Just in May Emmanuel Macron visited Mongolia. Not even six months passed — Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan appeared in the president’s schedule. By the way, the first European leader to visit these countries was Francois Mitterrand in 1993 and 1994. But those were rather familiarization visits — both countries, especially Kazakhstan, were engaged in market reforms at that time, and investors are always interested in that. And of course, to try famous pilaf, too.
Now the situation is different. Kazakhstan has really become an independent regional player and is trying to expand the list of partners as much as possible.
China, which is building its One Belt, One Road project, is seriously talking to it, and there is no way to do business without Kazakhstan. The European Union has long ago realized that it is possible to deal with Kazakhs and started opening branches of its banks and enterprises there. Turkish leader Erdogan flies there quite often and now his plane lands in Astana the day after Macron leaves.
Erdogan is attending the 10th anniversary summit of the Organization of Turkic States. Hosting fellow travelers is another, by the way, evidence of Kazakhstan’s authority. Incidentally, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a man who is far from pan-Turkism in principle, is also flying there, but where can we go now without him?
All this suggests that neighbors — near and far — understand that Russia no longer has the influence on Kazakhstan as it did 20 years ago, although it will remain its main partner. It is high time to act. China, for example, is already, one step ahead of everyone else.
For France, a presidential visit to two key Central Asian countries is needed first and foremost to mark its position in the region and establish «strong long-term relations», in the words of the Elysee Palace communiqué. Apart from Macron, by the way, few European leaders travel to these regions.
Besides, Macron, having established really «strong relations» with Kazakhstan, will be able to count on the fact that Astana is theoretically able to become an intermediary for transferring any kind of messages to Moscow, given the historically close relations between them. Kazakhstan thus strengthens its geopolitical position, an additional channel of communication with the EU opens up for Moscow, and France becomes the center of this diplomatic scheme.
If we look at least at the composition of the French delegation, the essence of the economic package of negotiations is already clear. Ministers of Industry and Foreign Trade. Everything is clear here. Further — 15 presidents of leading enterprises: EDF — Electricity of France, Suez — one of the world leaders of public utilities: water supply and waste management, Orano — leader of nuclear industry of France, BRGM — Bureau of Geological and Mining Research. In general, France is already the fifth largest investor in Kazakhstan.
And Kazakhstan is the first uranium supplier to France. Before that, Niger held this position for half a century. Now it is in second place. After a series of coups in Africa and an open unwillingness to accept the French, their interests have been jeopardized.
In the short term, a complete withdrawal of the French from the development of Niger’s uranium mines is simply ruled out. First of all, Orano owns serious shares there. Secondly, the concern has technology and equipment in its hands, and no one will give them away. Thirdly, Niger is the first supplier of uranium to the European Union and it would be unwise to quarrel with one of its main participants.
«Even a possible — hypothetical — cessation of French uranium development in Niger poses no risk to replenishing France’s resources for the foreseeable future», says Michael Schneider, an international nuclear consultant for the World Nuclear Industry Status Report.
But, as the saying goes, «Better safe than sorry». France has 56 nuclear reactors. Only the U.S. has more. Kazakhstan’s uranium will not hurt anyone, especially since there is an experience of losing gas supplies from Russia, when they had to look for other sources in a hurry. Orano is already working at local mines and intends to expand its presence.
France is ready to build a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan. It is even among the three contenders. But it has two problems on this way.
The first one is that the issue of building a nuclear power plant, or rather, the choosing of a partner, will be decided at a referendum to be held in Kazakhstan at the end of the year. One of France’s competitors is Rosatom. Negotiations between the parties have been going on for more than five years and Russia certainly has more experience in this area. Besides, according to polls, 23.3 percent of Kazakhstanis would like to see Rosatom as a partner.
The second is that components and units for NPP can be delivered to those regions either through Russia or Azerbaijan, and only by land. Therefore, even if France wins this tender, there will be long negotiations with third countries.
A year ago, the president of Kazakhstan signed in Paris a kind of «road map» for the development of bilateral relations worth billions of dollars. It includes, among other things, «development of cooperation in the field of critical raw materials exploitation», which Kazakhstan already supplies to the European Union in abundance. Therefore, the presence of French geology specialists in the delegation is quite justified.
The French Development Agency will open its representative office. As a rule, this state structure opens credit lines abroad and invests in local enterprises and banks, buying their funds.
It is indicative that European leaders usually dwell on any events that can be qualified as cruelty to their own people. On the eve of the visit, the French press recalled that in January 2022, unrest in Kazakhstan was brutally, with 238 victims, suppressed….
But this is a different matter.