Kazakhstan has come in for a lot of stick lately, thanks to Sacha Baron-Cohen, but — and I say this as someone who has actually been there — his depiction of a nation of buffoonish bigots bears no resemblance to reality.
A few years ago, for reasons peculiar now even to myself, I was roaming Eastern Europe and Central Asia selling the rights to "must-have" TV programming such as the Premier League, the World Rally Championship and, er, Sponge Bob Squarepants. Inevitably, I came to be in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital and the place where everything happens.
While I was there, I interviewed a number of leading lawyers. The legal work they undertook was far too complex for the likes of me: they spent their time structuring and protecting foreign investments, putting together energy and infrastructure deals and steering the country’s moves towards privatisation. But even I could appreciate their surprisingly enthusiastic assessment of the Kazakhstan's prospects.
"Kazakhstan is a great country, with an amazing climate, wonderful skiing and a great social life," Joel Benjamin, a lawyer with Denton Wilde Sapte, told me. "The country is secular, with communism and centuries-old pagan traditions having left their mark. There’s no trace of any fundamentalist politics and post-September 11, the government was very vocal in its support for the US. It’s a great place to be and the work is really interesting."
This was a view endorsed by Karen Krug, an American expat who was deputy managing director of DWS’s Almaty office. Casting an eye towards the snow-capped mountains surrounding the city, Krug smiled and remarked that the skiing is "almost as good as in Denver".
Peter Sztyk, a Canadian-qualified lawyer whose language skills include Russian, French and Ukranian and who has practised in Almaty with White & Case for several years, also enthused about the outdoors. "The skiing and hiking are fantastic," he said.
"There’s a romantic aspect to being here as Central Asia becomes ever more important to the West," he continued. "There is a developed legal framework and the country has matured hugely. The expertise of the people in charge is significant."
I met one of the top local lawyers, Aigoul Kenjebayeva, the director of Salans’ Almaty office, who was born and raised in Almaty. Kenjebayeva studied law at the Kazak State University and worked for 11 years at the Academy of Sciences before, in 1992, following perestroika, she became one of the first three Kazakh lawyers to win a Brenjamin Franklin award to study law in the US. She went to Duke University in North Carolina and then worked for a law firm in Dallas before joining the legal department at Onyx. "They sent me to Kazakhstan in 1994, which was a great time to be here with the oil markets just starting to develop," she said.
Even better times were ahead, according to Thomas O'Brien, managing partner of Coudert Brothers' Almaty office. "The economy here is very good," he said. "The banking system is transparent and well-governed, the currency has been well managed and banking is reliable. Money hasn’t disappeared and banks haven’t failed. This is the foundation point for the country’s development. There’s tremendous potential – in ten years this place will look like Dubai."