ASTANA – French President Emmanuel Macron paid an official visit to Kazakhstan on Nov. 1, meeting with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and delivering a speech at Narikbayev University. Experts see Macron’s visit as a testament to Kazakhstan’s growing role in ensuring energy security, including critical raw materials, not only for France but for the European Union (EU).
Diplomatic relations between Kazakhstan and France were formally established in January 1992. Last year the two countries celebrated the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties.
Macron’s visit also comes at a crucial time as the two nations celebrate the 15th anniversary of the strategic partnership agreement signed in 2008.
During his meeting with Macron, President Tokayev said the visit was historic.
According to Valeriy Sitenko, a senior expert of the Analysis and Forecasting Group at the Institute of Foreign Policy Research, it has been nine years since the last visit of the French President to Kazakhstan and the two countries needed to discuss mechanisms of cooperation “under new conditions.”
“A lot has changed since then. In the geopolitical landscape in which this visit took place, everyone has been concerned about Ukraine and the Middle East. These topics were surely discussed by the leaders of the two countries,” Sitenko told The Astana Times.
It is also the high level of political trust between Astana and Paris that drives cooperation in all areas, said Lydia Parkhomchik, an expert at the Institute of World Economy and Politics.
“To begin the full implementation of the road map for trade, economic, and investment cooperation until 2030, signed last year, the sides outlined a number of promising areas for bilateral dialogue,” Parkhomchik told in a comment for this story.
Macron’s packed visit resulted in the signing of 17 agreements worth $1.4 billion. The significant package of agreements comes along with the shared commitment that the two leaders expressed to intensify bilateral ties.
Kazakhstan is key to energy security
Experts noted Kazakhstan is key to France’s energy security, where 80% percent of energy comes from nuclear stations and Kazakhstan is the world’s leading uranium producer.
This is what President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev also noted in his remarks to a business forum on Nov. 1, saying that the energy sector, particularly uranium, is a promising area for cooperation. He also extended Kazakhstan’s commitment to increase exports of its crude oil to France.
Kazakhstan’s energy sector features French giant Orano, which has been operating in Kazakhstan since 1996 through KATCO, a joint venture between Orano (51%) and the Kazatomprom national company (49%). KATCO is operating the Muyunkum and Tortkuduk uranium deposits in southern Kazakhstan.
During President Tokayev’s visit to France in November 2022, Orano and Kazatomprom signed a memorandum of cooperation, which set the ground for discussions on the long-term development of the partnership between the two companies.
The war in Ukraine has disrupted traditional supply chains, with countries in Europe trying to diversify their energy imports to reduce dependence on Russian fossil fuels that the region once heavily relied upon. Besides that, after a coup in Niger in January, which is France’s second to Kazakhstan uranium supplier, concerns about energy security have become more acute.
“Kazakhstan plays a major role in energy security not only for France but also for the EU. It is mainly oil and gas, but there are other strategic materials, including uranium. (…) France gets 80% of its electricity from nuclear power plants,” said Sitenko.
According to the European Atomic Energy Community (Euroatom), Kazakhstan accounted for 26.82% of the EU’s uranium imports in 2022. Kazakhstan, Niger, and Canada collectively provide 74.19% of the natural uranium.
Michael Rossi, a professor at Rutgers University, writes in his opinion piece published on Emerging Europe media outlet, that a deeper commitment in Central Asia is crucial for both France and Europe in addressing rising energy concerns.
“Recent disturbances in global energy markets, coupled with political tensions, have underscored Europe’s need to diversify its energy sources. With its untapped hydrocarbon reserves and potential for renewable energy, Central Asia presents a viable solution,” writes Rossi.
Besides uranium, Kazakhstan produces 16 out of 30 rare earth materials critical for the EU economy covering 70% of the European phosphorus market. A delegation of nearly 100 Kazakh companies that deal with rare earth metals is expected to attend the Raw Materials Week on Nov. 13-17 in Brussels. On Nov. 16, a Kazakhstan-focused day is now being planned, officials say.
Trade is growing
Trade between Kazakhstan and France has been on the rise, with France being a key trading partner for Kazakhstan. According to data from the Kazakh Foreign Ministry, in 2022, the trade volume between the two countries rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, reaching $4 billion, marking a 35.3% increase compared to the previous year. Of this trade, Kazakhstan’s exports to France accounted for $3.1 billion, while imports from France amounted to $0.9 billion.
Kazakhstan’s overall trade with the EU in 2022 was substantial, reaching a remarkable $41.9 billion.
Between January and August 2023, the trade turnover between Kazakhstan and France reached $2.7 billion, marking a 21.1% increase compared to the same period in the previous year when it was $2.3 billion. Exports from Kazakhstan to France during these eight months increased by 2.9%, totaling $1.8 billion, while imports from France to Kazakhstan surged by 91.2%, reaching $889.7 million.
Key exports from Kazakhstan to France include crude oil, uranium, titanium, sulfur, hydrogen, inert gases, and other nonmetals, as well as motors and electric generators.
On the other hand, major imports into Kazakhstan from France encompass vaccines, blood serums, turbojet and turboprop engines, gas turbines, medicines packaged for retail sale, coal electrodes, radar and radio navigation equipment, and electric transformers, among other items.
France has also been a significant investor in Kazakhstan’s economy, ranking among the top five investor countries. The cumulative French capital investments in Kazakhstan since 2005 have reached $18.4 billion.
Notably, in 2022 alone, investments worth $770.2 million were attracted, marking a 27.7% increase compared to the previous year.
What stands next?
Members of the official delegations signed important documents, including a joint declaration to cooperate on strategic minerals and an agreement between Kazakhstan’s QazBioPharm and the French company Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health for the production of foot-and-mouth disease vaccine in Kazakhstan.
As part of Macron’s visit, French Total Eren and Kazakhstan’s Samruk Kazyna National Wealth Fund and KazMunayGas national oil and gas company signed a joint venture agreement for the construction of wind power stations in Kazakhstan with a total capacity of one gigawatt. A 25-year power purchase agreement (PPA) was signed in June 2022.
According to Samruk Kazyna, the project will be implemented in two stages – introducing 300 megawatts of capacity in the first stage, and the remaining 700 megawatts in the second stage. The wind power station is expected to be located in the Zhambyl Region in southern Kazakhstan and is scheduled for commissioning in 2026-2027.
Another flagship agreement comes from Alstom, a multinational company headquartered in France that specializes in the manufacturing and servicing of rail transport equipment and systems. It will invest in the production and maintenance of railway locomotives and rolling stock, as well as components for railway equipment in Kazakhstan.
Among the promising areas of cooperation, according to Parkhomchik, is the development of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Corridor (TITR).
Addressing the business forum on Nov. 1, Macron described Kazakhstan as a “natural bridge of autonomy between Europe and Asia.” The French leader expressed the country’s readiness to become part of the connectivity project.
“French President Emmanuel Macron especially emphasized his interest in developing the potential of the TITR as a promising transport artery. According to forecasts from the Kazakh side, transshipment capacity within the TITR could reach 20 million tons of cargo annually. At the same time, a significant part of the traffic on the route is already allocated to Kazakhstan’s exports in the European direction,” said Parkhomchik.
EU’s increased engagement
The visit of Macron to Kazakhstan should also be considered through the lens of an increased engagement of the EU in Central Asia. This stems from the “geostrategic importance of the region as a link between Europe and Asia,” said Sitenko.
“In terms of the energy resources, it [the region] has a significant market potential for almost all European countries. There is also a promising role in ensuring regional and international security. Here we should take into account the Afghan factor,” said Sitenko, describing Kazakhstan as one of the leading players in the region.
This increased interest is reflected in a series of high-level visits and meetings taking place this year.
“There have been a number of high-level summits between the EU and Central Asia this year, and an economic forum [in May in Almaty], and most recently a meeting in Berlin between the leaders of Central Asia and the German government,” said Sitenko.
The year of 2022 also witnessed a series of high-level visits facilitating important political and economic discussions between Kazakhstan and the EU.
In October 2022, President of the European Council Charles Michel paid an official visit to Kazakhstan, witnessing the signing of a groundbreaking green hydrogen project to be implemented by the German-Swedish Svevind company in the Mangystau Region. He also took part in the first-of-its-kind Central Asia – EU meeting at the presidential level, with the second taking place in Cholpon-Ata in June.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission Josep Borrell was on his first official visit to Kazakhstan in November 2022.