France, Kazakhs ink military transit, energy deals
French President Nicolas Sarkozy scored a diplomatic coup Tuesday during a visit to energy-rich Kazakhstan, overseeing an agreement to allow military hardware for French forces fighting in Afghanistan to pass through Kazakh territory and clinching a raft of lucrative energy deals.
Facing criticism over its human rights record, Kazakhstan won a measure of support from Sarkozy, who said he discussed the issue with President Nursultan Nazarbayev but did not come to "give lessons."
France is among several Western nations courting Kazakhstan, a large ex-Soviet republic with rich oil and gas resources and a strategic location bordering China and Russia — long the dominant regional force — north of Afghanistan.
Nazarbayev said the transit agreement signed Tuesday governs the movement of military hardware and personnel to supply French forces serving with NATO in nearby Afghanistan.
"We need Kazakhstan to resolve the crisis in Afghanistan and in Iran, and to establish new relations with our friends in Russia in the fight against extremism," Sarkozy said.
The military transit deal had been under discussion for two years and covers both air transit and train transit of French military personnel and equipment via Kazakhstan, according to a French Foreign Ministry spokesman. He said train traffic could then go through neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan where France already has a military presence. The spokesman was not authorized to be named according to ministry policy.
The United States earlier struck a similar deal to ship supplies by rail through Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to troops fighting in Afghanistan.
These agreements provide NATO with an important alternative to Pakistan, where supply convoys heading by road to Afghanistan have been hit by insurgent attacks.
The U.S. also reached an agreement earlier this year with neighboring Kyrgyzstan to continue using the Manas air base, crucial to military operations against the Taliban. France and Spain are trying to win similar agreements to use Manas, while the French military also use an air field in Tajikistan.
The French-Kazakh energy deal, worth an estimated euro1 billion ($1.46 billion), was signed to formalize the acquisition by French companies Total and GDF Suez of a 25 percent stake in the Khvalynskoye offshore natural gas field project in the Caspian Sea.
The field is now being developed by Russian oil giant, Lukoil, and is expected to start operations in 2016. It could produce up to 3 trillion cubic feet (9 billion cubic meters) of gas per year, by some estimates.
The deal will see an increase in Total's role in Kazakhstan, where it already controls a 16.8 percent stake in the vast Kashagan oil field project.
Kazakhstan also awarded a consortium of French companies a deal to take part in building a crucial $2 billion oil pipeline linking the vast Kashagan field to the Caspian. Energy supplies through the route will be transported across the inland sea by tanker to Azerbaijan and pumped by pipeline westward to Europe, circumventing Russia.
Both Western and Central Asian nations are eager to decrease Russia's control over oil and gas export routes from the region.
"This is an extremely important project that will become the main artery to transport Kazakh oil to Europe," Nazarbayev told reporters.
Kashagan has been hit by delays and soaring development costs and is not expected to begin production until 2012.
Other commercial accords included an agreement to create a joint venture between the two countries' state-owned nuclear power companies to produce and market fuel for nuclear power plants.
Kazakhstan is on the cusp of becoming the world's largest supplier of uranium, but it has in recent years reached out to commercial partners in Russia, Japan and China in a bid to ensure in can take part in all stages of the nuclear fuel production cycle.
France's Thales signed a euro100 million ($150 million) contract to supply radios to the Kazakh army. The company hopes the deal will lead to a bigger, euro2 billion ($3 billion) contract to supply communications equipment to the Kazakh military — a market dominated by Russian suppliers.
Sarkozy's visit came as Kazakhstan faced mounting criticism over its human rights record ahead of its 2010 chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a leading trans-Atlantic security and democracy body.
Human Rights Watch said this week that Kazakhstan has repeatedly flouted basic democratic freedoms and has been slow to implement reforms in line with its commitments to the OSCE.
But Sarkozy, the first French leader to visit Kazakhstan nation since 1993, mounted a robust defense of its upcoming OSCE chairmanship.
"When you come to this part of the world, you cannot make presuppositions, but you should try to understand what is happening," Sarkozy said. "The optimal way of solving problems — and there are problems, which I have discussed with the president — is not necessarily to come and give lessons."
Nazarbayev said that his government was willing to accept constructive criticism of its conduct, but said criticism of his country's record on human rights and democracy was ill-informed.
"During our chairmanship of the OSCE, our main goal will be rapprochement with Europe," he said, pledging to gradually adopt "all the values of freedom and democracy that exist in the Western world."