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Kazakhstan welcomes Macron under Moscow’s disapproving gaze

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French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Kazakhstan on Wednesday (1 November) on the first leg of a trip to Central Asia, a region long regarded as Russia’s backyard which has drawn fresh Western attention since the war in Ukraine began.

Oil-rich Kazakhstan has already emerged as a replacement supplier of crude to European nations turning off Russian supply and an important link in the new China-Europe trade route bypassing Russia.

In addition to oil, Kazakhstan is a major exporter of uranium, and France’s Orano already operates a joint venture with its state nuclear firm Kazatomprom.

Moreover, Kazakhstan is likely to start building its first nuclear power plant, and reportedly several countries, including France, are interested in selling their technology.

At a meeting with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Macron complimented Kazakhstan for refusing to side with Moscow on Ukraine and said the two countries signed business deals, including a declaration of intent for a partnership in the much-sought area of rare earths and rare metals.

“I don’t underestimate by any means the geopolitical difficulties, the pressures … that some may be putting on you,” Macron told Tokayev, who called the visit “historic.”

“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.”

France has invested approximately $18.7 billion in Kazakhstan’s economy, Tokayev said, speaking alongside Macron, the Astana Times reported.

Mutual trade grew 30% to $4 billion last year, having increased by 21% to $2.7 billion in the eight months of 2023, Tokayev added.

Both countries undertake joint projects in energy, construction, aerospace, pharmaceutical, mining, chemical, and mechanical engineering.

Tokayev highlighted Macron’s personal contribution to the development of relations, reaffirming Kazakhstan’s readiness to expand collaboration, particularly in green energy, logistics, transit, agriculture, healthcare, digitalization, and education.

Tokayev also stated the need to promote French culture and language in Kazakhstan.

Macron spoke about specific agreements reached in education and science, focusing on the Kazakh-French university, which will open its doors in September 2024.

Russia has voiced concern at the West’s growing diplomatic activity in former Soviet Central Asian nations.

While on Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Kazakhstan as a sovereign state was free to develop ties with any countries, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week the West was trying to pull Russia’s “neighbours, friends and allies” away from it.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where Macron goes next, have refused to recognise Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territories and have pledged to abide by Western sanctions against Moscow, while calling both Russia and Western nations such as France their strategic partners.

“We respect our friends, we are here when they need us and we respect their independence,” Macron said. “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.”

Asked about Macron’s visit, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia valued its relations with Kazakhstan “very highly.”

“In our turn, we have historical ties, ties of strategic partnership with Kazakhstan, they are our allies and our interests are united in many international bodies,” Peskov told reporters.

(Edited by Georgi Gotev)

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