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Asia-Pacific

Hollande in uranium-rich Kazakhstan to discuss contracts, relations with Russia

media French President Francois Hollande (L) shakes hands with Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana Reuters/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov

French President François Hollande arrived in Kazakhstan on Friday for a two-day visit to a country with vast uranium and gas reserves and infrastructure contracts on offer. NGOs urged him to raise human rights issues with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Hollande is accompanied by representatives of about 50 business, several of which are already doing lucrative business with Kazakhstan, and about 20 from France’s universities, which hope to extend educational and scientific cooperation.

France is Kazakhstan’s fifth-largest trade partner and Hollande’s delegation includes executives from major French companies, including:

  • Nuclear company Areva – Kazakhstan is France’s biggest uranium supplier;
  • Energy companies Total – a partner in a gas plant on the Caspian Sea – EDF and GDF Suez;
  • Service and utility companies Veolia, Suez, the SNCF rail company and Vinci;
  • Plane-builder Airbus and carmaker Peugeot.

France sells weapons, helicopters and airplanes to the Kazakh armed forces.

Kazakhstan is rich in natural resources, being the world's main supplier of uranium, as well as a source of manganese, iron and petrol, and the wealth they are generating mean that it plans to invest in waste-disposal, aeronautics, urban transport, construction, health and tourism.

Sandwiched between two powerful neighbours, Russia and China, Kazakhstan is one of the four countries which form the Eurasian Union, an economic block of former soviet states that Russia is looking to enlarge.

Nazarbayev insists that his links with Moscow are economic and not political but France and the European Union want to ensure that he does not align himself with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly anti-Western stance.

Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis and its annexation of Crimea have raised concern in Kazakhstan, which has the largest Russian minority of any country in the world – four million ouit of a 17-million population.

Activists were worried that human rights would not figure highly on the agenda, although Hollande’s entourage insisted that they would he raised.

Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) places Kazakhstan 161st out of 180 in its press freedom lindex.

“In 2014 we have seen an acceleration of attacks on freedom,” RSF’s Johann Bihr told RFI. “Laws have been passed that are evidence of the authorities’ tightening up on dissident movements, for example self-censorship forced on the media.”

Amnesty International accuses security forces of practising torture and enjoying impunity.

Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, an opponent of Nazurbayev accused of embezzlement, has been in jail in France for a year, as his lawyers fight extradition bids from Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

Hollande is the third French president to visit Kazakhstan, following François Mitterrand in 1993 and Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009.
 

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