ASTANA – Departing French Ambassador Jean-Charles Bertonnet’s mission in Astana has seen the intensification of bilateral cooperation across a range of sectors.
Energy remains the strongest connection between the two countries, but during Bertonnet’s nearly four years in Astana, new projects in manufacturing, education and culture have also taken shape, and new ones are on the horizon.
All areas of bilateral cooperation are in development, the ambassador told The Astana Times. “Trade has developed rapidly, reaching 5.75 billion euros (nearly $7.6 billion) in 2012 … Admittedly, Kazakh oil exports constitute the main core, but on one hand, the French economy certainly needs this fuel, and on the other hand, French exports are increasing equally rapidly,” he said in a written response to questions.
“French companies (or European companies with substantial French participation) have a strong presence in Kazakhstan,” he said. These companies include the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) and the French multinationals Total, Areva, Alstom and Thales Group, among others. These companies, Bertonnet said, are contributing to the modernisation of Kazakhstan’s economy and the industrialisation and innovation programmes that are among President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s priorities.
The activities of these companies form the bulk of what the ambassador considers his greatest achievements in Kazakhstan. “I have seen an enormous amount of projects come to fruition, while some projects will soon be concluded,” Bertonnet said. These projects include ongoing work by Total in Kazakhstan’s oil industry, in particular in the Kashagan field that is to start production imminently. Also in the energy sector, Katco, a joint company owned by KazAtomProm and French multinational industrial and nuclear power company Areva, extracted 3,661 metric tons of uranium from two sites in southern Kazakhstan in 2012, becoming the largest in-situ uranium recovery operation in the world. The two companies have also been working since 2011 on a new nuclear fuel manufacturing plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk.
As one of Kazakhstan’s nuclear trading partners, France welcomes Kazakhstan’s and President Nazarbayev’s contributions to strengthening international peace and security and the non-proliferation regime, Bertonnet said.
“We appreciate Kazakhstan’s efforts to promote the Central Asia Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone. The commitment of Kazakhstan to contributing to international efforts to strengthen the non-proliferation regime and responding to proliferation crises is most appreciated,” the ambassador stressed. He also expressed gratitude for Almaty’s recent facilitation of talks on Iran’s nuclear capabilities between the E3+3 group and Iran.
“Kazakhstan’s effort to create a low-enriched uranium bank under IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) auspices in the country is another example of the most valuable contribution of Kazakhstan in the strengthening of the nonproliferation regime,” Bertonnet continued. “This project may bring benefits for the development of nuclear energy and for nonproliferation.”
Joint ventures outside the energy sector include the Eurocopter Kazakhstan Engineering helicopter assembly factory completed in June 2012 and a new maintenance centre planned for Mongolia; the Thales Kazakhstan Engineering production facility that opened in Astana in 2011 to produce tactical radio units; a new electric locomotives production plant launched by Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, Alstom and Transmashholding (TMH) and the 2011 agreement by Astrium, a subsidiary of EADS, to deliver and install equipment at Astana’s Satellite Integration and Test Centre. Astrium also recently delivered an SES-6 satellite to the Baikonur space centre. “I have just learned that the Thales company has been awarded a major contract in the radar sector,” the ambassador also reported, adding to the list of non-energy projects.
The two governments also collaborated in the successful withdrawal of French forces from Afghanistan, a process likely to be repeated with other nations as coalition forces pull out of Afghanistan in 2014.
France has a strong tradition of promoting its culture overseas, including in Kazakhstan. This year has been the year of France in Kazakhstan; 2014 will be the year of Kazakhstan in France. As part of the cultural exchange, l’Orchestre National de Lille will perform this month in Almaty and Astana.
“I was struck by the level of support offered by the sponsors, both French and Kazakh, for both programmes … underscoring the mutual interest in strengthening our strategic partnership,” Bertonnet said.
On Bertonnet’s watch, a French centre was created at Astana’s Miras International School; other educational projects are in the works. “In the near future, at the initiative of Marek Halter (a French writer and activist), we hope to create a French University of Almaty with the support of the Sorbonne. This is an important project, which will allow a great French university to be present in Kazakhstan alongside our Anglo-Saxon friends, who hold very strong positions in this field,” he said.
Bertonnet stresses that these successes are not his alone. “Whatever the successes, they are always the result of teamwork; the ambassador can only contribute to creating a favourable political context,” he told The Astana Times. He credits his embassy team, competitive French businesses and administrators, as well as willing Kazakh partners for the positive results of the past four years.
And there is still work to be done, Bertonnet said. “One of my regrets is to have not seen the opening of a direct air connection between France and Kazakhstan … I personally consider it counterproductive for Air Astana, a particularly safe airline, to have been grey-listed by the European Union for over four years now.”
Bertonnet said incoming Ambassador Francis Etienne will take up the work in promoting other pending projects, including France’s involvement in EXPO 2017.
As for the country he leaves, Bertonnet says Kazakhstan’s growth “makes European countries, such as France, grow pale with envy.”
“In addition, it is striking to see the emergence of this much-vaunted Kazakh middle-class: well educated, increasingly speaking several foreign languages, traveling, navigating the Internet. This middle class, no doubt, also aspires to an evolution of the political system. I believe this to be one of the challenges of the coming years.”
Bertonnet recently met with Kazakhstan’s Chairman of the Senate, Kairat Mami, who thanked him for his contributions over the course of his mission.