​Kazakhstan: more than just a ‘stan’

It might be tempting to label all the ‘stans’ as similar countries found somewhere in the heart of Eurasia. But is there something which makes Kazakhstan different from other states and places with the Persian suffix ‘stan’ (literally meaning ‘country’) in their names?

Visit Wikipedia and you discover that it’s not only the world’s largest ‘stan’ and largest landlocked country, with only the inland Caspian Sea sweeping its western coast, but also one of the world’s ten largest countries.

Ultimately, however, it’s not Kazakhstan’s physical geography but culture and people which make it different. Located between two giants, Russia and China, from a cultural perspective it’s undoubtedly an heir of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. Most locals speak Russian and Russian Orthodox Christianity is practiced across a country in which Sunni Islam is the major faith. Economic ties, architecture and cultural events pull Kazakhstan closer to its former Soviet Union neighbour, rather than other Asian nations.

Kazakhstan possesses enormous oil and gas reserves as well as plentiful supplies of minerals and metals, which combined with its huge agricultural potential makes it attractive to foreign investors and therefore a rich source of interesting projects that require legal advice.

Kazakhstan is a civil law country, with the majority of its legal rules collected in codes and laws with almost no reliance on court precedents, unlike common law countries.

The principal legal act is the Constitution (1995) and key aspects of society are regulated by respective laws. For example, the key commercial law is the Civil Code. Because the Kazakh legal system is still evolving, the issue for the legal profession is the scope for interpretation. Another challenge of the existing legal system is that legislation is frequently amended, which some commentators have suggested is without real improvement for society. On the other hand, Kazakhstan is an open country and active in its external policy, and has ratified many international treaties which prevail over domestic laws.

A very significant part of the economy is dominated by state or state-owned entities. The procurement of goods, works and services by such entities, as well as by highly regulated subsoil users operating in the country, are subject to strict procurement rules and requirements. The procurement rules that are relevant to many of these entities are not a formal element in local legislation, but must be considered when providing legal advice on a wide variety of projects. This can be a challenge for both lawyers and clients!

Kazakhstan actively supports many human rights and green initiatives. It abolished the death penalty and voluntarily refused to test and use nuclear weapons, despite the historic nuclear legacy following the Soviet era.

Whether you are aiming to become a commercial lawyer or want to promote human rights and peace in the world, Kazakhstan should definitely appear in your watch-list. Once explored, whether in person or by discovery online, it will never be just another ‘stan’ to you.

Semion Issyk is an associate at White & Case in Astana

Astana, Kazakhstan