2009 Investment Climate Statement - Kyrgyz Republic
The Kyrgyz Republic has a liberal investment regime on paper with a broad base of commercial laws in place. Unfortunately, these laws are not implemented consistently. Foreign investors must register their firms with the Ministry of Justice. In addition to registration, expatriate employees must obtain a work permit from the State Committee on Migration and Employment. Foreign investors usually form joint ventures with local partners.
The legal concept of contract sanctity is not consistently observed. Kyrgyz law on foreign investment guarantees protection for foreign investors from expropriation and nationalization. Individual investors have become involved in disputes over licensing, registration, and enforcement of contracts and, in one case, the government has persistently entertained the issue of nationalization. Corruption is also a serious problem, although the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic has publicly denounced corruption and implemented some steps to counter this problem. The Commercial Arbitration Court of Kyrgyzstan began considering cases in April 2004.
Under the aegis of the World Bank-sponsored “Doing Business” project, Kyrgyz authorities have taken steps to cut regulatory measures to benefit the business sector. Under the U.S.-funded Millennium Challenge Program, the Kyrgyz Republic is implementing reforms to reduce corruption and improve the judicial system.
Banking laws do not discriminate against foreign banks. However, foreign institutions seeking new banking licenses from the Kyrgyz Central Bank may encounter difficulties in trying to establish new operations in the country. At least eight foreign banks operate in the Kyrgyz Republic: Demir Bank (Turkey), Bank of Asia (South Korea), National Bank of Pakistan, ATF Bank – Kyrgyzstan (91.8% controlled by the Bank of Austria Creditanstalt BA-CA), Kazcommerce Bank (Kazakhstan), Halyk Bank (Kazakhstan), the Kyrgyz Investment and Credit Bank (owned mostly by international public and private development institutions), and FinanceCreditBank (Kazakhstan). Manas Bank recently began operations in the Kyrgyz Republic, and is believed to have significant Latvian interests. Asia Universal Bank also has significant foreign ownership.
There is no discrimination against foreign investors enshrined in official government policy. However, procedures for licensing and approvals are not transparent, which can make the process seem discriminatory. Tax authorities may apply greater scrutiny to foreign entities operating in the Kyrgyz Republic. However, spurred by external initiatives, Kyrgyz officials have cut some regulatory procedures for conducting business and have sought to streamline customs procedures to spur foreign trade and investment.
Conversion and Transfer Policies
Foreign exchange is widely available, and the local currency, the som, is freely convertible. As of January 2009, the exchange rate was 40.4 soms to the U.S. dollar. The National Bank of the Kyrgyz Republic (NBKR) conducts weekly inter-bank currency auctions, in which competitive bids determine market-based transaction prices. Banks usually clear payments within a single working day.
Complaints of currency conversion issues are rare. With occasional exceptions in the agricultural and energy sectors, barter transactions have largely been phased out. Payment disputes adjudicated through the court system can be extremely lengthy.
In 2000 and 2001, several Kyrgyz banks declared bankruptcy, lost their licenses or were restructured. Depositors at these banks lost significant sums. The government recently introduced a minimal level of deposit insurance for individual investors at Kyrgyz banks. There have been uninvited takeovers of some Kyrgyz banks in the past two years, with at least one facilitated by government authorities.
Expropriation and Compensation
To date, the Kyrgyz government has not expropriated any properties. However, in 2006, local officials assisted in the seizure of equipment and other property of one foreign investor. In recent years some Kyrgyz parliamentarians and government officials have advocated the nationalization of a foreign-run gold mine. Another foreign investor has complained about attempts by a state-owned company to seize assets. Foreign investors have the right to compensation in the case of government seizure of assets. However, there is little understanding of distinctions among historical book value, replacement value and actual market value, which brings into question whether the government could calculate a fair basis for compensation in the event of expropriation. The government has frozen bank accounts and other liquid assets until disputes were resolved.
Foreign ownership of land continues to be prohibited; however, there is no prohibition on foreign rental of land for residences or factory sites. A central land registry has helped potential lenders and others deal with the financing of real property (e.g., land, buildings, and other improvements) in a more sophisticated manner. The introduction of property taxes may make land ownership more transparent.
The Law on Commercial Arbitration allows for international and domestic arbitration of disputes. If feasible, the arbiter should be a neutral entity that is identified in the contract, along with the specific terms of arbitration. Establishing the terms for arbitration beforehand will prevent further complications in the event of a dispute. However, Kyrgyz business partners may attempt to ignore arbitration requirements.
The Kyrgyz Republic is a member of the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). It signed the ICSID agreement on June 9, 1995, and ratified it on July 5, 1997. The Kyrgyz Republic became a member of the 1958 New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards on March 18, 1997.
Performance Requirements and Incentives
The Kyrgyz Republic is compliant with World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade Related Investment Measures obligations. The Kyrgyz government has also reduced the tax burden on repatriation of profits by foreign investors to conform to the tax rate for domestic investors. There are no specific conditions for permission to invest. However, any project is likely to be scrutinized for its effect on employment and tax revenues.
Visa requirements and fees may change on short notice. In 2006, the Kyrgyz government adopted a measure limiting the period expatriates can work in Kyrgyzstan. Government ministries, lacking adequate budgets, often finance their operations through user fees. Such fees may appear arbitrary.
The Kyrgyz government adopted a new tax code, which took force in January 2009, that is supposed to be more business and investment friendly. Under the new tax code, a number of taxes were abolished and some new taxes were introduced. The VAT rate has been decreased from 20 to 12%. Hotel, advertising and resort taxes were abolished. A unified sales tax has consolidated several previous taxes, and property taxes have been approved.
The new tax code also establishes a presumption of innocence of the taxpayer, improves collection provisions and supports automation and e-filing.
Payroll taxes such as social fund payments, used for the National Pension System, are complex. Many recent tax inspections have focused on social fund payments. Transparency is a problem, as even basic laws and regulations are seldom published.
Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
Foreign and domestic private entities may own business enterprises and engage in a broad range of commercial activities. Foreign entities are expressly forbidden from owning land, including farmland, although regulations allow for up to 99-year leases of property, which is adequate for most business purposes. However, 49-year leases are more common.
Foreign investors are theoretically given equal treatment under Kyrgyz law. In reality, well-connected Kyrgyz private or state-owned companies are able to utilize their contacts to achieve their business aims. Foreign investors are disadvantaged less by outright discrimination than by a simple lack of knowledge on how to "work the system."
Protection of Property Rights
Property right protections are slowly emerging. However, the judicial system remains under-developed and lacks independence. Court actions can force the sale of property to enforce payments and other contractual obligations.
The Kyrgyz Republic is obligated to protect intellectual property rights as a member of the WTO. However, an estimated 98% of DVDs, CDs and other audio-visual products sold in the Kyrgyz Republic are counterfeit. The Kyrgyz Republic acceded to both the WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty in 2002.
Transparency of Regulatory System
The legal and regulatory system of the Kyrgyz Republic continues to develop. The process of implementing regulations and court orders relating to commercial transactions remains inconsistent. Some court decisions, which appear to contradict established procedures, can be implemented expeditiously in certain cases and are subject to outside influence. The Kyrgyz system is heavily bureaucratic. Consequently, investors must overcome a great deal of red tape in order to conduct business.
There is an investment department at the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, which assists investors with bureaucratic procedures. This department also consolidates information about potential investment projects in the Kyrgyz Republic. However, the ability of this office to steer firms through the system has not been fully demonstrated. An investment council, under the auspices of the president, exists ostensibly to further regulatory improvements for the business climate. Contradictory government decrees often create bureaucratic paralysis or opportunities for undocumented incentives.
Efficient Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
The National Bank of the Kyrgyz Republic is a nominally independent body which, in 2008, intervened repeatedly in the market to stabilize the Kyrgyz national currency, the som, against the U.S. dollar. The currency is freely convertible, Kyrgyz bonds are available for foreign ownership, and the stock market is developing. According to the Kyrgyz National Statistical Committee, the Kyrgyz Republic's Consumer Price Index surged 20% in 2008.
As of December 2008, the value of transactions at the Kyrgyz Stock Exchange amounted to 4.1 billion soms ($104.5 million). There were 3,305 transactions in the first 11 months of 2008. As of December 2008, Kyrgyz Stock Exchange listed 14 companies (primarily brokerage companies), which represent around 140 Kyrgyz companies, that trade their shares at the stock exchange. The stock market has not fully matured. Individuals have limited access to buy stocks.
Total capitalization of the banking sector as of October 2008 was about $310 million while in October 2007 the figure was $202 million. There are currently 21 commercial banks in the Kyrgyz Republic, with a total of 227 branches throughout the country.
Several foreign banks now operate in the Kyrgyz Republic. Demir Bank, Bank of Asia, National Bank of Pakistan, Halyk Bank, Kazcommerce Bank - Kyrgyzstan, FinanceCredit Bank and ATF Bank – Kyrgyzstan are entirely foreign held. Other banks are partially foreign held, including the Asia Universal Bank (95% foreign held), Manas Bank and KICB (Kyrgyz Investment and Credit Bank). Although no U.S. bank has set up operations in the Kyrgyz Republic to date, many Kyrgyz banks maintain correspondent relations with U.S. and other foreign banks to facilitate short-term commercial lending, such as letters of credit.
The Kyrgyz Investment and Credit Bank (KICB) began operating in mid-2001. Established to provide commercial lending and other services, the KICB introduced western banking practices and encouraged the entry of other banks into the Kyrgyz market. KICB's principle shareholder is the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, which has a 21% stake. Habib Bank Ltd (Pakistan), which is the newest shareholder, has an 18% stake. The International Finance Corporation, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the German Corporation for Investments and Development each hold 17% stakes. The Kyrgyz government retains a 10% share.
The Kyrgyz Republic is largely a cash society, and outside investors have rarely sought financing from domestic banks. Bank lending is heavily biased towards short-term loans and traditionally has not favored using physical assets as collateral. Some banks do not engage in retail banking.
Since March 2008, new banks must have a minimum charter capital requirement of 600 million soms ($14.8 million). Banking laws also require that banks maintain a 10% reserve with the National Bank. A deposit insurance system was recently established for the benefit of individual investors.
Between 1999 and mid-2001, seven banks became insolvent and suspended operations. The Supreme Court, in 2005, ruled against the National Bank's attempt to declare the commercial bank, "AkBank," bankrupt. The Central Bank intervened in late 2007 and early 2008 to halt KyrgyzPromStroiBank’s (KPSB) operations and later approved the transfer of the institution to one of KPSB’s competitors.
Accounting systems in banks and enterprises are being converted to international standards. The Kyrgyz government has supported this exercise. International assistance programs have contributed to rapid progress in reaching these standards via accounting training and certification.
In March 2005, a popular uprising led to the overthrow of President Askar Akayev. The change of power was precipitated by smaller uprisings in southern Kyrgyz towns, such as Osh and Jalalabad, in which citizens rallied against perceived flaws in earlier parliamentary elections. The uprising was swift, and there was substantial looting in Bishkek. Losses due to looting in Bishkek are estimated at almost $100 million. Kurmanbek Bakiyev was elected president in July 2005.
Since the March 2005 uprisings, there have been no known incidents of politically motivated damage to projects and installations. Demonstrations in November 2006 and April 2007 were largely peaceful. Although Kyrgyz citizens enjoy basic rights, including the right to protest and demonstrate, the Kyrgyz government has increasingly restricted these rights.
Supporters of extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Al-Qaeda, and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement remain active in Central Asia. These groups have expressed anti-U.S. sentiments and may attempt to target U.S.-affiliated interests in the region, including in the Kyrgyz Republic. Because of increased security at official U.S. facilities, terrorists seek softer civilian targets such as residential areas, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, hotels, schools, outdoor recreation events, resorts, beaches, maritime facilities and planes. In December 2002, a bombing occurred at the Dordoi Bazaar, a market mostly frequented by locals. In May 2003, a bank in Osh was bombed. The Kyrgyz Government blamed the IMU for both bombings.
In May 2006, suspected Islamic militants attacked a border post on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, and ensuing skirmishes took place between the militants and Kyrgyz military forces throughout the southern Batken region. U.S. citizens planning to travel to the Kyrgyz Republic should refer to the U.S. Department of State for updated security information. This information is available on the Internet at http://travel.state.gov.
The Kyrgyz government has expressed concern about the presence of extremist groups with radical religious or political agendas, including Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). HT, which is banned in the Kyrgyz Republic, maintained that it was committed to nonviolence, but the party's virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Western literature called for the overthrow of secular governments, including in Central Asia, to be replaced with a worldwide Islamic government.
In the summers of 1999 and 2000, armed IMU insurgents entered the southern Kyrgyz Republic and took a number of Kyrgyz citizens and foreigners captive. While subsequent military operations in Afghanistan have eliminated many resources used by these insurgents, the Department of State urges U.S. citizens to avoid travel to the following areas of the Kyrgyz Republic: the rural areas along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek and Kyrgyz-Tajik borders, and the areas to the south and west of the provincial capital Osh.
There are occasional tensions among ethnic Kyrgyz, Russian, Uzbek and other ethnic nationalities in the Kyrgyz Republic over such issues as language, land rights, and religion. North-south divisions are also palpable in the Kyrgyz Republic. Such tensions, however, seldom affect foreign employers directly. The Kyrgyz Republic's relations with its neighbors sometimes are complicated over disagreements regarding water rights, energy supplies, refugees and other issues. However, it is unlikely that such tensions would translate into disputes directly affecting foreign investors.
Corruption remained a serious problem at all levels of society. According to the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, in 2008 the Kyrgyz Republic ranked 166 out of 180 countries surveyed – on par with Cambodia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe.
The Kyrgyz Government recognizes the damage corruption can cause. As part of an IMF Poverty Reduction and Growth Facilitation program, the Kyrgyz government agreed to take action to stem corruption. In 2003, the law on combating corruption was adopted. On June 21, 2005, the Kyrgyz Government adopted the National Anti-Corruption Strategy. On June 29, 2005, the Parliament of the Kyrgyz Republic ratified the UN Convention Against Corruption. On October 21, 2005, the Kyrgyz Government founded the National Anti-Corruption Agency and the National Anti-Corruption Council, which were tasked with implementation of the Anti-Corruption Strategy. The U.S. government is aiding anti-corruption activities through its Millennium Challenge Threshold Program with the Kyrgyz Republic.
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption; however, the government did not implement the law effectively. There were reports of arrests of government officials on corruption charges. The Ministry of Internal Affairs (i.e., the police) investigates corruption, together with the Prosecutor General and subordinate prosecutors. The government has also created special police anti-corruption units. However, they have yet to show their effectiveness.
U.S. firms complying with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act can be disadvantaged vis-a-vis other foreign firms operating in the Kyrgyz Republic. However, most U.S. firms that have decided to conduct business in the Kyrgyz Republic have eventually been able to do so. To date, measures targeting bribery and other such economic crimes have been selectively enforced.
The Kyrgyz Republic is not a signatory to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery. However, the OECD and the World Bank have previously reported on the progress of anti-corruption measures.
Bilateral Investment Agreements
The Kyrgyz Republic currently enjoys bilateral investment treaties with the United States, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, the Republic of Korea, Lithuania, Malaysia, Moldova, Mongolia, Pakistan, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Turkey, United Kingdom, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
The Kyrgyz Republic has also signed double taxation treaties with Armenia, Austria, Belarus, Canada, China, Finland, Germany, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Malaysia, Moldova, Mongolia, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. The U.S.-U.S.S.R. treaty on double taxation, which was signed in 1973, remains in effect between the U.S. and the Kyrgyz Republic.
OPIC and Other Investment Insurance Programs
OPIC is active in the Kyrgyz Republic. The event of an inconvertibility claim against OPIC is highly unlikely, given the Kyrgyz Republic's liberal conversion regime.
Labor is widely available, but the number of skilled individuals is decreasing as Kyrgyz citizens find more lucrative job opportunities abroad. International organizations are generally able to employ competent staff, often bilingual in English or other languages, but are starting to encounter difficulties retaining staff members. Literacy in the Kyrgyz Republic is approximately 97 percent. According to Kyrgyz government sources, the official unemployment rate stood at 11 percent in 2008. The unemployment rate would actually be higher if Kazakhstan and Russia did not absorb up to one million Kyrgyz migrant workers.
Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports
There are four Free Economic Zones (FEZs) in the Kyrgyz Republic: Bishkek, Naryn, Karakol and Maimak. Each is situated to make use of transportation infrastructure and/or customs posts along the Kyrgyz borders. Goods entering and traded within the zones are duty free within the Kyrgyz Republic. Government incentives for investment in the zones include exemption from several taxes, duties and payments; simplified customs procedures; and direct access to utility suppliers. The production and sale of petroleum, liquor, and tobacco products in FEZs are banned.
Foreign Direct Investment Statistics
According to the Kyrgyz National Statistical Committee, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) totaled $436.8 million in 2007, $335.6 million in 2006, $210.3 million in 2005 and $176 million in 2004. For the first nine months of 2008, FDI amounted to $481 million.
The problem of registering and tracking numerous new private businesses has rendered government statistics on employment, the tax base and national economic performance questionable. The shadow economy may account for up to one-half of overall economic activity.
Foreign direct investment is chiefly oriented towards manufacturing, food processing, banking and mining. Many foreign firms conduct contract work for foreign assistance organizations. U.S. direct investment is concentrated in the hotel and telecommunications sectors, with increasing interest in construction and mining.
Joint ventures and foreign companies in the Kyrgyz Republic include the Reetsma Kyrgyzstan Company (cigarettes), the Plaskap Bishkek Company (packaging/bottling), the Central Asian Group (entertainment/garments), the Hyatt Regency Bishkek, and the Kyrgyz Petroleum Company. A joint venture operates a Coca-Cola franchise that bottles its soft drinks, and the Canadian gold-mining firm Centerra Gold has formed the largest western joint venture in the Kyrgyz Republic, the Kumtor Operating Company. Joint ventures play a leading role in the mining, petrochemical, hotel, and food processing sectors.
According to the National Statistical Committee, the following countries were the largest sources of FDI in first nine months of 2008: Kazakhstan 50.76%, Germany 8.17%, Great Britain 6.34%, Russia 4.8% and Cyprus 4.59%. In 2007, the largest sources of FDI were Kazakhstan 41.83%, Great Britain 13.76%, China 6.66%, Germany 6.56% and Turkey 3.79%.
Bishkek and the surrounding Chui region absorbed more than 92% of FDI in 2008. An additional 4.5% went to the Talas region, with the remaining amounts scattered among the other five regions of the country.
In connection with the war on terrorism, a Coalition airbase operates out of the Manas International Airport near Bishkek.
The capital city of Bishkek has an international English-language elementary school and other services for expatriate families. The Hyatt Regency is the only five-star hotel. The Golden Dragon is a four-star alternative. There are several three-star hotels in Bishkek, including the British-owned Silk Road Lodge. There are direct air connections to Istanbul and London. Other cities, such as Amsterdam, Vienna and Frankfurt, are served from Almaty, Kazakhstan, a three-and-a-half hour drive from Bishkek.