Special representative of the French government for economic diplomacy in Central Asia Pascal Lorot told in the interview to CABAR.asia about the strategic role of Central Asian countries for France, priority directions of cooperation, as well as the countries it develops more actively with and why.
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CABAR.asia: What is, in your opinion, the strategic role of Central Asian states for France? And vice versa: is there any strategic vision of France’s role in Central Asia?
Pascal Lorot: Central Asia is a very important strategic region for France. Of course, the political situation here is determined by its geographical location: a big neighbour in the north – Russia, in the east – China. This is a region that consolidates today and that has vast natural and human resources, a very good industrial and tourism potential. And France that has world-known companies and that tries to have maximum absolute influence on the global ideas must be present here to be partnering with local companies.
There is a strong wish and firm intention at the highest state level – of the French President Mr Macron and the French government – to develop our economic relations with Central Asia. We see our task in helping and supporting the economic development of this region because this is what we always do. And we do it here just like in other countries and regions. I’d like to emphasise that we do not intervene in the domestic political life of the sovereign state we cooperate with. In this regard, France is a perfect partner: we are absolutely neutral in terms of domestic policy, yet we can do a lot for your countries.
So, France has two great advantages in the eyes of the leaders of your region. The first one is that we have great achievements and developments in hi tech area and we are willing to share our experience with the countries in the region. And the second one is that unlike some of your neighbours we do not interfere in your domestic affairs, respect your sovereignty, meet your demands and try to satisfy your needs.
Which country in the region is the most active cooperating partner of France and why?
Central Asia is the region that is of general concern for French Republic. However, we should admit that there is a country in Central Asia that is a driver of economic development in the region, and which has the biggest economic and human potential – it is Kazakhstan.
Let’s recall that France is the first country in Europe that became a strategic partner of Kazakhstan more than 10 years ago. France is the third country by the amount of investments into the economy of Kazakhstan for the years of Kazakh independence. At the same time, France is one of the key trade partners of Kazakhstan.
What are the main priority areas of cooperation between France and the region?
France has many developments and skills that we can share with our partners here, in Central Asian region. Of course, there are priority areas that reflect both local demands and our capacities.
Among them are a few sectors. The first one is the so-called “smart city”. It contains water supply and waste management, energy saving, rational use of energy sources, etc. The second sector is digital technologies, shift of economies to such technologies. France has the widest experience in this regard, and is one of or the most advanced countries in this regard in the world.
The third sector is what we call agribusiness. It is not just agriculture, but also food industry. France is one of the largest agriproducers in the world. Your region has plenty of resources but they should be organised properly. And we have capacities to help you develop your production, to make you better suppliers of agricultural products not only to the domestic market, but also to global markets.
Moreover, this is the power-generating sector. France takes part in the oil and gas sector in the Caspian region of Kazakhstan and in the uranium production in the south of Kazakhstan. Another priority sector is the transport sector in a general sense: transport, technology, logistics. In partnership with Kazakhstan, we develop the production of satellites, locomotives, helicopters, radars. There are many other sectors where we cooperate successfully and which come to a new level.
You speak generally of Kazakhstan. What about other Central Asian states?
There is another important country in the region that is now being opened to foreign investors, it is Uzbekistan. Currently, French enterprises sign many contracts with it and hold good positions there.
Is France planning to expand its economic cooperation with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan?
Currently, France is a strategic partner of Kazakhstan. We are not planning to be strategic partners of other four countries in the region. France’s foreign policy mainly depends on the behaviour and the strategy of French companies, on the capacities already available and opening to them. As I have said before, many French companies enter the market of Uzbekistan and hold strong positions here because this is the second economy in the region and the first densest country in the region.
Other countries – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan – have another situation. These countries are much smaller and their markets and financial capacities are more limited. Nevertheless, French companies try to be present on these markets, too. Our strategic approach is the same: we analyse how we can contribute to the development of the countries based on their demands and our capacities.
Based on the specific character of cooperation that is actively developing with Kazakhstan, as well as agreements signed in 2019 with the Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, it may be concluded that France is more concerned with the oil and gas sector in the region. Are there any far-reaching purposes and concerns in this regard?
I do not agree with this conclusion. We don’t have an approach that we deal only in the oil and gas sector. This is rather a strategy of individual companies. I’d like to emphasise that cooperation in this area is active because the power-generating sector is one of the first sectors in the economy of your countries that was opened to global competition and became available for international investments. Besides, it reflects the local situation in the countries when they began cooperating with the global community: power resources were available and the governments of these countries wanted to develop production in this area.
What we, French people, want to do is to help you diversify your economy. We want you not only to develop your power resources, but also to develop production in other sectors of economy. It will be better for you both in terms of macroeconomy and employment of population.
Could you please name the most significant projects for France in the region?
Uzbekistan has many French companies that operate in water supply, water treatment, waste management, tourism areas. Now a range of French companies develops the touristic zone Bostanlyk near Tashkent, which will be soon the largest ski resort in the Central Asian region. Total Eren company is implementing a large project in Uzbekistan – a 100 MW photovoltaic power plant.
There are many significant projects in Kazakhstan – in power, transport, tourism, agroindustry sectors. There is also a project of opening programming schools to train world-standard IT specialists.
France is actively cooperating with Kazakhstan. Does it mean that it has more favourable conditions for foreign capital investment?
Kazakhstan was the first among other five Central Asian states to open to international cooperation. Kazakhstan has acceptable business climate, which can be improved.
What can be improved?
For example, the tax sphere to avoid double taxation of companies. A dialogue platform for investment cooperation between Kazakhstan and European Union has been created to improve the investment climate and business climate in Kazakhstan for foreign investors and foreign companies. One of its provisions was to recognise the need for more transparency in bidding procedures.
It is also important to ensure independent justice. In case of any conflict between French companies and investors and local companies, it should be settled by a fair and independent court. Also, France is working with anti-corruption agencies of Kazakhstan to establish best global practices and best anti-corruption efforts.
What other problems in the region preclude from strengthening trade and economic relations with France?
In my opinion, Central Asian countries need to make their market more open not only to foreign partners, but also to the countries in the region. If you can create a common regional market, you’ll become stronger and more attractive to foreign investors. And the future will depend on French authorities and the authorities of your countries and the companies of our countries that need to find ways of successful cooperation.
You were appointed to this post last spring. This is a short period, but how effective is the new post, in your opinion, that was established based on the strategic importance of Central Asia for France?
It is always difficult to judge one’s own performance. Let me tell you that my role is to support every effort made in the region by our embassies, our economic departments and to help make new contacts at the highest level. In general, many topical and disputable issues have been solved in this short period, and we’ve got the things moving.
However, many things depend on our private and independent companies. They also should make efforts, make good proposals beneficial for the countries in the region.
This article was prepared under the IWPR’s Giving Voice, Driving Change — from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.w