Interview: Macron’s Central Asian Diplomacy in the Shadow of Russian Rivalry

April 2024

Hana Raci Shillova

Research Fellow

Eldaniz Gusseinov

Expert on Central Asia and European Union 

Eldaniz Gusseinov specializes in European and international studies, with an emphasis on the European Union’s foreign policy and its engagement with Central Asian member states, alongside an analysis of the EU’s internal political processes. He pursued his education at Andrássy University Budapest, Bergische Universität Wuppertal, the University of Hamburg, and Kazakh-German University. His professional experience includes internships at the Hungarian Institute of International Relations in Budapest and the Institute for Peace Studies and Security Policy in Hamburg. Gusseinov has authored over 15 articles in his field of study.

You wrote an analytical piece discussing how recent events in Africa have impacted France’s strategic considerations in Central Asia. While many publications focused on uranium cooperation as the primary motive behind Macron’s visit, you argued that the underlying purpose was geopolitical, specifically a battle of narratives. How did you arrive at this conclusion?

I think when it comes to Central Asia, it’s more about geopolitics. It’s the brand of Central Asia, everybody knows Central Asia is a region of geopolitics, as we see with the Great Game narrative. Also, France has its own geopolitical perspective. Thus as Russia started to expand its influence in West Africa and possibly getting access to strategic resources in these countries, some experts started speaking about the race to the bottom of French influence. So France had to react to the expansion of Russian influence and I think that Central Asia was the way they could do that, alongside Armenia and Moldova. Because in discussions related to government policies, it’s noted that the current Moldovan government is actively taking steps to reduce Russian influence within its borders. Similarly, experts assume that Armenia can pursue a similar strategy. When it comes to Central Asia it is quite clear it is mainly influenced by two main actors, Russia and China. This type of move is not new, as a similar move was seen with the first summit between the US and Central Asian countries, where there was a lot of scepticism from local scholars who criticised it as a reaction to China’s Central Asian Summit. So it’s the same story here, it is just to show you are friends and to send a particular message to Russia and China. This is the first point.

The second point is that I spoke to some of my French colleagues, and they emphasised that they have enough uranium reserves for many years ahead. So there’s no urgency to find other sources of uranium, especially when it comes to Kazakhstan, because a lot of Russian companies also develop a lot of our uranium fields in Kazakhstan.

The third point is about French influence and in particular French attempts to develop Kazakh uranium and to find a new source, it is not a new thing. It seems to me that the US pursues a similar strategy, as seen in the recent B5+1 forum between Central Asia and the US business communities. The US also aims to get a particular kind of access to develop our rare earth metals, to be less dependent on China or even on Russia, because Russia now has more influence in West Africa. However despite shared goals, collaboration between France and the US in this remains elusive, there have been no joint efforts, neither with the European Union (EU).

I believe that for France, the focus extends beyond mere resource interests. This perspective is informed by the fact that agreements signed between Kazakhstan and France have been met with skepticism by some Central Asian scholars, noting that the outcomes did not entirely meet expectations. Even the decision to supply Kazakhstan with the French Master 400 air defence radar system, can be seen as symbolic because Kazakhstan shares a joint air defence system with Russia, within the Commonwealth of Independent States. So how can we apply the French version? I think it is ultimately symbolic and focused on the French security strategy, even showing for example they can do what maybe other European countries can’t do. As is the case with France’s statements about not excluding deploying troops to Ukraine. At the same time, Germany provides more assistance to Ukraine than France does.

In your view, was Macron’s visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, positioned as a response to Russia’s expanding influence in Africa, an effective strategy?

Yes, Lavrov commented and said that Russia in Central Asia and the South Caucasus “historically and nowhere will disappear.”. Also, Putin visited Kazakhstan the day after Macron’s visit and held talks with Tokayev which also underscores the narrative’s timeliness and effectiveness. Also, Macron’s presence was visually reinforced through publicity, including images of him greeting the Central Asian presidents and saying goodbye to President Shavkat Mirziyoev at the end of the trip. Which is a sign of presence and friendship.

There is another good side to it which is the decision to establish joint universities such as the Kazakh-French university and the beginning of discussions about the importance of partnerships between Central Asia and France. I’ve also noticed increased active attention from French institutions who are now speaking more actively about Central Asia. I hope that we will also have such a trend in Central Asia, perhaps with more experts in European affairs, which is something I think we lack. So from this side, it was also quite effective, when it comes to the tangible establishment of some ties.

Do you believe Central Asian states, particularly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, can leverage increased French engagement in the region to their advantage? What opportunities might arise from this collaboration?

I think it offers a lot of opportunities and benefits for both sides. Firstly, enhanced cooperation could lead to the discovery of new areas for collaboration, such as agriculture, cultural exchanges, sports, and scientific endeavours, including aerospace. Additionally, there’s potential for joint efforts to address pressing regional issues like the water crisis.

Secondly, having a new partner who is an EU member state and can advocate for the region within the EU, opens doors for Central Asian countries to have a stronger voice within the EU and could lead to increased consideration of Central Asia in European foreign policy discussions. Connected to this, if we analyse the French Presidency program in the Council of the EU, there was no mention of Central Asia, compared to the Spanish program where there is at least one mention of Central Asia. So ultimately the best benefit is that we have a new partner who can speak in favour of cooperation with Central Asia in the EU potentially shaping policies and initiatives in EU-Central Asia´s favour.

When it comes to Central Asia it is quite clear it is mainly influenced by two main actors, Russia and China.
Macron’s visit was primarily focused on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. I understand this is most likely connected to the wealth, size, and influence of both countries in the region, but do you think there’s value in him also going to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well?

Currently, the spotlight is primarily on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in terms of regional dynamics. There seems to be a more muted expression of interest from other countries in distancing themselves from Russia, with some even appearing to align more closely with Russia. This perception has been noted in Western media, particularly in light of recent tensions between Kyrgyzstan’s President Japarov and the United States, underscored by Japarov’s correspondence with Anthony Blinken. Against this backdrop, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan emerge as focal points of interest. Key issues such as water management and transportation are on the agenda, alongside a strong drive towards enhancing regional integration, notably between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The depth of relations between these two nations can be seen as a bellwether for the broader scope of Central Asian integration, underscoring the particular attention given to them.

As France seeks to strengthen its working relationship with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and the broader region, what are the primary challenges you foresee to achieve deeper cooperation?

I think many factors must be taken into account. Firstly, France appears to have fewer internal contradictions to its foreign policies compared to, for instance, Germany, which often faces domestic pressures regarding its foreign relations with specific countries. France has historically been perceived as a great power capable of competing, even on a discourse level, with countries like Russia and China. In contrast, Germany has faced public protests and criticisms regarding its engagement with Central Asian nations due to concerns about the undemocratic nature of these governments.
Secondly, I would say the main challenge for French foreign policy in the region, however, lies in its relationship with Russia. Any actions taken by France in Central Asia are likely to be viewed extremely negatively by Russian authorities, particularly when compared to Germany. While Germany is primarily seen as an economic competitor, France is a military competitor, as in the case in Armenia and Moldova. Thus it will always be negatively perceived and Russia may even consider taking some steps to somehow counter French presence in the region.

Thank you for your time

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