President Sarkozy in Kazakhstan to secure contracts

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is in energy-rich Kazakhstan as part of a two-year diplomatic push aimed at securing French companies valuable space, energy and defence contracts in the Central Asian country.


AFP - French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Kazakhstan Tuesday for a swing through the energy-rich state expected to yield billions of euros in space, energy and defence contracts for French firms.

The visit, the first by a French president to Astana, is being touted as the culmination of a two-year diplomatic push aimed at securing French companies a larger role in Central Asia's largest economy.

In the largest deal the Spie Capag consortium, owned by construction giant Vinci, is expected to net a 1.2-billion-euro (1.75-billion-dollar) contract to build a pipeline for Kazakhstan's massive Kashagan oil field.

The pipeline will be part of a transport system to bring Kazakh oil to Europe, which analysts say would most likely take the form of tanker shipments across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, without transiting Russia.

Oil giant Total and GDF Suez are also expected to formalize a venture worth one billion dollars to develop the Khvalinskoye gas field in the Caspian Sea.

Kazakhstan, ruled since its independence by strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has long been courted by the West for its natural resource reserves and strategic position vis-a-vis neighbours China and Russia.

Although Sarkozy is expected to praise the ex-Soviet state as an island of stability in a volatile region, the trip comes at an awkward time as international criticism mounts over Kazakhstan's spotty human rights record.

Kazakhstan is set in January to become the first former Soviet state to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Human Rights Watch called on Sarkozy to press them to implement promised reforms.

Most notably, the New York-based watchdog asked him to raise the case of activist Yevgeniy Zhovtis, sentenced to four years in prison in September for a traffic accident that resulted in a man's death.

The United States and OSCE have both criticized the conduct of the trial, raising questions about its fairness and the impartiality of the judge.

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