Kazakhstan welcomes France’s Macron under Moscow’s disapproving gaze

ASTANA (Reuters) -French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Kazakhstan on Wednesday on the first leg of a trip to Central Asia, a region long regarded as Russia’s backyard which has drawn fresh Western attention since the war in Ukraine began.

Oil-rich Kazakhstan has already emerged as a replacement supplier of crude to European nations turning off Russian supply and an important link in the new China-Europe trade route bypassing Russia.

In addition to oil, Kazakhstan is a major exporter of uranium, and France’s Orano already operates a joint venture with its state nuclear firm Kazatomprom.

At a meeting with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Macron complimented Kazakhstan for refusing to side with Moscow on Ukraine and said the two countries signed business deals, including a declaration of intent for a partnership in the much-sought area of rare earths and rare metals.

“I don’t underestimate by any means the geopolitical difficulties, the pressures … that some may be putting on you,” Macron told Tokayev, who called the visit “historic.”

“France values … the path you are following for your country, refusing to be a vassal of any power and seeking to build numerous and balanced relations with different countries.”

Russia has voiced concern at the West’s growing diplomatic activity in former Soviet Central Asian nations.

While on Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Kazakhstan as a sovereign state was free to develop ties with any countries, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week the West was trying to pull Russia’s “neighbours, friends and allies” away from it.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where Macron goes next, have refused to recognise Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territories and have pledged to abide by Western sanctions against Moscow, while calling both Russia and Western nations such as France their strategic partners.

“We respect our friends, we are here when they need us and we respect their independence,” Macron said. “And in a world where major powers want to become hegemons, and where regional powers become unpredictable, it is good to have friends who share this philosophy.”

Asked about Macron’s visit, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia valued its relations with Kazakhstan “very highly.”

“In our turn, we have historical ties, ties of strategic partnership with Kazakhstan, they are our allies and our interests are united in many international bodies,” Peskov told reporters.

(Reporting by Tamara Vaal; additional reporting by Michel Rose and Anastasia Lyrchikova; writing by Olzhas Auyezov and Ingrid Melander; editing by Jason Neely, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Tomasz Janowski)