French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Uzbekistan Wednesday evening after a trip to Kazakhstan, part of a two-day tour to boost France’s footprint in Central Asia.

France's President Emmanuel Macron is welcomed by Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Oripov upon his arrival in Samarkand, November 1, 2023.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron is welcomed by Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Oripov upon his arrival in Samarkand, November 1, 2023. © Ludovic Marin, AFP

Visiting Kazakhstan‘s capital Astana earlier, Macron said he wanted to “strengthen … complement and accelerate” France’s partnership with the country.

Central Asia, which has long been under Russian influence and was part of the Soviet Union, is receiving increasing attention from other powers as Moscow is taken up with its war in Ukraine.

Macron acknowledged the “geopolitical pressures” being put on Kazakhstan, which borders Russia to its north and China to its east.

“I do not underestimate the geopolitical difficulties, the pressures, sometimes the jostling to which you may be subjected,” Macron told Kazakhstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

“In a world where great powers want to become hegemonies and where regional powers are becoming unpredictable,” the French president said he welcomed Kazakhstan’s “refusal … to take the route of becoming a vassal.”

Tokayev in turn said France was his country’s “key and reliable partner in the EU” and that he wanted to give their partnership “extra impetus”.

“Kazakhstan is the world’s top uranium producer, contributing over a quarter of nuclear fuel consumed in Europe,” Tokayev said.

“With nuclear power comprising 63 percent of France’s energy sector, there is vast potential for further cooperation,” he added.

Military radars

The leaders signed a series of contracts in sectors ranging from minerals and energy to pharmaceuticals and aerospace.

French energy giant EDF is in the running to build Kazakhstan’s first nuclear power station — a project due to be decided on in a referendum this year.

The Elysee also announced Paris would supply Ground Master 400 air defence radar systems to Kazakhstan to boost the country’s “sovereignty.”

France is the fifth-biggest foreign investor in Kazakhstan, ahead of China, mainly because of the involvement of energy giant TotalEnergies in the massive Kashagan offshore oil field project.

Macron is on a two-day visit to the resource-rich region
France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev walking as they attend a welcoming ceremony in Astana on November 1, 2023. © Kazakhstan’s Presidential Press Service, AFP

The head of French uranium company Orano, which already has a mine in Kazakhstan, is in Macron’s delegation.

Trade turnover between France and Kazakhstan reached 5.3 billion euros ($5.6 billion) in 2022 and Kazakhstan supplies around 40 percent of France’s uranium needs.

Moscow watching

China is particularly active in Central Asia with its “New Silk Road” project, but Europe and Turkey have also shown growing interest.

And Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are due to visit Astana this week after Macron.

Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are aiming for greater economic openness and a balanced diplomacy, even though Russia remains their primary partner.

Kazakhstan is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) — a Moscow-led military alliance — along with two other central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan aims to support “interest in a diversification of partnerships expressed by both countries”, a French presidency source said.

Several French presidents have visited Kazakhstan since the fall of the Soviet Union, but Macron will be the first to go to Uzbekistan since 1994.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has put an end to two decades of isolation imposed by his predecessor and former mentor Islam Karimov, but there is still no real political opposition.

Macron prefers to emphasise the “reform dynamic” going on in the country and has said that the rule of law issue will be brought up during his visit.

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