The pandemic and subsequent stagnation of the global economy had an impact on the economy of Uzbekistan and the dynamics of market reforms launched in 2016. Addressing public health and social support issues became a higher priority and required the mobilization of significant resources. Quarantine measures, domestic lockdowns, and travel restrictions led to the bankruptcy of a significant number of private businesses and an increase in unemployment, especially in the first half of the year. Mining, services, transportation, and tourism sectors suffered the most. In the second half of the year, however, business activity began to recover after quarantine restrictions were relaxed. The government has taken measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on business, including the introduction of temporary tax holidays, concessional lending, and other incentives.
In general, Uzbekistan’s economy demonstrated relative resilience in 2020 with 1.6% GDP growth. Despite 2020’s challenges, foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows continued – about $6.6 billion in 2020 compared to $9.3 billion in 2019 – which is undoubtedly the result of pre-pandemic reforms. Over 11,780 companies with foreign capital were operating in Uzbekistan as of January 1, 2021, including 1,399 created in 2020. While the government encouraged investors to develop processing and manufacturing industries in support of its import-substitution and export diversification policy, there was a notable increase of FDI in the service, retail, and banking sectors. In November, Uzbekistan successfully placed $750 million in dual-tranche sovereign international bonds denominated both in U.S. dollars and Uzbekistani so’m on the London Stock Exchange.
In 2020, Uzbekistan’s leadership continued to implement reform policies targeted at boosting economic growth and improving public welfare by creating a supportive climate for private and foreign direct investment and reducing the share of the public sector in the economy. To further develop anti-corruption measures, Uzbekistan established an Anti-Corruption Agency to inspect governmental bodies and legal entities, including state-owned banks, and to prevent and combat corruption in public procurement based on the ISO 37001 standard. President Mirziyoyev signed a decree to reduce government involvement in the economy, prohibiting the establishment and operation of state-owned enterprises (SOE) in commodity markets, where SOEs might compete with private firms or have conflicts of interest. The decree also called for compliance with anti-monopoly statutes by nine large SOEs, including the national airline, car producers, and energy companies. In October, Mirziyoyev announced plans to perform internal corporate governance reforms at 39 SOEs and privatize 548 SOEs, including strategic assets in the oil and gas, mining, chemical, transportation, banking, and manufacturing industries which had been considered off-limits in previous rounds of privatization. The pandemic delayed the process of SOE reorganization and privatization, and slowed further liberalization and development of Uzbekistan’s capital market.
During the reporting period, foreign businesses continued reporting cases of non-transparent public procurement practices, and cases where government agencies and state-owned enterprises inconsistently complied with official policy guidelines and regulations. Enforcement of legislation on protection of intellectual property rights also remains insufficient. Uzbekistan has the potential to become one of the most successful economies in Central Asia, but to achieve this goal, it needs to ensure that market reforms become entrenched by improving legislation and ensuring laws are then properly enforced.
|TI Corruption Perceptions Index||2020||146 of 180||http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview|
|World Bank’s Doing Business Report||2019||69 of 190||http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings|
|Global Innovation Index||2020||93 of 131||https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator|
|U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions)||2019||$82 million||https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/|
|World Bank GNI per capita||2019||$1,800||http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD|
1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment
The Government of Uzbekistan (“the government” or “the GOU”) has declared attracting foreign direct investments (FDI) one of its core policy priorities, acknowledging that greater private sector involvement is critical for economic growth and addressing social challenges caused by relatively high unemployment and poverty rates. In 2020, the GOU improved the business environment by creating additional tax incentives for enterprises affected by the pandemic, reducing government involvement in the economy, promoting public-private partnership projects, announcing plans to reorganize and privatize SOEs, and implementing additional anti-corruption measures. The new Tax Code, which became effective on January 1, 2020, lowered corporate and individual income taxes by almost 50% and considerably simplified taxation procedures for private entrepreneurs. President Mirziyoyev challenged all regional governments to improve the attractiveness of their territories to foreign investors and provide FDI progress reports on a quarterly basis. The Law on Investments and Investment Activities, which entered into force on January 27, 2020, guaranteed unrestricted transfer of funds out of Uzbekistan and the protection of investments from nationalization. Established in November 2019, the Presidential Council of Foreign Investors became a new enhanced platform of communication with foreign investors, experts and the business community, though pandemic restrictions forced postponement of its planned plenary session with the president.
The government has yet to address several fundamental problems reported by businesses and investors, such as the lack of transparency in public procurements, its poor record of enforcing public-private contracts, poor protection of private property rights, and insufficient enforcement of intellectual property rights. Uzbekistan is ranked 179 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and ranked 69 in 2020 Ease of Doing Business (DB) with a DB Score indicator of 69.9 (100 is the standard of excellence).
By law, foreign investors are welcome in all sectors of Uzbekistan’s economy and the government cannot discriminate against foreign investors based on nationality, place of residence, or country of origin. However, government control of key sectors, including energy, telecommunications, transportation, and mining has discriminatory effects on foreign investors. The government has demonstrated a continued desire to control capital flows in major industries, encouraging investments in a preapproved list of import-substituting and export-oriented projects, while investments in import-consuming projects can generally expect very little support.
The Ministry of Investments and Foreign Trade (https://mft.uz/en/, http://www.invest.gov.uz/en/) provide foreign investors with consulting services, information and analysis, business registration, and other legal assistance, as does the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Uzbekistan (http://www.chamber.uz/en/index), on a contractual basis.
The GOU organizes and attends media events and joint government-business forums on a regular basis and at these events officials stress their interest in seeing new companies establish operations in Uzbekistan. To improve direct communication with foreign businesses, international financial institutions, banks, and other structures operating in Uzbekistan, the GOU has established the Council of Foreign Investors, which operates as an institutional advisory body. The GOU established the Institute of the Business Ombudsperson (IBO) in 2017 to protect the rights and legitimate interests of businesses and provide legal support. The Law on Investments and Investment Activities, which entered into force on January 27, 2020, obliges Uzbekistan state bodies, diplomatic missions and consular institutions abroad to provide advisory and informational assistance to investors. The Law also obliges the IBO to assist foreign businesses in resolving emerging disputes through extrajudicial and pre-trial procedures.
During the reporting period, various GOU officials attended dozens of in-person and virtual meetings with representatives of U.S. companies, business facilitation agencies, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), and other American entities. Earlier, in 2019, Uzbekistan hosted the first U.S. Department of Commerce Certified Trade Mission, supported by the American Chamber of Commerce in Uzbekistan. The event provided 35 representatives of 13 U.S. companies with an opportunity to meet senior GOU officials and their Uzbekistani business counterparts.
Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
By law, Uzbekistan guarantees the right of foreign and domestic private entities to establish and own business enterprises, and to engage in most forms of remunerative activity. However, due to the prevalence in state-owned monopolies in several sectors, in reality, the right to establish business enterprises is still limited in some sectors. The GOU has started the process of reconsidering the role of large state-owned monopolies, especially in the transportation, banking, energy, and cotton sectors. In 2020, President Mirziyoyev ordered measures to reduce government involvement in the economy, including enforcement of an antimonopoly compliance system in SOE operations, reorganization for optimized corporate governance of 39 SOEs, and privatization of 548 SOEs and state-owned assets. This ambitious SOE reorganization program covers large state-owned monopolies, including the largest mining company, national monopolies in the energy sector, the information, technology and communications sector and postal operators, chemical plants, national air and railway companies, automotive companies, banks, insurance firms, and other formerly off-the-table state assets. President Mirziyoyev formally ended SOE Uzpaxtasanoat’s monopoly over the raw cotton trade, giving private investors the right to create integrated value chain systems, called clusters, in the cotton sector. The clusters allow businesses to manage cotton cultivation, harvesting, processing, and exports independently of SOE-run supply chains. The state still reserves the exclusive right to export some commodities, such as nonferrous metals and minerals. In theory, private enterprises may freely establish, acquire, and dispose of equity interests in private businesses, but, in practice, this is difficult to do because Uzbekistan’s securities markets are still underdeveloped.
Private capital is not allowed in some industries and enterprises. The Law on Denationalization and Privatization (adopted in 1991, last amended in 2020) lists state assets that cannot be sold off or otherwise privatized, including land with mineral and water resources, the air basin (atmospheric resources in the airspace over Uzbekistan), flora and fauna, cultural heritage sites and assets, state budget funds, foreign capital and gold reserves, state trust funds, the Central Bank, enterprises that facilitate monetary circulation, military and security-related assets and enterprises, firearm and ammunition producers, nuclear research and development enterprises, some specialized producers of drugs and toxic chemicals, emergency response entities, civil protection and mobilization facilities, public roads, and cemeteries.
Foreign ownership and control for airlines, railways, power generation, long-distance telecommunication networks, and other sectors deemed related to national security requires special GOU permission, but so far foreigners have not been welcomed in these sectors. By law, foreign nationals cannot obtain a license or tax permit for individual entrepreneurship in Uzbekistan. In practice, therefore, they cannot be self-employed, and must be employed by a legally recognized entity.
According to Uzbekistan’s law, local companies with at least 15% foreign ownership can qualify as having foreign investment. The minimum fixed charter-funding requirement for a company with foreign investment is 400 million s’om ($1 equals about 10,600 s’om as of March 2021). The same requirement for companies registered in the Republic of Karakalpakstan and the Khorezm region is 200 million s’om. Minimum charter funding requirements can be different for business activities subject to licensing. For example, the requirement for banking activities is 100 billion s’om; for activities of microcredit organizations – 2 billion s’om; for pawnshops – 500 million s’om; for production of ethyl alcohol and alcoholic beverages – 10,000 Base Calculation Rates (BCR) (one BCR equals 245,000 s’om or about $23, as of March 2021); lotteries – 200 million s’om; and for tourism operators – 400 BCRs. Foreign investment in media enterprises is limited to 30%.
The government may scrutinize foreign investment, with special emphasis on sectors of the economy that it considers strategic, such as mining, energy, transportation, banking and telecommunications. There is no standard, transparent screening mechanism, and some elements of Uzbekistan’s legal framework are expressly designed to protect domestic industries and limit competition from abroad, such as a list created in 2020 of several hundred imported items banned from the public procurement process. There are no legislative restrictions that specifically disadvantage U.S. investors.
Other Investment Policy Reviews
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) have not conducted investment policy reviews of Uzbekistan in the past three years.
The GOU has declared that business facilitation and improvement of the business environment are among its top policy priorities. Uzbekistan’s working-age population has been growing by over 200,000 people per year over the past decade. Therefore, the GOU prioritizes private businesses and joint ventures with the potential to create additional jobs and help the government address unemployment concerns. The introduction of one-window and on-line registration practices and electronic reporting systems simplified and streamlined business registration procedures. The GOU has created 12 industrial, seven pharmaceutical, two agricultural, and one tourism-focused free economic zones (FEZ), as well as 64 special small industrial zones (SIZ) in all regions of the country to attract more FDI. New legislation has created additional tax incentives for private businesses and promised firms protection against unlawful actions by government authorities.
By legislation (effective from January 2018), foreign and domestic private investors can register their business in Uzbekistan using any Center of Government Services (CGS) facility, which operate as “Single Window” (SW) registration offices, or the Electronic Government (EG) website – https://my.gov.uz/en. The registration procedure requires electronic submission of an application, company name or trademark, and foundation documents. The SW/EG service will register the company with the Ministry of Justice, Tax Committee, local administration, and other relevant government agencies. The registration fee is equivalent to one BCR for local investors and 10 BCR for foreign investors (one BCR equals 245,000 s’om, or about $23, as of March 2021). Applicants receive a 50% discount for using the EG website. The new system has reduced the length of the registration process from several weeks to 30 minutes.
Depending on the extent of foreign participation, a business can be defined as an “enterprise with foreign capital” (EFC) if less than 15% foreign-owned, or as an “enterprise with foreign investment” (EFI) if more than 15% foreign-owned and holding a minimum charter capital of 400 million s’om (about $38,000 as of March 2021). Foreign companies may also maintain a physical presence in Uzbekistan as “permanent establishments” without registering as separate legal entities, other than with the tax authorities. A permanent establishment may have its own bank account.
The World Bank ranked Uzbekistan as eighth in the world for the “Starting a Business” indicator in its 2020 Doing Business report.
In general, the GOU does not promote or incentivize outward investments. The Ministry of Investments and Foreign Trade coordinates outward investments mainly in the form of bilateral economic cooperation engagements. Some state-owned enterprises invest in development of their marketing networks abroad as part of efforts to boost export sales. Private companies that operate primarily in the retail, manufacturing, transportation, construction, and textile sectors use outward investments for market outreach, to access foreign financial resources, for trade facilitation, and, in some cases, for expatriation of capital. The most popular destinations for outward investments are Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Singapore, UAE, and Germany.
There are no formal restrictions on outward investments. However, financial transactions with some foreign jurisdictions (such as Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Libya, and Yemen) and offshore tax havens can be subject to additional screening by the authorities.
2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties
Uzbekistan has signed bilateral investment agreements with 51 countries, though the 1994 agreement signed with the United States has not been ratified, and those with several other countries, including Turkey, Bahrain, Belarus, and South Korea, have not yet entered into force. In 2004, Uzbekistan and Russia signed a Strategic Framework Agreement with free trade and investment concessions, and an alliance agreement in 2005. Uzbekistan has signed bilateral free trade agreements with 11 CIS countries (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan). In 2004, Uzbekistan and Ukraine agreed to remove all bilateral trade barriers. Uzbekistan joined the CIS Free Trade Zone Agreement in 2014. In 2020, Uzbekistan assumed observer status in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). In December 2015, the GOU officially announced that Uzbekistan would not join the Free Trade Zone within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). See UNCTAD’s database for more details: https://investmentpolicy.unctad.org/international-investment-agreements/by-economy.
Since its independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has signed double taxation agreements with 55 countries, of which three have not yet entered into force. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service (https://www.irs.gov/businesses/international-businesses/uzbekistan-tax-treaty-documents) considers Uzbekistan to be one of the former Soviet republics now covered by a taxation treaty with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), as the successor to the dual taxation treaty signed between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) (signed in 1973 and entered into force in 1976). However, the Government of Uzbekistan argues that this agreement cannot be considered in effect and has proposed signing a new double taxation treaty. Uzbekistan officially presented a draft of a new dual taxation treaty to the U.S. government in December 2017. In 2015, Uzbekistan and the United States signed the Intergovernmental Agreement to Improve International Tax Compliance with respect to the United States Information Reporting Provisions, commonly known as the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). The FATCA agreement entered into force in July 2017.
Reform of the taxation system, which for many years had been considered discouragingly burdensome and inadequate, was among the most desired reforms by the new administration. President Mirziyoyev first announced tax reform initiatives in 2016, and active discussions on their parameters started in 2017. The new Tax Code went into effect on January 1, 2020. The tax reform has led to a notable decrease of the tax burden to businesses and simplification of tax reporting. Key changes included: the 8% social security contributions and all mandatory payments to various state funds were abolished; corporate and individual income taxes were reduced from a progressive rate of up to 24% to a single flat rate of 12%; the income tax rate on dividends was reduced from 10% to 5%; the VAT tax rate also decreased from 20 to 15%; and 13 forms of tax inspections were consolidated into two.
3. Legal Regime
Transparency of the Regulatory System
Uzbekistan has a substantial body of laws and regulations aimed at protecting the business and investment community. Primary legislation regulating competition includes the 2012 Law on Competition (last updated in 2019), the Law on Guarantees of the Freedoms of Entrepreneurial Activity, the 2003 Law on Private Enterprise (last updated in 2018), the 2019 Law on Investments and Investment Activities and a body of decrees, resolutions and instructions. In late 2016, the GOU publicly recognized the need to improve and streamline business and investment legislation, which is still perceived as complicated, often contradictory, and not fully consistent with international norms. In some cases, the government may require businesses to comply with decrees or instructions that are not publicly available. To simplify and streamline the legislation, Parliament and the GOU adopted 35 laws and over 100 regulations on amendments to the legislation, which abolished nearly 1000 laws and regulations in 2020. For example, the Law on Changes in the Legislation for the Reduction of Bureaucracy (ZRU-638 of September 28, 2020) and the Presidential Decree on Improvement of the Business Environment through Systematic Review of Irrelevant Legislation (UP-6075 of September 27, 2020) abolished and simplified more than 600 outdated decrees, resolutions and regulations. To avoid problems with tax and regulatory measures, foreign investors often secure government benefits through Cabinet of Ministers decrees, which are approved directly by the president. These, however, have proven to be easily revocable.
For additional information, please review the World Bank’s Regulatory Governance assessment on Uzbekistan: https://rulemaking.worldbank.org/en/data/explorecountries/uzbekistan.
Practices that appear as informal regulatory processes are not associated with nongovernmental organizations or private sector associations, but rather with influential local politicians or well-connected local elites.
Most rule-making and regulatory authority exists on the national level. Businesses in some regions and special economic zones can be regulated differently, but relevant legislation must be adopted by the central government and then regulated by national-level authorities.
Only a few local legal, regulatory, and accounting systems are transparent and fully consistent with international norms. Although the GOU has started to unify local accounting rules with international standards, local practices are still document- and tax-driven, with an underdeveloped concept of accruals.
Parliament and GOU agencies publish some draft legislation for public comment, including draft laws, decrees and resolutions on the government’s development strategies, tax and customs regulation, and legislation to create new economic zones. Public review of the legislation is available through the website https://regulation.gov.uz.
Uzbekistan’s laws, presidential decrees, and government decisions are available online. Uzbekistan’s legislation digest (http://www.lex.uz/) serves as a centralized online location for current legislation in effect. As of now, there is no centralized nor comprehensive online location for Uzbekistan’s legislation, similar to the Federal Register in the United States, where all key regulatory actions or their summaries are published. There are other online legislative resources with executive summaries, interpretations, and comments that could be useful for businesses and investors, including http://www.norma.uz/ and http://www.minjust.uz/ru/law/newlaw/.
Formally, the Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor’s Office of Uzbekistan are responsible for oversight to ensure that government agencies follow administrative processes. In some cases, however, local officials have inconsistently interpreted laws, often in a manner detrimental to private investors and the business community at large.
GOU officials have publicly suggested that improvement of the regulatory system is critical for the overall business climate. In 2020, Uzbekistan adopted several laws and regulations to simplify and streamline business sector legislation and regulations, including eight decrees on providing additional support to the economy and entrepreneurs affected by the pandemic, and two decrees on the improvement of anti-corruption measures. In May 2020, the GOU said it planned to present 24 laws to the Parliament by the end of the year (Resolution 278 of May11, 2020), but its implementation was slowed by the pandemic. In general, Presidential Decree UP-5690 “On Measures for the Comprehensive Improvement of the System of Support and Protection of Entrepreneurial Activity,” adopted in March 2019, set enforcement mechanisms for effective protection of private businesses, including foreign investors. The Law on Investments and Investment Activities, adopted in December 2019, guarantees free transfer of funds to and from the country without any restrictions. This law also guarantees protection of investments from nationalization. The GOU has implemented several additional reforms in recent years, including the currency exchange liberalization, tax reform, simplification of business registration and foreign trade procedures, and establishment of the business Ombudsperson.
The government’s development strategies include a range of targets for upcoming reforms, such as ensuring reliable protection of private property rights; further removal of barriers and limitations for private entrepreneurship and small business; creation of a favorable business environment; suppression of unlawful interference of government bodies in the activities of businesses; improvement of the investment climate; decentralization and democratization of the public administration system; and expansion of public-private partnerships.
Previously implemented regulatory system reforms often left room for interpretation and were, accordingly, enforced subjectively. New and updated legislation continues to leave room for interpretation and contains unclear definitions. In many cases, private businesses still face difficulties associated with enforcement and interpretation of the legislation. More information on Uzbekistan’s regulatory system can be reviewed at the World Bank’s Global Indicators of Regulatory Governance (http://rulemaking.worldbank.org/data/explorecountries/uzbekistan).
The Ministry of Justice and the system of Economic Courts are formally responsible for regulatory enforcement, while the Institute of Business Ombudsperson was established in May 2017 to protect the rights and legitimate interests of businesses and render legal support. The state body responsible for enforcement proceedings is the Bureau of Mandatory Enforcement under the General Prosecutor’s Office. Several GOU policy papers call for expanding the role of civil society, non-governmental organizations, and local communities in regulatory oversight and enforcement. The government also publishes drafts of business-related legislation for public comments, which are publicly available. However, the development of a new regulatory system, including enforcement mechanisms outlined in various GOU reform and development roadmaps, has yet to be completed.
Uzbekistan’s fiscal transparency still does not meet generally accepted international standards, although the government demonstrated notable progress in this area in 2019. A Presidential Resolution, dated August 22, 2018, called for transparency of public finances and wider involvement of citizens in the budgetary process. One positive step was the publication of the detailed state budget proposals for the 2018-2021 fiscal years (FY) within the framework of Budget for Citizens project. In 2019, the GOU introduced amendments to the Budget Code mandating the publication of the conclusions of the Accounts Chamber of the Republic of Uzbekistan, which are based on the results of an external audit and evaluation of annual reports on the implementation of the state budget and the budgets of state trust funds. The Law on the State Budget for 2021 introduced amendments to the Administrative Code, which establishes fines for senior officials of ministries and departments who fail to publish reports on the execution of budgets, off-budget funds and state trust funds, or commit other violations that undermine the transparency of the budget process.
In accordance with the law, the Ministry of Finance now posts state budget related reports on its Open Budget website: https://openbudget.uz. Recent legislation also contains measures to harmonize budget accounting with international standards, provides for international assessment of budget documents through the Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) process, and submitting the budget for an Open Budget Survey ranking. In 2019, the GOU officially requested the U.S. Government’s technical assistance to improve fiscal accountability and transparency, initiating an assistance program that began in 2020.
In line with the December 2019 Law on the State Budget, in 2020, government agencies, state trust funds, and the Reconstruction and Development Fund of Uzbekistan (FRDU) published quarterly reports on: distribution of budget funds by subordinate budget organizations; financial statements; implementation of budget funded projects; and all major public procurements. By law, such reports must be published within 25 days after the end of the reporting quarter. The GOU uses https://openbudget.uz/ to ensure transparency of state budget funds directed to the Investment Program of Uzbekistan, tax and customs benefits provided to the taxpayers, measures to control and combat financial violations, and spending of above-forecasted budget incomes.
Despite this progress, the government is still not releasing complete information on its off-budget accounts or on its oversight of those accounts, publishing only some generalized parameters at https://www.mf.uz/en/deyatelnost/deyatelnost-ii/mestnyj-byudzhet.html. In FY2019 and FY2020, the GOU’s budget implementation reports were less itemized than in previous years.
International Regulatory Considerations
Uzbekistan is not currently a member of the WTO or any existing economic blocs although it is pursuing WTO accession. In 2020, Uzbekistan assumed observer status in the Eurasian Economic Union. No regional or other international regulatory systems, norms, or standards have been directly incorporated or cited in Uzbekistan’s regulatory system – although GOU officials often claim the government’s regulatory system incorporates international best practices. Uzbekistan joined the CIS Free Trade Zone Agreement in 2014, but that does not constitute an economic bloc with supranational trade tariff regulation requirements.
Legal System and Judicial Independence
Uzbekistan’s contemporary legal system belongs to the civil law family. The hierarchy of Uzbekistan’s laws descends from the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan, constitutional laws, codes, ordinary laws, decrees of the president, resolutions of the Cabinet of Ministers, and normative acts, in that order. Contracts are enforced under the Civil Code, the Law “About the Contractual Legal Base of Activities of Business Entities” (No. 670-I, issued August 29, 1998, and last revised in 2020), and several other regulations.
Uzbekistan’s contractual law is established by the Law “About the Contractual Legal Base of Activities of Business Entities.” It establishes the legal basis for the conclusion, execution, change, and termination of economic agreements, the rights and obligations of business entities, and also the competence of relevant public authorities and state bodies in the field of contractual relations. Economic disputes, including intellectual property claims, can be heard in the lower-level Economic Court and appealed to the Supreme Court of the Republic of Uzbekistan. Economic court judges are appointed for five-year terms. This judicial branch also includes regional, district, town, city, Tashkent city (a special administrative territory) courts, and arbitration courts.
On paper, the judicial system in Uzbekistan is independent, but government interference and corruption are common. Government officials, attorneys, and judges often interpret legislation inconsistently and in conflict with each other’s interpretations. In recent years, for example, many lower-level court rulings have been in favor of local governments and companies which failed to compensate plaintiffs for the full market value of expropriated and demolished private property, as required under the law.
In December 2020, President Mirziyoyev approved additional measures to eliminate corruption in the courts and ensure the independence of judges (Decree UP-6127). Starting from February 1, 2021, these measures include the introduction of a transparent selection of judicial candidates with the process streamed online, electronic systems for assessment of their qualifications and performance evaluation. The Decree also creates new inspections for combating corruption in the judicial system.
Court decisions or enforcement actions are appealable though a process that can be initiated in accordance with the Economic Procedural Code and other applicable laws of Uzbekistan, and can be adjudicated in the national court system.
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
Several laws, presidential decrees, and government resolutions relate to foreign investors. The main laws are:
- Law on Investments and Investment Activities (ZRU-598, December 25, 2019)
- Law on Guarantees of the Freedoms of Entrepreneurial Activity (ZRU-328, 2012)
- Law on Special Economic Zones (ZRU-604, February 17, 2020)
- Law on Production Sharing Agreements (№ 312-II, 2001)
- Law on Concessions (№ 110-I, 1995)
- Law on Investment and Share Funds (ZRU-392, 2015)
- Law on Public-Private Partnership (ZRU 537, 2019)
In 2020, Parliament, the President and the government of Uzbekistan adopted 62 laws, 125 decrees, and over 4,000 resolutions, regulations, and other judicial decisions. New legislation that could affect foreign investors includes:
The Law on the State Budget for 2021, (ZRU-657, adopted December 25, 2020). The law establishes Uzbekistan’s macroeconomic outlook and consolidated state budget parameters for FY 2021, and budget targets for 2022-2023. It also amends some tax regulations and introduces additional measures to improve fiscal transparency.
The Law on Innovative Activities (ZRU-630, adopted July 24, 2020). The law determines subjects and objects of innovation and establishes a conceptual framework with legal interpretation of innovation-related activities and other relevant terms. The text is available in English: https://lex.uz/docs/5155423.
The Law on Special Economic Zones (ZRU-604, adopted February 17, 2020). The law sub-categorizes special economic zones (SEZ) into free economic zones, special scientific and technological zones, tourism-recreational zones, free trade zones, and special industrial zones. It sets both general rules for SEZs and specific rules for each category of zones, with provisions for the creation, terms of operation, liquidation, management, customs regulation, taxation, land use, and the legal status of participants. The law also establishes local content requirements, such as a requirement to have at least 90% of the labor force sourced locally. The text is available in English: https://lex.uz/docs/4821319.
The Law on State Fees (ZRU-600, adopted January 6, 2020). The law specifies the state fee as a mandatory payment charged for the commission of legally significant actions and (or) the issuance of documents (including consular and patent) by authorized institutions and (or) officials. It also defines the rates of the fees.
The Law on Joining the International Convention on the Simplification and Harmonization of Customs Procedures (Kyoto, May 18, 1973, as amended on June 26, 1999) (ZRU-654, adopted December 12, 2020).
The Law on Ratification of the Statute of the Hague Conference on Private International Law (The Hague, October 31, 1951) (ZRU-605, adopted March 2, 2020).
Presidential Decree on Measures to Reduce the Grey Economy and Improve the Efficiency of Tax Authorities (UP-6098, adopted October 30, 2020). The decree simplifies taxation for small businesses, real estate developers, and employers in the construction sector.
Presidential Decree on Measures for Accelerated Reform of Enterprises with State Participation and Privatization of State Assets (UP-6096, adopted October 27, 2020). The decree orders the optimization and transformation of the structure of 32 large SOEs, the introduction of advanced corporate governance and financial audit systems in 39 SOEs, the privatization of state-owned shares in 541 enterprises through public auctions, and the sale of 15 public facilities to the private sector.
Presidential Decree on Improvement of Licensing and Approval Procedures (UP-6044, adopted August 28, 2020). The decree cancels 70 (out of 266) licensing requirements and 35 (out of 140) permit requirements.
Presidential Decree on Measures for Development of the Export and Investment Potential of Uzbekistan (UP-6042, adopted August 28, 2020). The decree, along with GOU Resolution PKM-601 of October 6, 2020, orders the creation of the Governmental Commission for the Development of Export and Investment. The Commission, headed by the Deputy Prime Minister for Investments and Foreign Economic Relations, will coordinate investment attraction and ensure implementation of investment projects.
Presidential Decree on Measures for Development of a Competitive Environment and Reduction of State Participation in the Economy (UP-6019, adopted July 7, 2020). This document elevates the status of the Anti-Monopoly Committee and introduces requirements to improve the transparency of public procurements, among other provisions.
Presidential Decree on Cancellation of some Tax and Customs Privileges (UP-6011, adopted June 6, 2020). This decree abolished privileged groups’ exemptions from paying social tax and says that VAT exemptions for services procured from foreign entities shall not apply to services provided by foreign entities operating in Uzbekistan through permanent establishments. It also abolishes VAT privileges in compliance with the Tax Code and other legislation.
Presidential Decree on Banking Sector Reform Strategy (UP-5992, adopted May 12, 2020). The decree approves a five-year strategy for reforming the banking sector with a goal to reduce the state share in its capital from the current 85% to 40%. It also orders the privatization of six large state-owned banks in close cooperation with international financial institutes.
As of now, there is no real “one-stop-shop” website for investors that provides relevant laws, rules, procedures, and reporting requirements in Uzbekistan. In December 2018, the GOU created a specialized web portal for investors called Invest Uz (http://invest.gov.uz/en/), which provides some useful information. The website of the Ministry of Investments and Foreign Trade (http://mift.uz/) offers some general information on laws and procedures, but mainly in the Uzbek and Russian languages.
Competition and Antitrust Laws
Competition and anti-trust legislation in Uzbekistan is governed by the Law on Competition (ZRU-319, issued January 6, 2012, and last revised in 2019). The main entity that reviews transactions for competition-related concerns is the State Antimonopoly Committee (established in January 2019). This government agency is responsible for advancing competition, controlling the activities of natural monopolies, protecting consumer rights and regulating the advertisement market. There were no significant competition-related cases involving foreign investors in 2020.
Expropriation and Compensation
Private property is protected against baseless expropriation by legislation, including the Law on Investments and Investment Activities and the Law on Guarantees of the Freedoms of Entrepreneurial Activity. Despite these protections, however, the government potentially may seize foreign investors’ assets due to violations of the law or for arbitrary reasons, such as a unilateral revision of an investment agreement, a reapportionment of the equity shares in an existing joint venture with an SOE, or in support of a public works or social improvement project (similar to an eminent domain taking). By law, the government is obligated to provide fair market compensation for seized property, but many who have lost property allege the compensation has been significantly below fair market value.
Uzbekistan has a history of alleged expropriations. Profitable, high-profile foreign businesses have been at greater risk for expropriation, but smaller companies are also vulnerable. Under the previous administration, large companies with foreign capital in the food processing, mining, retail, and telecommunications sectors oftenfaced expropriation. In cases where the property of foreign investors is expropriated for arbitrary reasons, the law obligates the government to provide fair compensation in a transferable currency. However, in most cases the private property was expropriated based upon court decisions after the owners were convicted for breach of contract, failure to complete investment commitments, or other violations, making them ineligible to claim compensation.
Decisions of Uzbekistan’s Economic Court on expropriation of private property can be appealed to the Supreme Court of the Republic of Uzbekistan in accordance with the Economic Procedural Code or other applicable local law. Reviews usually are quite slow. Some foreign investors have characterized the process as unpredictable, non-transparent, and lacking due process.
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
Uzbekistan is a member of the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) and a signatory to the 1958 UN Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (the New York Convention).
By law, foreign arbitral awards or other acts issued by a foreign country can be recognized and enforced if Uzbekistan has a relevant bilateral or multilateral agreement with that country. According to new Law on International Commercial Arbitration (which will enter into force by September 2021), the arbitral award, regardless of the country in which it was made, is recognized as binding, and must be enforced upon submission of a written application. Implementation of the law shall be in full compliance with existing bilateral agreements of Uzbekistan with foreign states and multilateral agreements.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
Dispute settlement methods are regulated by the Economic Procedural Code, the Law on Arbitration Courts, and the Law on Contractual Basics of Activities of Commercial Enterprises. The Law on Guarantees to Foreign Investors and Protection of their Rights requires that involved parties settle foreign investment disputes using the methods they define themselves, generally in terms predefined in an investment agreement. Investors are entitled to use any international dispute settlement mechanism specified in their contracts and agreements with local partners, and these agreements should define the methods of settlement.
The Law on Guarantees to Foreign Investors and Protection of their Rights permits resolution of investment disputes in line with the rules and procedures of the international treaties to which Uzbekistan is a signatory, including the 1958 New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, the 1992 CIS Agreement on Procedure for Settling Disputes Arising Out of Business Activity, and other bilateral legal assistance agreements with individual countries. Currently there is no such bilateral treaty that covers U.S. citizens.
If the parties fail to specify an international mechanism, Uzbekistan’s economic courts can settle commercial disputes arising between local and foreign businesses. The economic courts have subordinate regional and city courts. Complainants may seek recognition and enforcement of foreign arbitral awards pursuant to the New York Convention through the economic courts. When the court decides in favor of a foreign investor, the Ministry of Justice is responsible for enforcing the ruling.
Currently Uzbekistan does not have a ratified Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) or a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with an investment chapter with the United States. The governments of the United States and Uzbekistan signed a BIT in 1994, but ratification documents have not been exchanged and the agreement never entered into force.
Since President Mirziyoyev came to power, investment disputes have been more limited in scope, but still exist: 1) Following a two-year delay, during which the government refused to honor the terms of a power purchase agreement signed in 2018, stating that adhering to the terms would violate its fiduciary duty, the government agreed to honor the original contract terms. The project is now moving forward.
1) Following a two-year delay, during which the government refused to honor the terms of a power purchase agreement signed in 2018, stating that adhering to the terms would violate its fiduciary duty, the government agreed to honor the original contract terms. The project is now moving forward. 2) The government unilaterally cancelled an agricultural equipment purchase contract on the grounds that the imported equipment was more expensive than it had thought and did not meet the government’s new requirements for local content. The company has stated that it considers the matter closed and is focusing on bringing other products to the market.
2) The government unilaterally cancelled an agricultural equipment purchase contract on the grounds that the imported equipment was more expensive than it had thought and did not meet the government’s new requirements for local content. The company has stated that it considers the matter closed and is focusing on bringing other products to the market. 3) A chemical company in partnership with a SOE alleged that the SOE breached its contract obligations and violated Uzbekistani law by withholding dividends, intending to create leverage to buy out the U.S. investor at a reduced price. The U.S. firm has stated it is willing to leave, as long as it earns a reasonable return on its investment.
3) A chemical company in partnership with a SOE alleged that the SOE breached its contract obligations and violated Uzbekistani law by withholding dividends, intending to create leverage to buy out the U.S. investor at a reduced price. The U.S. firm has stated it is willing to leave, as long as it earns a reasonable return on its investment. 4) An agricultural firm reported its farmland, on which it held a 99-year lease, had been illegally reassigned to other agricultural producers by the local government. Post assisted the company in raising its complaints to the attention of the Presidential Administration and the Supreme Court.
4) An agricultural firm reported its farmland, on which it held a 99-year lease, had been illegally reassigned to other agricultural producers by the local government. Post assisted the company in raising its complaints to the attention of the Presidential Administration and the Supreme Court. 5) An invoice on a refinery remains unpaid, following the suspension of work on the project, despite the U.S. firm having passed the contractual threshold for work provided that would require payment.
5) An invoice on a refinery remains unpaid, following the suspension of work on the project, despite the U.S. firm having passed the contractual threshold for work provided that would require payment.
Post is aware of a number of cases of commercial or investment disputes involving foreign investors which occurred nearly a decade ago. These have included alleged asset seizures, alleged expropriations, or liquidations; lengthy forced production stoppages; pressure to sell off foreign shares in joint ventures; and failure to honor contractual obligations. These cases have involved a variety of sectors, including food production, mining, telecommunications, agriculture, and chemicals. Although government actions in such cases have been taken under the guise of law enforcement, some observers have claimed more arbitrary or extralegal motives were at play.
In September 2012, the Tashkent City Criminal Court seized the assets of a cellular telecom provider for financial crimes. An appeals court reversed this decision in November 2012, but upheld the $600 million in fines imposed. The company wrote off its total assets in Uzbekistan of $1.1 billion and left the market. In 2013, the government transferred all of the company’s assets to a state-owned telecom operator after twice trying unsuccessfully to liquidate them. In 2014, the company dropped legal proceedings against Uzbekistan and signed a settlement.
In October 2011, the government halted the production and distribution operations of a brewery owned by the Danish firm Carlsberg during a dispute over alleged tax violations. The interruption of business lasted 18 months before the company re-opened.
Earlier in 2011, the government liquidated the Amantaytau Goldfields, a 50-50 joint venture of the British company Oxus Gold and an Uzbekistani state mining company.
In March 2011, government authorities also seized a large chain grocery store and approximately 50 smaller companies owned by Turkish investors.
By the Law on International Commercial Arbitration (will enter into force by September 2021), foreign arbitral awards, including those issued against the government, regardless of the country in which it was made, are recognized as binding, and must be enforced upon written application to the court. Foreign arbitral awards or other acts issued by a foreign country also can be recognized and enforced if Uzbekistan has a relevant bilateral or multilateral agreement with that country. If international arbitration is permitted, awards can be challenged in domestic courts.
Although in many cases investor-state disputes in Uzbekistan were associated with immediate asset freezes, almost all of them were followed by formal legal proceedings.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
Alternative dispute resolution institutions of Uzbekistan include arbitration courts (also known as Third-Party Courts), and specialized arbitration commissions. Businesses and individuals can apply to arbitration courts only if they have a relevant dispute-settlement clause in their contract or a separate arbitration agreement. The Civil Procedural Code and the Commercial Procedural Code also have provisions that regulate arbitration. The Law on International Commercial Arbitration, drafted in late 2018 and approved in February 2021, will enter into force by September 2021. It states that contractual and non-contractual commercial disputes can be referred to international commercial arbitration by agreement of the parties. The parties can determine the number of arbitrators and the language or languages that can be used in the arbitration. The interim measure prescribed by the arbitration court shall be recognized as binding. The award must be made in writing.
The main domestic arbitration body is the Arbitration Court. General provisions of the Law on Arbitration Courts are based on principles of the UNCITRAL model law, but with some national specifics – namely that Uzbekistani arbitration courts cannot make reference to non-Uzbekistani laws. According to the Law, parties of a dispute can choose their own arbiter and the arbiter in turn choses a chair. The decisions of these courts are binding. The Law says that executive or legislative bodies, as well as other state agencies, are barred from creating arbitration courts and cannot be a party to arbitration proceedings. Either party to the dispute can appeal the verdict of the Arbitration Court to the general court system within thirty days of the verdict. Separate arbitration courts are also available for civil cases, and their decisions can be appealed in the general court system. Arbitration courts do not review cases involving administrative and labor/employment disputes.
The Tashkent International Arbitration Center (TIAC) under the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Uzbekistan was created in late 2019 as a non-governmental non-profit organization. The main function of this organization is to facilitate dispute resolution for businesses, including foreign investors. The Center may employ qualified arbitration lawyers, both local and foreign. The Center has the right to resolve disputes through mediation or other alternative methods permitted by the law.
The Law on International Commercial Arbitration was approved by Parliament in 2020 and signed by the president in February 2021. It will enter into force by September 2021. According to the law, the arbitral award, regardless of the country in which it was made, is recognized as binding, and must be enforced upon submission of a written application. Implementation of the law shall be in full compliance with existing bilateral and multilateral agreements of Uzbekistan with foreign states.
Most investment disputes involving Uzbekistan’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that were brought into Uzbekistan’s have either been decided in favor of the SOEs or have been settled out of court. When the court decides in favor of a foreign investor, the Ministry of Justice is responsible for enforcing the ruling. In some cases, the Ministry’s authority is limited and co-opted by other elements within the government. Judgments against SOEs have proven particularly difficult to enforce.
The Law on Bankruptcy regulates bankruptcy procedures. Creditors can participate in liquidation or reorganization of a debtor only in the form of a creditor’s committee. According to the Law on Bankruptcy and the Labor Code, an enterprise may claim exemption from paying property and land taxes, as well as fines and penalties for back taxes and other mandatory payments, for the entire period of the liquidation proceedings. Monetary judgments are usually made in local currency. Bankruptcy itself is not criminalized, but in August 2013, the GOU introduced new legislation on false bankruptcy, non-disclosure of bankruptcy, and premeditated bankruptcy cases. In its 2020 Doing Business report, the World Bank ranked Uzbekistan 100 out of 190 for the “Resolving Insolvency” indicator (https://www.doingbusiness.org/en/data/exploreeconomies/uzbekistan).