Policies Toward Foreign Direct Investment
Turkmenistan regularly announces its desire to attract more foreign investment, but tight state control of the economy, the government’s inability to meet its financial obligations, a lack of transparency, and the increasingly restrictive visa regime have created a difficult foreign investment climate. In January 2013, Turkmenistan created the Agency for Protection from Economic Risks to oversee international investments in the country. The Agency is responsible for reviewing foreign companies wishing to enter Turkmenistan’s market, including an assessment of the financial and political risks associated with allowing the company to do business in Turkmenistan. The arbitrary nature of the agency’s assessments further increases the already opaque and arduous bureaucratic procedures facing foreign firms.
Historically, the most promising areas for investment are in the energy, agricultural, and construction sectors and the government often touts foreign loans as investment. However, a growing number of foreign companies have been forced out of the market due to their inability to convert local manat into hard currency and non-payment of invoices by the government. The government seeks foreign technology and investment in order to diversify its economy through the development of domestic chemical and petrochemical facilities. Decisions to allow foreign investment are often politically driven; companies offering more “friendly” terms are generally more successful in winning tenders and signing contracts. The tender process is opaque and sometimes not announced.
According to government sources, total capital investment amounted to TMT 54.2 billion (USD 15.5 billion) in 2017 and TMT 40.3 billion (USD 11.5 billion) in 2018. There is no publicly available information on the percent of capital investment that comes from foreign direct investment or loans. In February 2019, the government announced TMT 22 billion (USD 6.3 billion) would be invested in the construction sector in 2019. In June 2018, the State Bank for Foreign Economic Affairs of Turkmenistan announced it was creating an open-ended investment fund to attract foreign direct investment. There is a general lack of integrity and consistency in official economic numbers.
In 2012, the government announced that it would invest USD 80.6 billion to construct 450 industrial and social facilities throughout the country by 2020. According to the national program for the transformation of rural areas, of that, TMT 4.9 billion (USD 1.4 billion) was invested in Turkmenistan’s five provinces, including TMT 1.13 billion in Ahal, TMT 1.14 billion in Balkan, TMT 814 million in Dashoguz, TMT 964 million in Lebap, and TMT 850 million in Mary. The government has released no information on the status of this program and it is impossible to verify it independently.
Turkmenistan’s key industries are state owned. According to the Chairman of the Union of Industrialists & Entrepreneurs (UIE), the private sector share of the Turkmen economy is roughly 65 percent as of February 2018. However, this number excludes the hydrocarbon sector, which is estimated to be 35 percent of GDP. While the government has stated that it seeks to increase the private sector’s participation in the economy to 70 percent by 2020, there are no independent estimates available to verify the official statistics. The top economic priorities for the government include increasing domestic production to drive import substitution and self-sufficiency in food production. The economy remains reliant on natural gas exports.
In May 2010, the government adopted its National Program for the Socio-Economic Development of Turkmenistan (2011-2030). The program envisages diversification of the economy and recognizes, at least in theory, the importance of market and institutional reform. The program also includes the privatization of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In October 2006, Turkmenistan adopted an Oil and Gas Development Plan (2007-2030). The Council of Elders, precursor to the People’s Council, adopted the president’s 2018-2024 program on socio-economic development in October 2017. Despite these initiatives, including rhetoric about the importance of privatization, Turkmenistan remains largely a planned economy.
The government selectively chooses its investment partners; making a strong relationship with a government official is often essential to achieving commercial success. Officials may “seek rents” for permitting or assisting foreign investors to enter the local market. Some foreign investors have found success working through foreign business representatives who are able to leverage their personal relationships with senior leaders to advance their business interests.
Turkmenistan has accepted financing from international financial institutions (IFIs) since its independence in 1991. In 2009, the government reportedly accepted a USD 4 billion loan from the Chinese Development Bank (CDB) to develop Galkynysh, the world’s second largest natural gas field, as well as several significantly smaller loans from the Chinese Export-Import Bank for transportation- and communication-related projects. In 2011, Turkmenistan secured a second USD 4.1 billion loan from CDB to further develop the Galkynysh field. The government also accepted a USD 1 billion dollar loan from the Islamic Development Bank in 2010 to fund infrastructure projects. In 2011, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) provided a USD 125 million loan to the government to finance the procurement and installation of power and signaling equipment for a 311-kilometer section of the Kazakhstan–Turkmenistan–Iran railway. Turkmenistan approached a number of international financial organizations, private companies, and foreign governments in an attempt to secure additional loans to fund large-scale government projects but failed to secure them. In November 2013, the ADB was appointed as transaction advisor for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline project and TurkmenGas was identified as consortium lead in 2015. In October 2016, the government announced that the Islamic Development Bank would provide a USD 710 million loan to finance the Turkmenistan segment of TAPI. If successful, the project would have a powerful, transformative impact, but adequate financing remains an open question.
Screening of FDI
The government seeks to attract FDI to Turkmenistan and tends to support companies wishing to invest in the country. Consequently, foreign companies with approved government contracts generally do not face problems or significant delays when registering their operations in Turkmenistan. Under Turkmenistan law, all local and foreign entities operating in Turkmenistan are required to register with the Registration Department under the Ministry of Finance and Economy. Before the registration is granted, however, an inter-ministerial commission that includes the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Agency for Protection from Economic Risks, law enforcement agencies, and industry-specific ministries has to approve it.
Foreign companies without approved government contracts that seek to establish a legal entity in Turkmenistan must go through a lengthy and cumbersome registration process involving the inter-ministerial commission mentioned above. The commission evaluates foreign companies based on their financial standing, work experience, reputation, and perceived political and legal risks. The inter-ministerial commission does not give the reasons for denying the registration of a legal entity.
In order to participate in a government tender, companies are not required to be registered in Turkmenistan. However, a company interested in participating in a tender process must submit all the tender documents to the respective ministry or agency in person. Many foreign companies with no presence in Turkmenistan provide a limited power of attorney to local representatives who then submit tender documents on their behalf. A list of required documents for screening is usually provided by the state agency announcing the tender.
Before the contract can be signed, the State Commodity and Raw Materials Exchange, the Central Bank, the Supreme Control Chamber, and the Cabinet of Ministers must approve the agreement. The approval process is not transparent and is often politically driven. There is no legal guarantee that the information provided by companies to the government will be kept confidential.
While Turkmenistan does not have a specific law that governs competition, Article 17 (Development of Competition and Antimonopoly Activities) of the Law on State Support to Small and Medium Enterprises seeks to promote fair competition in the country.
Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
There are no legal limits on foreign ownership or control of companies. In practice, the government has only allowed fully-owned foreign operations in the oil sector. Foreigners may establish and own businesses and also engage in business activities within the boundaries of domestic laws, but revenue repatriation is very challenging as currency conversion remains difficult. The nature of government-awarded contracts may vary in terms of the requirements for ownership of local enterprises. All contractors operating in Turkmenistan for a period of at least 183 days a year must register with the Tax Department of the Ministry of Finance and Economy (formerly the Main State Tax Service). National accounting and international financial reporting standards apply to foreign investors. In the energy sector, Turkmenistan precludes foreign investors from investing in the exploration and production of its onshore gas resources. All land in Turkmenistan is government owned. The State Migration Service of Turkmenistan requires that citizens of Turkmenistan make up 90 percent of the workforce of foreign-owned companies.
Moreover, there are several ways for the government to discriminate against investors, including excessive and arbitrary tax examinations, arbitrary license extension denials, and customs clearance and visa issuance obstacles. In most cases, the government has insisted on maintaining a majority interest in any joint venture (JV). Foreign investors have been reluctant to enter JVs controlled by the government, because of competing business cultures and conflicting management styles. Although there is no specific legislation requiring foreign investors to receive government approval to divest, in practice they are expected to coordinate such actions with the government. The court system is subject to government interference.
Private entities in Turkmenistan have the right to establish and own business enterprises. The 2000 Law on Enterprises defines the legal forms of state and private businesses (state enterprises, sole proprietorships, cooperatives, partnerships, corporations and enterprises of non-government organizations). The law allows foreign companies to establish subsidiaries, though the government does not currently register subsidiaries. The Civil Code of Turkmenistan and the Law on Enterprises govern the operation of representative and branch offices in Turkmenistan. Enterprises must be registered with the Registration Department of the Ministry of Finance and Economy. The 2008 Law on the Licensing of Certain Types of Activities (last amended in November 2015) lists 44 activities that require government licenses. The Law on Enterprises and the Law on Joint Stock Societies allow acquisitions and mergers. Turkmenistan’s legislation is not clear, however, about acquisitions and mergers involving foreign parties, nor does it have specific provisions for the disposition of interests in business enterprises, both solely domestic and those with foreign participation. Governmental approval is necessary for acquisitions and mergers of enterprises with state shares.
Other Investment Policy Reviews
The government has not undergone an investment policy review by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) or World Trade Organization (WTO). While Turkmenistan has expressed interest in exploring the WTO accession process and created an intergovernmental commission in January 2013 to review the benefits of accession, the country has not yet formally applied to join the organization and does not appear to be progressing towards joining. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) World Investment Report (WIR), the volume of FDI into Turkmenistan amounted to USD 3.04 billion in 2015, USD 2.2 billion in 2016 and USD 2.3 billion in 2017.
Laws/Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
Incoming foreign investment is regulated by the Law on Foreign Investment (last amended in 2008), the Law on Investments (last amended in 1993), and the Law on Joint Stock Societies (1999), which pertains to start-up corporations, acquisitions, mergers, and takeovers. Foreign investment activities are affected by bilateral or multilateral investment treaties, the Law on Enterprises (2000), the Law on Business Activities (last amended in 2008), and the Land Code (2004). Foreign investment in the energy sector is subject to the 2008 Petroleum Law (also known as the Law on Hydrocarbon Resources, which was amended in 2011 and 2012). The Tax Code provides the legal framework for the taxation of foreign investment. The Civil Code (2000) defines what constitutes a legal entity in Turkmenistan. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Center in Ashgabat maintains a database of Turkmenistan’s laws, presidential decrees and resolutions at http://www.turkmenlegaldatabase.info . This information is also available on the Ministry of Justice of Turkmenistan’s website at http://www.minjust.gov.tm/ru/php/home.php.
Turkmenistan has taken a number of steps to promote economic reform, including a law to combat money laundering and terrorism financing and a presidential decree that mandates the use of International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). In January 2010, Turkmenistan established a Financial Intelligence Unit under the Ministry of Finance to strengthen its anti-money laundering (AML) efforts and its ability to combat the financing of terrorism (CFT).
On January 1, 2012, Turkmenistan’s banks switched to International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). Government agencies transitioned to National Financial Reporting Standards (NFRS) in January 2014. Despite these positive steps, Turkmenistan remains one of the most closed economies in the region and some financing of large projects remains off the books.
Most foreign investment is governed by project-specific presidential decrees, which can grant privileges not provided by legislation. Legally, there are no limits on the foreign ownership of companies. In practice, however, the government has allowed fully-owned foreign operations only in the energy sector. Some companies take the presidential decree as a sovereign guarantee.
In 2007, Turkmenistan created the Awaza (Avaza) Tourist Zone (ATZ) to promote tourism and the development of its Caspian Sea coast. It granted some tax incentives to those willing to invest in the construction of hotels and recreational facilities. Amendments to the Tax Code in October 2007 exempted construction and tourist facilities in the ATZ from value-added tax (VAT). Services offered at tourist facilities, including catering and room accommodations, are also exempt from VAT until 2020. In general, tax and investment incentives for the ATZ can be negotiated case by case. Turkmenistan also adopted multiple-year national development programs in various sectors of economy, which might include separate sub-sections on attracting investment in these sectors. However, the country’s visa regime is rigid, making an increase in foreign tourism unlikely in the near term. In addition, as of August 2017, Turkmenistan charges a USD 2 daily fee for foreigners traveling to Turkmenistan, as well as foreigners residing in Turkmenistan if they travel within the country. Information on these programs is not publicly available.
Turkmenistan does not have a business registration website for use by domestic or foreign companies. Depending on the type of business activity a foreign company seeks in Turkmenistan, registration with the local statistics office, the Agency for Protection from Economic Risks, the Registration and Tax Departments under the Ministry of Finance and Economy, and the State Commodity and Raw Materials Exchange of Turkmenistan could all be required. Business registration usually takes about six months and often depends on personal connections in various government offices. The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index has no data for Turkmenistan.
Development and implementation of public policies to attract foreign investment, investment coordination, and assistance to foreign investors are carried out by the Cabinet of Ministers of Turkmenistan. The Agency for Protection from Economic Risks under the Ministry of Finance and Economy makes a decision on providing any investment-related services to potential foreign investors based on criteria such as the financial status of the investor.
Turkmenistan’s Law on State Support to Small and Medium Enterprises (adopted in August 2009) defines small- and medium-sized enterprises as follows: in industry, power generation, construction, and gas and water supply sectors, small enterprises are defined as those with up to 50 employees and medium enterprises are those with up to 200 employees; in all other sectors small enterprises are those with up to 25 employees and medium enterprises are those with up to 100 people.
However, the benefits of the Law on State Support to Small and Medium Enterprises do not apply to: 1) state-owned enterprises; 2) enterprises with foreign investment carrying out banking or insurance activities; and 3) activities related to gambling and gaming for money.
Almost all business-related activities must be conducted by foreigners in person after receiving a letter of invitation from the MFA to travel to the country; permission also must be received from the government to meet with state ministries, agencies, and enterprises. The only other way to conduct business with the government is to hire a local agent.
The government of Turkmenistan does not promote or incentivize outward investment and there is no investment promotion agency. The existing policies are aimed at reducing imports and promoting exports. According to unofficial reports, individual entrepreneurs continue investing in real estate abroad in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Those entrepreneurs who invest abroad tend not to disclose such information, fearing possible retribution from the government. The number of inquiries from private businesses that want to invest in the United States has also increased over the past several years.