoy greater access to subsidies and government support.
The National Welfare Fund Samruk-Kazyna (SK) is Kazakhstan’s largest national holding company, and manages key SOEs in the oil and gas, energy, mining, transportation, and communication sectors. At the end of 2018, SK had 317 subsidiaries and employed around 300,000 people. By some estimates, SK controls around half of Kazakhstan’s economy, and is the nation’s largest buyer of goods and services. In 2018, SK reported USD 74.3 billion in assets and USD 3.3 billion in consolidated net profit. Created in 2008, SK’s official purpose is to facilitate economic diversification and to increase effective corporate governance. In 2018, First President Nazarbayev approved SK’s new strategy, which declared the effective management of its companies, restructuring and diversification of assets and investment projects, and compliance with the principles of sustainable development as its priority goals. To follow this new strategy, early in 2020, SK removed the Prime Minister from the Board and elected four independent directors, one of which became the Chairman of the Board. Kazakhstani government participation in the Board is limited to three individuals: the Aide to the President, the Minister of National Economy and the CEO of Samruk-Kazyna. SK Portfolio companies are required to have corporate governance standards and independent boards. Despite these moves, the government maintains significant influence in SK. First President Nazarbayev is the life-long Chairman of the Managing Council of SK, and can make decisions on SK activity. SK has special rights not afforded to other companies, such as the ability to conclude large transactions among members of its holding companies without public notification. SK has the pre-emptive right to buy strategic facilities and bankrupt assets, and is exempt from government procurement procedures. Critically, the government can transfer state-owned property to SK, easing the transfer of state property to private owners. More information is available at http://sk.kz/.
In addition to SK, the government created the national managing holding company Baiterek in 2013 to provide financial and investment support to non-extractive industries, drive economic diversification, and improve corporate governance in government subsidiaries. Baiterek is comprised of the Development Bank of Kazakhstan, the Investment Fund of Kazakhstan, the Housing and Construction Savings Bank, the National Mortgage Company, the National Agency for Technological Development, the Distressed Asset Fund, and other financial and development institutions. Unlike SK, the Prime Minister remains the Chairman of the Board, assisted by several cabinet ministers and independent directors. In 2019, Baiterek had USD 13.8 billion in assets and earned USD 104.5 million in net profit. At the end of 2018, Baiterek held a 48 percent share of the country’s market of long-term crediting of the non-extractive sectors. Please see https://www.baiterek.gov.kz/en
Other SOEs include KazAgro, which manages state agricultural holdings such as the state wheat purchasing agent National Food Contract Corporation, farm equipment subsidy provider KazAgroFinance, and the Agrarian Credit Corporation, an agricultural insurance company (http://www.kazagro.kz/). The national holding company Zerde is charged with creating modern information and communication infrastructure, using new technologies, and stimulating investments in the communication sector (http://zerde.gov.kz/).
Officially, private enterprises compete with public enterprises under the same terms and conditions. In some cases, SOEs enjoy better access to natural resources, credit, and licenses than private entities.
In its 2017 Investment Review, the OECD recommended Kazakhstani authorities identify new ways to ensure that all corporate governance standards applicable to private companies apply to SOEs. Samruk-Kazyna adopted a new Corporate Governance Code in 2015. The Code, which applies to all SK subsidiaries, specified the role of the government as ultimate shareholder, underlined the role of the Board of directors and risk management, and called for transparency and accountability.
As part of its overall plan to reduce the share of Kazakhstan’s SOEs to the OECD average of 15 percent of the economy, the government is conducting a large-scale privatization campaign. By law and in practice, foreign investors may participate in privatization projects. The public bidding process is established in law. Government reports on this campaign are available at: https://privatization.gosreestr.kz/
As of April 2020, 499 out of 873 organizations planned for privatization have been sold for 315.8 billion tenge, or USD 734.5 million. The government sells small, state-owned and municipal enterprises through electronic auctions.
SK plans to offer institutional investors non-controlling shares in following national companies via initial public offerings (IPOs), secondary public offerings (SPO) and sale to strategic investors: state oil company KazMunayGas, uranium mining company KazAtomProm, national airline Air Astana, national telecom operator Kazakhtelecom, railway operator Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, KazPost, and Samruk–Energy, Tau-Ken Samruk, and Qazaq Air. Samruk-Kazyna sold 15 percent of its stake in KazAtomProm in a dual-listed IPO on the London Exchange and the Astana International Stock Exchange in 2018. Information on privatization of SK assets is available here: https://sk.kz/investors/privatization/information-on-assets-and-facilities/?lang=en
8. Responsible Business Conduct
Entrepreneurs, the government, and non-governmental organizations are aware of the expectations of responsible business conduct (RBC). Kazakhstan continues to make steady progress toward meeting the OECD Guidelines for International Investment and Multinational Enterprises, and the government promotes the concept of RBC. The OECD National Point of Contact is the Ministry of National Economy.
A legal framework for RBC was introduced in 2015. The Entrepreneurial Code has a special section on social responsibility, which is defined as a voluntary contribution for the development of social, environmental, and other spheres. The Code says that the state creates conditions for RBC but specifies that it cannot force entrepreneurs to perform socially responsible actions. The Code considers donations to charity one of the key forms of social responsibility and envisions a tax deduction for charitable giving, though no such rule exists.
In April 2015, the National Tripartite Commission on Social Partnership and Regulation of Social and Labor Relations adopted the National Concept on Social Corporate Responsibility, developed by the National Chamber of Entrepreneurs “Atameken” and the corporate fund Eurasia-Central Asia. The non-binding document covers human rights, environmental protection, consumer interests, RBC, corporate governance, and community development.
First President Nazarbayev has repeatedly asked foreign investors and local businesses to implement corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects, to provide occupational safety, pay salaries on time, and invest in human capital. The president presents annual awards for achievements in CSR. Foreign investors report that local government officials regularly pressure them to provide social investments to achieve local political objectives. Local officials attempt to exert as much control as possible over the selection and allocation of funding for such projects.
The government has signed on to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). Kazakhstan produces EITI reports disclosing revenues from the extraction of its natural resources. Companies disclose what they pay in taxes and other payments, and the government discloses revenue received; these two sets of figures are then compared and reconciled. Starting in August 2019, the EITI Board has been reviewing whether Kazakhstan has made meaningful progress in implementing EITI standards since its first validation in 2017. The EITI Board is particularly concerned with disclosure of information by state-owned companies, such as KazMunayGas and its subsidiaries, oil supplies, revenues of Kazakhstan Temir Zholy from transportation of mineral resources, and free access of NGOs to EITI process in Kazakhstan.
Starting in 2019, members of EITI, including Kazakhstan, are required to disclose subsoil use contracts, signed after January 1, 2021. In June 2019, the Ministry of Industry and Infrastructure Development disclosed for the first time beneficial ownership data on its website. The data include names of beneficial owners and their level of ownership under new licenses only.
Kazakhstan’s rating in Transparency International’s (TI) 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index is 34/100, ranking Kazakhstan 113 out of 180 countries rated – a relatively weak score, but the best in Central Asia. According to the report, corruption remains a serious challenge for Kazakhstan, amplified by the instability of the economy. In its March 2019 report on the fourth round of monitoring under the Istanbul Action Plan, OECD stated a lack of progress on 9 of 29 recommendations, including: implementation of a holistic anti-corruption policy in the private sector, ensuring independence of the anti-corruption agency, detailed integrity rules for political officials, independence of the judiciary and judges, mandatory anti-corruption screening of all draft laws, bringing the Law on Access to Information in line with international standards, effective and dissuasive liability of legal entities for corruption crimes; and ensuring the effectiveness of investigative and prosecutorial practices to combat corruption crimes.
The 2015-2025 Anti-Corruption Strategy focuses on measures to prevent the conditions that foster corruption, rather than fighting the consequences of corruption. The Criminal Code imposes tough criminal liability and punishment for corruption, eliminates suspension of sentences for corruption-related crimes, and introduces a lifetime ban on employment in the civil service with mandatory forfeiture of title, rank, grade and state awards. The Law on Countering Corruption introduces broader definitions of corruption and risks, anticorruption monitoring and analysis, and stronger financial accountability measures. The Law on Government Procurement prohibits companies, the managers of which are directly related to decision makers of contracting government agencies, from participation in tenders. The Law on Countering Corruption states that private companies should undertake measures to prevent corruption, while business associations can develop codes of conduct for specific industries.
The Agency for Countering Corruption presents its report on countering corruption annually. Kazakhstan ratified the UN Convention against Corruption in 2008. It has been a participant of the Istanbul Anti-Corruption Action Plan of the OECD Anti-Corruption Network since 2004, the International Association of Anti-Corruption Agencies since 2009, and the International Counter-Corruption Council of CIS member-states since 2013. Kazakhstan became a member of the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) in January 2020. The government and local business entities are aware of the legal restrictions placed on business abroad, such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the UK Bribery Act.
Despite provisions in laws, however, corruption allegations are noted in nearly all sectors, including extractive industries, infrastructure projects, state procurements, and the banking sector. The International Finance Corporation’s Enterprise Survey that gathers responses from thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises in each of more than 100 countries, finds that respondents indicate corruption as the most severe obstacle to doing business in Kazakhstan. For more information, please see: http://www.enterprisesurveys.org/data/exploreeconomies/2013/kazakhstan#corruption
Transparency International Kazakhstan conducted a survey in 2019 to assess the corruption perception of 1,824 representatives of small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. A total of 76.1 percent of respondents reported that they can develop their business without corruption.
The legal framework controlling corruption has been eased and loopholes exist. In 2018 the president signed into law a set of criminal legislation amendments mitigating punishment for acts of corruption by officials, including decriminalizing official inaction, hindrance to business activity, and falsification of documents; significantly reducing the amounts of fines for taking bribes; and reinstituting a statute of limitation for corruption crimes. The largest loophole surrounds the first president and his family. The Law on the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan—Leader of the Nation establishes blanket immunity for First President Nazarbayev and members of his family from arrest, detention, search or interrogation. Journalists and advocates for fiscal transparency are reported to have faced frequent harassment, administrative pressure, and there are reports of disappearances and unaccounted deaths.
Resources to Report Corruption
Under the Law On Countering Corruption, all government, quasi-government entities, and officials are responsible for countering corruption. Along with the Anti-Corruption Agency, prosecutors, national security agencies, police, tax inspectors, military police, and border guard service members are responsible for the detection, termination, disclosure, investigation, and prevention of corruption crimes, and for holding the perpetrators liable within their competence.
Transparency International maintains a national chapter in Kazakhstan.
Contact at the government agency responsible for combating corruption:
Agency for Civil Service Affairs and Countering Corruption
37 Seyfullin Street, Astana
+7 (7172) 909002
Contact at a “watchdog” organization:
Civic Foundation “Transparency Kazakhstan”
89 Dosmuhamedov str,
Business Center Caspi
+7 (727) 292 0970; +7 771 589 4507
10. Political and Security Environment
There have been no reported incidents of politically-motivated violence against foreign investment projects, and although small-scale protests do occur, large-scale civil disturbances are infrequent. In June 2016, individuals described by the government as Salafist militants attacked a gun shop and a military unit, killing 8 and injuring 37 people in the Aktobe region of northwestern Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan generally enjoys good relations with its neighbors. Although the presidential transition in neighboring Uzbekistan has opened the door to greater regional cooperation, including on border issues, Kazakhstan continues to exercise vigilance against possible penetration of its borders by extremist groups. The government also remains concerned about the potential return of foreign terrorist fighters from Syria and Iraq.
After close to three decades, President Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned as president March 20, 2019, and was succeeded by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the former Senate Chairman and next in line of constitutional succession. On April 9, 2019, President Tokayev announced that Kazakhstan would hold early presidential elections June 9, 2019.
In the June 9 election, the first without First President Nazarbayev, President Tokayev was elected to a full term with 71 percent of the vote. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) published a preliminary assessment of the election June 10, noting in its press release that “a lack of regard for fundamental rights, including detentions of peaceful protestors, and widespread voting irregularities on election day, showed scant respect for democratic standards.” In the March 2016 election for the Mazhilis (lower house of Parliament), Kazakhstan’s largest party, Nur-Otan, received 82 percent of the vote, while the business-friendly Ak Zhol party and the Communist People’s party each received 7 percent. All three parties supported Nazarbayev and his policies. The OSCE similarly critiqued the March 2016 election for its lack of adherence to OSCE standards for democratic elections.
11. Labor Policies and Practices
The July 2017 EBRD Kazakhstan Diagnostic Paper singles out skills mismatches across sectors as the fifth most important constraint that is holding back private sector growth in Kazakhstan. The gaps create real operational challenges such as high recruitment and training costs, lower productivity and constraints on innovation and new product development, according to the EBRD. The existing skills mismatches are not a result of lack of access in education, but rather failure to acquire job-relevant skills and competencies, the EBRD report reads. The 2019 OECD report on Monitoring Skills Development through Occupational Standards in Kazakhstan echoes the EBRD findings – despite improvements in educational attainment and labor market participation, Kazakhstan faces challenges with respect to skill relevance and availability, especially among large and middle-sized companies. Strengthening vocational education and training is critical, because skilled manual workers, with medium and high qualifications, represent 40 percent of the total workforce need, according to the OECD.
Many large investors rely on foreign workers and engineers to fill the void. Kazakhstan approved a quota for 29,300 foreign workers for 2020. As of February 1, 2020, Labor Ministry had issued 19,100 work permits. Chinese workers received over 27 percent of all permits, with the rest going to foreign workers from Turkey, U.K., India, Uzbekistan, and others.
The Kazakhstani government has made it a priority to ensure that Kazakhstani citizens are well represented in foreign enterprise workforces. In 2009, the government instituted a comprehensive policy for local content, particularly for companies in extractive industries. The government is particularly keen to see Kazakhstanis hired into the managerial and executive ranks of foreign enterprises. In November 2015, the government amended the legislation on migration and employment that resulted in new rules for foreign labor starting January 2017 (please see details in Part 5, Performance and Data Localization Requirements). U.S. companies are advised to contact Kazakhstan-based law and accounting firms and the U.S. Commercial Service in Almaty for current information on work permits. AIFC-registered entities may employ a foreign workforce without any work permits.
Kazakhstan joined the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1993, and has ratified 24 out of 189 ILO conventions, including eight fundamental conventions pertaining to minimum employment age, prohibition on the use of forced labor and the worst forms of child labor, and prohibition on discrimination in employment, as well as conventions on equal pay and collective bargaining. In March 2019, Kazakhstan’s Federation of Trade Unions proposed that the Kazakhstani government join five more ILO technical conventions on social security (minimum standards), minimum wage fixing, collective bargaining, part-time work, and safety and health in agriculture, but the country has not ratified any new ILO conventions since then.
In September 2017, the ILO expressed concern over Kazakhstan’s compliance with the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention and the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention by calling on the government to amend the relevant legislation in order to: (1) enable workers to form and join trade unions of their own choosing, (2) allow labor unions to benefit from joint projects with international organizations, and (3) allow financial assistance to labor unions from international organizations. The Constitution and National Labor Code guarantee basic workers’ rights, including occupational safety and health, the right to organize, and the right to strike. Amendments to the Labor Code since July 2018 leave many labor-related issues, including dismissals and layoffs, to the discretion of employers. It imposes tighter collective bargaining restrictions on employees involved in labor disputes. According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, 33.4 percent of all working enterprises have collective agreements. Kazakhstan’s three independent labor unions – the Federation of Trade Unions of the Republic of Kazakhstan (FTU), Commonwealth of Trade Unions of Kazakhstan Amanat, and Kazakhstan Confederation of Labor (KCL) – had over three million members, or 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s workforce, as of March 1, 2020.
Article 46 of the Labor Code gives the employer the right to change work conditions due to fluctuating market conditions with proper and timely notifications to employees. Article 52 of the Labor Code gives the employer the right to cancel an employment contract in case of a decline in production that may lead to the deterioration of economic and financial conditions of the company. Article 131 of the Labor Code allows for severance of payment of average monthly wages for two months in case of layoffs for economic reasons. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection is responsible for offering alternative job openings within state programs of the so-called Employment Road Map, alternative professional training, or temporary jobs to workers laid off for economic reasons. The 2017-2021 Productive Employment and Mass Entrepreneurship National Program, run by the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, aims at connecting workers with permanent jobs. The program provides micro-loans and grants, and equips workers with basic entrepreneurial skills.
Chapter 15 of the Labor Code describes a mechanism for resolution of individual labor disputes via direct negotiations with an employer, mediation commission, and court. Chapter 16 of the Labor Code identifies a mechanism for resolution of collective labor disputes via direct negotiations with an employer, mediation commission, labor arbitration, and court.
Labor unrest presents a risk where unemployment is high and where the bargaining power of limited skilled labor is relatively high, but authorities have been quick to intervene with controls and mitigating measures. In June 2019, a violence broke out at the Chevron-operated Tengiz oilfield, in which large mobs of Kazakh men attacked dozens of their colleagues from countries like Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. The unrest had ostensibly been triggered by an interpersonal conflict, though it was widely acknowledged that festering resentment about pay and working conditions underlaid the violence. Another conflict that took place on August 12, 2019, in the Zhairem settlement of the Karaganda region reportedly had similar grounds — fifty Zhairem residents trespassed the site of the Zhairem enrichment plant, owned by KazZinc (i.e. Glencore International AG), and started a brawl with Turkish workers. The altercation resulted in the minor injuries of six Turkish workers. The regional police brought charges for hooliganism and property theft against seven Zhairem residents.
In September 2019, several strikes over living standards hit the Chinese-run companies in the Mangystau region. At least 165 workers of Mobil Service Group Ltd that provides transportation services for Oil Construction Company LLP in the Kalamkas field and Karazhanbasmunai JSC in the Karazhanbas field in the Mangystau region went on strike on September 20, 2019 to demand a 100 percent increase of wages and to complain about getting paid up to ten times less than their western and Chinese colleagues. The labor dispute was resolved after MSG management agreed to raise wages by 50 percent.
Approximately 24 workers of the Sinopec-run Karakudykmunay and Buzachi Operating companies went on strike on September 23, 2019, demanding a 100 percent wage increase. Over 150 workers wrote letters to the company’s management and to the ruling Nur Otan party prior to the strike. Another strike over low wages reportedly took place at Buzachi Operating on October 31, 2019, which was later dismissed by the company’s management, stating that it was a regular staff meeting.
On September 30, 2019, a local newspaper published on its website a video message (https://www.lada.kz/aktau_news/society/73745-rabochie-esche-odnoy-kompanii-v-mangistau-trebovali-povysheniya-zarabotnoy-platy.html ) to President Tokayev allegedly recorded by Emir Oil workers, requesting a 50 percent increase in wages. Kazakh-Malaysian oil company, Emir Oil Ltd, dismissed this information, stating that the company had been negotiating with workers and gradually implementing a pay increase since March 2019.
Security workers of KMG-Security, a subsidiary of KazMunayGas National Company (KMG NC), held a strike demanding a wage increase and improved working conditions in the oil town of Zhanaozen in the Mangystau region on January 27, 2020. Their requests have been addressed by KMG NC. The government is particularly sensitive to any signs of unrest in Zhanaozen, after a seven-month strike of oil workers in the town culminated in riots that killed 15 and injured over 100 in December 2011.
Workers’ rights to strike are limited by several conditions. It may take over 40 days to initiate the strike in accordance with the law, representatives of labor unions report. Workers can strike if all arbitration measures defined by law have been exhausted. Strike votes must be taken in a meeting where at least half of workers are present, and strikers are required to give five days’ notice to their employer, include a list of complaints, and tell the employer the proposed date, time and place of the strike. Courts have the power to declare a strike illegal at the request of an employer or the General Prosecutor’s office. Employers may fire striking workers after a court declares a strike illegal. The Criminal Code enables the government to target labor organizers whose strikes are deemed illegal.
The Labor Union Law generally restricts workers’ freedom of association. Under the law, any local (and potentially independent) labor union must be affiliated with larger unions, and the right to freely establish and join independent organizations without prior authorization is restricted. On the basis of this law, in 2016 authorities did not allow the registration of one independent labor union and ordered its liquidation. In 2018, the U.S. government initiated a review of Kazakhstan’s compliance with the Generalized System of Preferences following a petition by the AFL-CIO, based on the country’s alleged failure to afford internationally-recognized workers’ rights. The AFL-CIO petition highlights the Law on Unions and also raises concerns about the use of Article 404 of the Criminal Code, which appears to prohibit unregistered organizations. The amendments were signed into law by President Tokayev on May 4, 2020. The law removes the requirement of affiliation with a large labor union for local labor unions. Other changes include softening restrictions on strikes. Workers employed in the railway, transport and communications, civil aviation, healthcare, and public utilities sectors may strike, if they maintain minimum services for the population, that is, provided there is no harm caused to other people. The law also reduces the penalty for calls to continue strikes declared illegal by a court. If such calls do not result in a material violation of rights and interests of other people, they will be classified as criminal misconduct, and penalty will be limited to fines or hours of community service. The previous law classified such calls as criminal offences, and the penalties included restriction on freedom of movement or imprisonment.
The official unemployment rate in Kazakhstan has regularly been near five percent in recent years. In 2019, Kazakhstan’s unemployment rate stood at 4.8 percent, and youth unemployment rate was 3.7 percent.
12. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Other Investment Insurance Programs
The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the government of Kazakhstan signed an Investment Incentive Agreement in 1992, and OPIC has been active in Kazakhstan since 1994. In January 2018, OPIC signed a Memorandum of Understanding with KazakhInvest JSC to support U.S. investment in Kazakhstan and improve collaboration between the two countries. The U.S. Development Finance Corporation (DFC), the successor of OPIC, seeks commercially viable projects in Kazakhstan’s private sector and offers a full range of investment insurance and debt/equity stakes. Kazakhstan is also a member of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, which is part of the World Bank Group and provides political risk insurance for foreign investments in developing countries.
13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics
Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source*
USG or international statistical source
USG or International Source of Data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (M USD )
*The Statistic Committee and The National Bank of Kazakhstan
Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data (2018)
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment
Outward Direct Investment
China P.R: Main land
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.
Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Portfolio Investment Assets (Dec 31, 2018)
Top Five Partners (Millions, US Dollars)
Total Debt Securities
14. Contact for More Information
Economic Section at the U.S. Embassy in Nur-Sultan
3, Qoshkarbayev Str., Astana
+7 7172 70 21 00 InvestmentClimateKZ@state.gov
Country/Economy resources: American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Kazakhstan www.amcham.kz