French President Emmanuel Macron heads to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on Wednesday, aiming to boost France’s profile in a region where Russia, China, Turkey and Europe are all jostling for influence.
Macron lands at 0345 GMT in the Kazakh capital Astana for talks with counterpart Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, followed by the signing of contracts, including in pharmaceuticals and aerospace.
After meeting university students, the French leader will then travel on to Samarkand in neighbouring Uzbekistan where he will stay until Thursday.
France wants to put its political and economic mark on the energy-rich region.
French energy giant EDF is in the running to build Kazakhstan’s first nuclear power station – a project that is due to be decided on in a referendum this year.
Critical minerals vital for clean energy technologies, which the region has plenty of, will also be part of the talks.
The head of French uranium company Orano, which already has a mine in Kazakhstan, will be in Macron’s delegation.
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.
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.
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.
China is particularly active with its “New Silk Road” project, but Europe and Turkey have also shown growing interest.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are due to visit Astana on Thursday and Friday, shortly after Macron.
Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are aiming for greater economic openness and a balanced diplomacy, even though Russia remains their primary partner.
Macron’s visit 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 the late French leader François Mitterrand visited in 1994.
Despite their declared wish for political liberalisation, both Central Asian countries are authoritarian states where protests are often violently repressed.
In 2022, crackdowns on riots killed 238 people in Kazakhstan and 21 in Uzbekistan.
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.