Managing in Kazakhstan
Working Effectively in a Multi-Ethnic Hierarchical Culture
Kazakhstan can lay claim to being the world's secret giant! It's the ninth largest country in the world – about the same size as Western Europe – and is the world's largest landlocked country.
This vast but sparsely populated country dominates central Asia from the Caspian Sea on its western coast to its easternmost tip, which almost touches Mongolia. (Kazakhstan is considered landlocked because the Caspian Sea is itself a "closed sea.")
Kazakhstan was the last of the former Soviet republics to declare independence from the U.S.S.R. It is bordered by its giant neighbors Russia and China to the north and east, and to its south lie Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.
It's a country keen to rediscover its sense of identity, and to boost its presence among the world's major economies. And, thanks to its considerable oil and gas reserves, and tax incentives for investors, it's a country that's increasingly open for business.
In this article, we'll explore the culture and traditions of Kazakhstan, and look at what you need to know to work with, and to manage, a Kazakh team successfully.
This article is intended as a general guide only. Keep an open mind and use your best judgment and observation, appropriate to your situation and your co-workers.
Kazakhstan has been an independent nation since 1991.
Kazakh Geography and History
The Republic of Kazakhstan is a country of impressive plains, mountains, oases, and deserts. These include Charyn Canyon, the second largest canyon in the world, known by travellers as "little brother" to the U.S.'s Grand Canyon.
Ancient settlements in Kazakhstan were important stops along the Silk Roads, the great trading routes that once linked Europe and the East. But it was the Mongols who first established political and administrative districts, in the early 13th Century.
A traditional nomadic lifestyle persisted until the region became part of the Russian empire in the 19th Century and the U.S.S.R. in the 20th. Kazakhstan declared its independence on December 16, 1991 – and it still boasts the world's oldest and largest operational space center, the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
The Kazakh population is approximately 18 million, with only 15 people per square mile. (In contrast, the U.S. has an average of 92 people per square mile and the U.K. has 650.)
President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been leader of the country since before independence, announced in March 2019 that he would be resigning. The speaker of the upper house of parliament, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, is expected to take over as acting president for the remainder of the presidential term, until 2021.
Critics have characterized Nazarbayev's regime as authoritarian, with concerns about human rights and a lack of political opposition. However, this has not stopped Kazakhstan building a reputation as a welcoming nation to others.
In June 2016, Kazakhstan was elected as a non-permanent member to serve on the UN Security Council. It has also taken part in UN peacekeeping missions in Haiti, the Western Sahara, and Côte d'Ivoire. And it offered support and funding to Ukraine in 2014, as the still-ongoing crisis took hold there.
The country's primary industries are oil and gas production (contributing 70 percent of exports and 30 percent of Gross Domestic Product) followed by wheat, textiles, livestock, and uranium. But it's striving to diversify its economy and it has a goal of joining the top 30 developed countries in the world by 2050.
The Kazakh culture is heavily influenced by the various peoples who have settled there over the centuries, especially from former Soviet states. Now, the population comprises about 130 ethnicities, including Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Germans, Tatars, and Uyghurs.
The dominant religion is Islam, but other religions are also practiced, including Russian/Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
The horse is a powerful cultural symbol, representing Kazakhstan's nomadic past. As a result, horse-related activities – riding, racing, and raising – are all popular pastimes.
Kazakhstan has a strong patriarchal and hierarchical culture. Men tend to hold positions of power, and seniority is valued highly. This applies in all settings. For example, young family members are expected to respect and care for their elders.
Kazakhs are generally very welcoming to outsiders, and place a high value on relationships and trust.
Homosexuality is legal in Kazakhstan but it is often not socially acceptable, and LGBT individuals can face discrimination and hostility.
The country's official languages are Kazakh and Russian. English is taught in most schools, too, but few people speak it in rural regions.
Russian is the most commonly used language in business dealings. To view a list of helpful phrases in Russian, see our article, Managing in Russia.
Both Kazakh and Russian use the cyrillic alphabet, so reading and pronunciation can be a challenge for visitors from outside the region! Kazakhs will appreciate any effort you make to learn some key phrases before your arrival, but you'll likely need the services of an interpreter, too.
|Goodbye||Сау болыңыз.||sow bo-ly|
|How are you?||Қалыңыз қалай?||qa-ly-ngyz qa-lai?|
|What is your name?||Сіздің атыңыз/есіміңіз кім?||Siz-din ah-ty-ngiz/ye-si-mi-ngiz kim?|
|My name is...||Менің атым/есімім...||me-ning ah-tym...|
|Nice to meet you||Танысқанымызға қуаныштымын.||tah-nys-qah-ny-myz-gha kwah-nush-ty-myn|
|Please||Tәңір жарылғасын!||t'a-ngir ja-ryl-ga-syn!|
|I don't understand||Мен түсінбеймін||men too-sin-bei-min|
|Do you speak English?||Сіз ағылшынша сөйлейсіз бе?||siz aghyl-shyn-shah soi-lei-siz be?|
Kazakhstan observes 12 public holidays. Many of these celebrate the history of the country.
Kazakhs are also entitled to a minimum of 18 paid vacation days per year (with payment occurring around three days before the leave begins).
|New Year's Day||January 1-2|
|Eastern Orthodox Christmas||January 7|
|International Women's Day||March 8|
|Nauryz Meyramy (arrival of spring)||March 21-23|
|Kazakhstan People's Unity Day||May 1|
|Defender of the Fatherland Day||May 7-8|
|Great Patriotic War Against Fascism (Victory Day)||May 9|
|Capital City Day||July 6|
|Kurban Bairam (Islamic festival)||August 21 (August 12 in 2019)|
|Constitution Day||August 30|
|First President Day||December 1|
|Independence Day||December 16-17|
See www.timeanddate.com for an up-to-date list of Kazakhstan’s public holidays.
Any foreigners who intend to work in Kazakhstan, or to engage in employment activities, will need a visa. Check with your HR department to ensure that you have all the necessary permissions and documentation. Also, you can find more information from Kazakhstan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Here are a few key points to consider regarding working in Kazakhstan:
- The official currency of Kazakhstan is the tenge (KZT). In August 2018, one U.S. dollar bought 364 tenge.
- Kazakhstan has a national minimum wage for all employees, currently set at 24,459 KZT tenge per month (approximately $67 in August 2018).
- In general, a typical working week is limited to 40 hours. Further restrictions apply to younger workers, and workers involved in heavy manual labor have a 36-hour limit.
- Overtime is not encouraged, and no more than two hours overtime should be worked per day. It's paid at 1.5 times the employee's standard pay. Work done during public holidays should be paid at twice the basic pay.
- Employees pay 10 percent of their income toward social security in Kazakhstan.
- Employees are entitled to at least one hour's break per day.
- Employees are entitled to paid sick leave.
- Mothers are entitled to 70 days' leave prior to the birth of a child, and 56 days afterward. This rises to 70 calendar days for multiple births. Fathers are normally permitted to take two weeks' unpaid paternity leave.
Meeting and Greeting
The handshake is the most common greeting in a business setting, and should be readily accepted.
However, when a man meets a woman, it's customary to allow the woman to initiate the handshake, if she desires. The man can then accept. No offense should be taken, however, if a woman does not offer her hand.
Business cards are still seen as an important mark of status, and the quality of your card will be noted! Kazakh business partners will also appreciate receiving business cards in Russian or Kazakh.
Formal business attire is the norm in Kazakhstan. That means suit and tie for men, and formal pant suits or knee-length skirts and a blouse for women.
Clothing is more informal outside office hours. Western clothes are worn, but many local residents will wear traditional Kazakh attire: the “koylek” for women or the “shapan” for men – these are both long shirt-type outfits.
As mentioned above, the Kazakh culture puts a lot of emphasis on respecting elders, but this applies in the work context, too. Those in senior positions will make the final decisions, and it is considered rude to question their choices.
Many contract negotiations will begin in an informal setting, such as at a dinner. Kazakh's typically only enter into business with people they know and trust. It is therefore important to spend time building relationships before moving on to the formalities of agreeing a contract.
Kazakhstan is known for its tough approach to negotiation, and several rounds will likely be required before an agreement is reached. Business partners may be forceful in their approach, but this fierceness should not be taken personally: it's simply a normal part of the process.
Getting the Best From Your Team
As part of building the atmosphere of trust in your team, spend time getting to know the people who work for you but, as a manager, be careful to maintain boundaries. This will apply whether you are managing in person or remotely.
Your team members will look to you to make decisions, and defer to your judgment. Junior employees will not be expected to take much initiative, so give clear and direct instructions when delegating tasks. But remember to show extra respect to those who are more senior than you – be sure to avoid any kind of argument.
It's quite usual for Kazakhs to turn up a little late for meetings and appointments. However, it's considered polite to let people know if you'll be more than 30 minutes late. Similarly, deadlines are also often viewed as flexible. So, remind your team if you require work to be completed by a certain time, and explain why it is necessary.
Visitors are often targets of crime, especially in rural areas. But corruption among public officials (including police and customs officers) is widespread, too. Cyber-crime and drug trafficking are also prevalent.
It's vital that you are vigilant about these risks, and keep yourself safe. You can get up-to-date security information on Kazakhstan from the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security or the U.K.'s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Be careful of giving gifts in the workplace. In particular, take care to understand anti-corruption laws, and to respect your company's policies on the subject. For example, in the U.S., the legal distinction between a gift and a bribe is not completely clear. See the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for more information. And, the Bribery Act 2010 explains what constitutes a bribe in the U.K., and for any British company operating overseas regardless of location.
Kazakhstan is a nation with a rich history – and a bright future!
Due to its patriarchal and hierarchical culture, men and authority figures are given high respect and their decisions are rarely challenged, especially in business.
In order to manage effectively in this environment it is important to build trust, to respect those senior to you, and to establish strong relationships early on.
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