The Kazakh authorities seek to break the dependency on oil and gas and diversify their economy. And they aspire to see Astana, the national capital, become a financial center for the whole of Central Asia. To that end, the Kazakh authorities call on Swiss capital and know-how.
Le Temps, a Swiss French-language daily newspaper published in Berliner format in Geneva, in a report entitled «Le Kazakhstan veut séduire les banques suisses» – «Kazakhstan wants to seduce Swiss banks», said: «Early in July, Swiss Federal Councillor responsible for economic affairs, Johann N.Schneider-Ammann, will lead a delegation of some thirty Swiss businessmen to Central Asia, including Kazakhstan. This country, the fourth largest in the world, is then going to inaugurate the Astana International Financial Center (AIFC), but has already invited the Swiss financial actors to play a leading role.
«Certainly we are waiting for banks, as well as asset managers and fintech specialists to come», AIFC governor Kairat Kelimbetov said at a presentation held on Wednesday in Geneva. «Our patrimony (sovereign wealth fund, international reserves and pension funds) is estimated at 100 billion dollars».
One might as well say that the two big Swiss banks, UBS and Credit Suisse, already have a presence in Astana. As a new Kazakh capital, which began to be developed in 1998, it has already become the nerve center for business in Central Asia. The former capital Almaty remains a major commercial and cultural center.
Kazakhstan’s economy has been booming over the last 20 years thanks to oil and gas and other mining commodities. In addition to the banks, dozens of other Swiss companies – the Mabetex and ABB engineering groups, as well as Glencore, Nestlé, Gate Gourmet – are already established in the country.
«We maintain strategic and privileged relations with Switzerland», AIFC governor said, referring to his country’s belonging to the group which represents Swiss in the Bretton Woods institutions (World Bank and International Monetary Fund). While being his country’s central bank chief, Kairat Kelimbetov has developed long-standing collaboration with the Swiss authorities, particularly on public finance management.
In fact, Kazakhstan which has been led by Nursultan Nazarbayev since gaining independence in 1991 has reached the limits of its development based almost exclusively on oil and raw materials.
The need for diversification has increased even further in recent years, as world commodity prices have fallen sharply. In the early 2000s, the country achieved an annual growth rate in gross domestic product (GDP) averaging at almost 10 per cent. Last year, it fell to 4 per cent.
«We have been severely affected by the depreciation of our currency [the tenge] and the decline in financial reserves,» AIFC chief economist Baur Bektemirov explained. «This situation has also revealed other weaknesses. For example, agriculture accounts for 4 to 5 percent of GDP, while employing 25 per cent of the economically active population».
According to the press service of the Astana International Financial Center, AIFC governor Kairat Kelimbetov had a meeting with the executive chairman and founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Klaus Schwab.
It was held on June 21, in Geneva. The permanent representative of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva, Zhanar Aitzhanova, also took part in the meeting. They had an in-depth conversation.
The overarching theme of the Geneva meeting was a number of issues related to the activity of the Astana International Financial Center. The Western business community appears to be looking forward to the opening of the AIFC to be held on 5 July 2018 in Kazakhstan’s capital.
What is the concept that lies at the core of this undertaking?
Forbes, a worldwide known American business magazine, in an article entitled «Kazakhstan opens Astana International Financial Center in hopes to become Eurasian finance hub», quoted AIFC governor Kairat Kelimbetov as saying: «This is something that was never tried before in Kazakhstan. It is true that financial-center initiative is not new, because Almaty tried to develop the industry and become a regional center in 2004. It didn’t work out… For us, it is more rational to follow the example of successful Dubai International Financial Center or Abu Dhabi Global Markets and create a new platform based on that, from scratch. We see a perfect window of opportunity… The idea is to engage global experts, build up the system and transfer the expertise. We would need to rely on external experts in the short and medium-term. We will compete on the global labor market for the best of the best. It will be a challenge, I know».
Indicating global trends at Global Challenges Summit 2018 held in the month before last, President Nursultan Nazarbayev said: «In order to overcome all these challenges, it is necessary to build new effective mechanisms, a dialogue between states and the exchange of knowledge». It is the vision reflected in the initiative, resulted in the establishment of the Astana International Financial Centre.
Astana, which had acquired its status as the national capital a little less than 21 years ago, is a big, modern city. Its population amounts to some of 1 000 000 people (in terms of population it’s the second largest city in Kazakhstan after Almaty, the country’s former capital). The city is experiencing rapid population growth. Its climate is extreme continental, with four seasons. The weather is challenging, it blows hot and cold. Temperatures there can reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in summer, but sink to -40 degrees (-40 degrees Fahrenheit) in winter. Astana is the second-coldest capital city in the world after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Yet it is a millionaire city.
Now Astana is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary. It hosted the Winter Asian Games and the EXPO 2017. Now the city is waiting for the opening of the Astana International Financial Center
AIFC is a financial free zone located in Astana, which is being established pursuant to guidelines contained in the «100 Concrete Steps to Implement Five Institutional Reforms» announced by Kazakhstan’s leader Nursultan Nazarbayev and designed to provide a strong national platform needed to achieve country’s ambition of joining the top 30 developed countries by 2050. In our republic, governmental instructions in writing from the President are being perceived as guidance for national action. So, the nation is committed to implementing five institutional reforms: creation of a modern and professional civil service; ensuring the rule of law; industrialization and economic growth; a unified nation for the future; transparency and accountability of the state.
The Astana International Financial Center sees its main role in attracting financial resources. There are plans to promote the development of the asset management industry not just in Kazakhstan, but in the region as a whole. AIFC is positioning itself as a financial hub for the countries of Central Asia, the Caucasus, Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Middle East, Western China, Mongolia and Europe.
The AIFC Authority, which was established on 28 December 2015 and is responsible for the development of the overall strategic plan, promotion of the AIFC in the global markets, attraction of the potential participants to the AIFC, is taking on a huge responsibility. But, as the saying goes, you can’t let the grass grow under your feet. There are certain things you can change, and it’s up to you to decide whether you want to bring about improvements.
The Constitutional Law «On the Astana International Financial Centre» approved on 7 December 2015 provides a legal framework for the functioning of the AIFC as well as a favorable environment for its participants. The AIFC’s activity is expected to be based on the principles of English law, and it will offer a preferential tax regime and house an independent financial court. A key distinction will be tax exemption for 50 years. That should extend to corporate income tax on income from financial and auxiliary services, individual income tax, land tax and property tax. There are also rent-free offices for two years.