Kazakhstan

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Toward FDI

Kazakhstan has attracted significant foreign investment since independence. As of January 1, 2021, the total stock of foreign direct investment (by the directional principle) in Kazakhstan totaled USD 166.4 billion, primarily in the oil and gas sector. International financial institutions consider Kazakhstan to be a relatively attractive destination for their operations, and international firms have established regional headquarters in Kazakhstan.

In 2017, Kazakhstan adhered to the OECD Declaration on International Investment and Multinational Enterprises, meaning it committed to certain investment standards, including the promotion of responsible business conduct..

In its Strategic Plan of Development to 2025, the government stated that bringing up the living standards of Kazakhstan’s citizens to the level of OECD countries is one of its strategic goals.

In addition to earlier approved program documents, the President adopted a National Development Plan to 2025 in February 2021. The Plan outlines objectives and parameters of a New Economic Course announced by President Tokayev in September 2020. The Course included seven priorities: a fair distribution of benefits and responsibilities, the leading role of private entrepreneurship, fair competition, productivity growth and the development of a more technologically advanced economy, human capital development, development of a green economy, and state accountability to the society. A favorable investment climate is a part of this course. To implement his program, the President established the Supreme Council for Reforms and the Agency for Strategic Planning and Reforms. The President chairs the Supreme Council for Reforms, while Sir Suma Chakrabarti, a former President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will serve as Deputy Chairman.

In January 2021, the Prime Minister announced the government’s commitment to increase the share of annual FDI in GDP from 13.2 percent of GDP in 2018 to 19 percent of GDP in 2022.

The government of Kazakhstan has incrementally improved the business climate for foreign investors. Corruption, lack of rule of law and excessive bureaucracy, however, do remain serious obstacles to foreign investment.

Over the last few 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 created the Coordination Council for Attracting Foreign Investment. The Prime Minister acts as the Chair and Investment Ombudsman. In December 2018, the Investment Committee was transferred to the supervision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which took charge of attracting and facilitating the activities of foreign investors. In January 2021, the Minister of Foreign Affairs received an additional title of Deputy Prime Minister due to the expanded portfolio of the Ministry. 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 and the Ministry of Trade and Integration interact 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. 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, ) operates as a regional investment hub regarding tax, legal, and other benefits. In 2019, the government founded Kazakhstan’s Direct Investment Fund which became resident at the AIFC and aims to attract private investments for diversifying Kazakhstan’s economy. The state company KazakhInvest, located in this hub, offers investors a single window for government services.

In 2020-2021, the government attempted to improve the regulatory and institutional environment for investors. However, these changes have sometimes been associated with an over-structured system of preferences and an enhanced government role. For example, in January 2021 the Foreign Minister suggested for consideration establishment of an additional group, the Investment Command Staff (ICS) that would make decisions on granting special conditions and extending preferences for investors signing investment agreements. This Investment Command Staff is expected to consider project proposals after their verification by KazakhInvest and the Astana International Financial Center. The government maintains its 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 caused the government to amend the country’s mid-term economic development plans. In March 2020, the government approved a stimulus package of $13.7 billion, mostly oriented at maintaining the income of the population, 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 certain business enterprises. While no sectors of the economy are completely closed to foreign 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. Article 16 in the December 2017 Code on Subsoil and Subsoil Use (the Code) mandates that share of the national company KazAtomProm be no less than 50% in new uranium producing joint ventures.

As a result of its WTO accession, Kazakhstan formally removed the limits on foreign ownership 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 in December 2020, the restriction on opening branches of foreign banks and insurance companies was lifted in compliance with the country’s OECD commitments. However, the law limits the participation of offshore companies in banks and insurance companies and prohibits foreign ownership of pension funds and agricultural land. In addition, foreign citizens and companies are restricted from participating in private security businesses.

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 litigation as pressure tactics.

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.  In 2020, developments ranged from a major reduction to a full annulment of work permits for some categories of foreign workforce (see Performance and Data Localization Requirements.)   During a March 2021 virtual meeting with international oil companies, Kazakhstan’s President urged the government to ensure legal protection and stability of investments and investment preferences. He also tasked the recently established Front Office for Investors to address investor challenges and bring them to the attention of the Prime Minister’s Council.  Moreover, Kazakhstan supported the request of oil companies to remove a discriminatory approach to fines imposed on them for gas flaring.  Under the current legislation, oil companies pay gas flaring fines several times higher than those paid by other non-oil companies.

In April 2008, Kazakhstan introduced a customs duty on crude oil and gas condensate exports, this revenue goes to the government’s budget and does not reach the National Fund.  The National Fund 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 disposal of agricultural land.  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 – if the global oil price drops below $25 per barrel, the duty zeros.

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 latest approved list is dated June 28, 2018: https://www.primeminister.kz/ru/decisions/28062018-389.

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 streamline 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.

Kazakhstan is committed under the Paris Climate Agreement to reduce GHG emissions 15 percent from the level of base year 1990 down to 328.3 million metric tons (mmt) by 2030.  In the meantime, Kazakhstan increased emissions 27.8 percent to 401.9 mmt in the five years from 2013 to 2018. The energy sector accounted for 82.4 percent of GHG emissions, agriculture for 9 percent, and others for 5.6 percent.  The successor of the Energy Ministry for environmental issues, Ministry of Ecology, Geology, and Natural Resources, started drafting the 2050 National Low Carbon Development Strategy in October 2019. The Concept is scheduled for submission to the government in June 2021.

In November 2020, the government adopted a National Plan for Allocation of Quotas for Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions for 2021. The emissions cap (a total number of emissions allowed) is set for 159.9 million. The power sector received the highest number of allowances, or 91.4 million, for 90 power plants.  The cap for the oil and gas sector is 22.2 million for 61 installations, while 24 mining installations get 7.3 million allowances, and 21 metallurgical facilities have 29.6 million.  The combined caps for the chemical and processing sectors are 9.3 million. In February 2018, the Ministry of Energy announced the creation of an online GHG emissions reporting and monitoring system.  The system is not operational, and it is likely to be launched after the Environmental Code comes into effect in July 2021.  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.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

The OECD Investment Committee presented its second Investment Policy Review of Kazakhstan in June 2017, available at: https://www.oecd.org/countries/kazakhstan/oecd-investment-policy-reviews-kazakhstan-2017-9789264269606-en.htm.

The OECD Investment Committee presented its second Investment Policy Review of Kazakhstan in June 2017, available at: https://www.oecd.org/countries/kazakhstan/oecd-investment-policy-reviews-kazakhstan-2017-9789264269606-en.htm.

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. The OECD Investment Committee is 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.

Business Facilitation

The 2020 World Bank’s Doing Business Index 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 must have Kazakhstan’s visa for a business immigrant and submit electronic copies of their IDs, as well as any certification of their companies from their country of origin. 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 ‘Doing Business’ Index, it takes 4 procedures and 5 days to establish a foreign-owned limited liability company (LLC) in Kazakhstan. 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.

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered new measures for easing the doing business process. In 2021, the government introduced a special three-percent retail tax for 114 types of small and medium-sized businesses. Companies can switch to the new regime voluntarily. The government also introduced an investment tax credit allowing entrepreneurs to receive tax deferrals for up to three years. As a part of his new economic policy, President Tokayev stated that prosecution or tax audits against entrepreneurs should be possible only after a respective tax court ruling.

In 2020, the government approved new measures aimed to facilitate the business operations of investors and to help Kazakhstan attract up to $30 billion in additional FDI by 2025. For example, the government introduced a new notional an investment agreement (see details in Section 4) and removed a solicitation of local regional authorities for obtaining a visa for a business-immigrant.

In order to facilitate the work of foreign investors, the government has recommended to use the law of the Astana International Financial Center (AIFC) as applicable law for investment contracts with Kazakhstan and has planned some steps, including a harmonization of tax preferences of the AIFC, the International IT park Astana Hub, Astana Expo 2017 company and Nazarbayev University. Plans on the further liberalization of a visa and migration regime, and the development of international air communication with international financial centers were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Utilizing the advantages of the Astana International Financial Center may bring positive results in attracting foreign investments. Nonetheless, there is still room for improvement in business facilitation in the rest of Kazakhstan’s territory. For example, foreign investors often complain about problems finalizing contracts, delays, and burdensome practices in licensing. The problems associated with the decriminalization of tax errors still await full resolution, despite an order to this effect issued by the General Prosecutor’s Office in January 2020. The controversial taxation of dividends of non-residents that came into force in January 2021, has additionally raised concerns of foreign investors.

Outward Investment

The government neither incentivizes nor restricts outward investment.

Investment Climate Statements
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