No doubt to Moscow’s displeasure, French President Emmanuel Macron grasped the nettle in taking on the delicate subject of post-Soviet Kazakhstan’s relations with Russia during his November 1 visit to the Central Asian country, complimenting the nation for not bowing to the Kremlin.
“France values … the path you are following for your country, refusing to be a vassal of any power and seeking to build numerous and balanced relations with different countries,” Macron said at a meeting with Kazakh counterpart Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
“I don’t underestimate by any means the geopolitical difficulties, the pressures … that some may be putting on you,” Macron also told Tokayev, who for his part hailed the visit as “historic”.
Tokayev called France a “key and reliable partner” in the European Union and said he would work to give the partnership “extra impetus”.
Macron—who on Wednesday evening moved on from Central Asia’s largest economy to its second largest, Uzbekistan—was not only in Kazakhstan to deliver blandishments. He and Tokayev signed a series of bilateral contracts across sectors including minerals, energy, pharmaceuticals and aerospace. Macron would likely have also underlined France’s desire to build Kazakhstan’s first nuclear power station—Russia’s Rosatom would be loathe to lose out to France’s EDF in that flagship investment, should the project win the backing of the Kazakh people in a referendum later this year—and work more extensively with Kazakh partners in mining the country’s uranium. Kazakhstan’s potential in rare earths and rare metals is also high on the agenda for Paris and other major powers given the pressing needs of the energy transition.
Kazakhstan is part of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and a member of other Kremlin-dominated organisations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) defence bloc. But the country, like Uzbekistan, has not offered any backing to Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine and, in principle at least, has pledged to adhere to Western sanctions on Moscow.
Russia is clearly watching with concern as the West steps up diplomatic, trade and investment activity in its Central Asian “backyard”. Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said last week that the West was trying to pull Russia’s “neighbours, friends and allies” away from it.
“We respect our friends, we are here when they need us and we respect their independence,” Macron also said on his visit. “And in a world where major powers want to become hegemons, and where regional powers become unpredictable, it is good to have friends who share this philosophy,” he added.
France is actually already the fifth-biggest foreign investor in Kazakhstan, ahead of China, which is also making determined efforts to build up influence and economic heft in Central Asia while Russia is distracted by the situation with Ukraine. However, the French investment footprint is largely due to big oil investments, such as TotalEnergies involvement in the massive Kashagan offshore oilfield project in the Caspian Sea.
Kazakhstan plays a role in providing an alternative to Russian oil for European nations determined to break any reliance on Russia’s production of hydrocarbons. It is also increasingly prominent in offering China-Europe importers and exporters “Middle Corridor” trade routes that avoid Russia.
Of deals signed during Macron’s visit, France’s TotalEnergies inked an agreement to participate in the development of a wind farm in Kazakhstan, while France's Alstom sealed a deal that could lead to the manufacturing of electric locomotives at a Kazakh plant.
French nuclear company Orano, formerly known as Areva, is, meanwhile, looking to step up its uranium activities in Kazakhstan, where it already mines uranium deposits in a joint venture with state-run Kazatomprom, the world’s largest uranium producer. Orano is also active in Mongolia, where Macron visited earlier this year, partly with a view to sourcing further uranium and rare earth and metal supplies.
"Kazakhstan is the world's top uranium producer, contributing over a quarter of nuclear fuel consumed in Europe," Tokayev noted. "With nuclear power comprising 63 percent of France's energy sector, there is vast potential for further cooperation," he added.
Trade turnover between France and Kazakhstan stood at €5.3bn ($5.6bn) in 2022.
In aerospace, the Elysee announced during the Macron visit that Paris would supply Ground Master 400 air defence radar systems to Kazakhstan to boost the country's "sovereignty".
One other business signing linked to the visit, in pharmaceuticals, saw Boehringer-Ingelheim and Kazbiopharm ink a letter of intent on foot-and-mouth vaccine manufacturing.