Macron pushes French engagement in 'historic' Uzbekistan visit
November 2, 2023 06:20 PM
French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday his country needed to boost its footprint in Central Asia as Europe, Russia, China and Turkey all jostle for influence in the resource-rich region.
Macron was in Uzbekistan -- the first trip to the country by a French president in nearly 30 years -- to push France's business and cultural profile.
Macron used the trip to give his backing to Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev's programme of opening the country up to global investors.
"Uzbekistan is transforming. We must be there," Macron said at the opening of a French-Uzbek business forum in the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand.
After decades of isolation following the collapse of the USSR, Mirziyoyev is trying to court global investment and improve the ex-Soviet country's image.
Critics and rights groups say Uzbekistan is still strongly authoritarian, with political opposition and dissent outlawed.
Last year 21 people were killed during clashes between police and protestors in a rare episode of civil unrest.
Paris has emphasised the country's "reform dynamic" and said it regularly brings up issues around rule of law.
"The French government has confidence in your strategy," Macron told Mirziyoyev.
"We believe in this policy. We encourage it and we want to participate in it."
The two leaders were filmed greeting each other with a long embrace when Macron arrived Wednesday evening.
Macron's trip to the region was being watched closely in Moscow and Beijing, which have longstanding ties in Central Asia.
The region is key to China's mammoth "New Silk Road" infrastructure project, while Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are all part of a Moscow-led military alliance.
But with Moscow waging war in Ukraine, other powers have sensed an opening.
In neighbouring Kazakhstan on Wednesday, Macron thanked the country for "refusing to become a vassal" for larger powers seeking dominance.
Kazakhstan is a close ally of Russia, but has not backed its neighbour's invasion of Ukraine and has pledged to enforce international sanctions against Moscow.
Moscow gave a cold reception to Macron's visit Thursday, warning France and other EU states not to "intimidate" countries that have ties to Russia.
"Every state and the Central Asian states naturally have the right to their foreign policy," Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
"But there is an anti-Russian agenda that Western countries and Western leaders are incorporating into their contacts with a number of countries and in particular with Central Asian countries," she added.
Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are aiming for greater economic openness and a balanced diplomacy, even though Russia remains their primary partner.
Macron is the first French leader to visit Uzbekistan since Francois Mitterrand in 1994.
Mirziyoyev said Macron's visit had "historic significance" and that the two leaders had "agreed to advance bilateral relations to the level of a strategic partnership."
Around 60 French business leaders have accompanied Macron on his trip.
Several agreements in the energy, minerals and transport sectors were signed, including French uranium giant Orano, which said it had extracted 350 kilogrammes of uranium in a pilot project and intended to boost its presence in the country.