ASKANA, Kazakhstan, Oct. 9 (UPI) -- France and Kazakhstan have signed a host of bilateral energy deals, pulling the best economic performer in Central Asia further westward.
At the end of his official visit to Kazakhstan, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev had overseen a total of 24 oil, gas and nuclear deals for a total of more than $6 billion.
"A new page is being written in the history of relations between France and Kazakhstan," Sarkozy said Tuesday in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.
France's Total and GDF Suez signed an agreement with Kazakhstan's state-owned KazMunaiGas to acquire half of its 50 percent stake in the Khvalynskoye gas field near the Russian border. The other half of the project is owned by Russian company Lukoil.
French pipeline contractor SPIE Capag secured a job for Kazakhstan's flagship oil field Kashagan, the biggest oil find in the past three decades.
KazMunaiGas signed a memorandum of understanding with SPIE Capag to build part of the $2 billion Yeskene-Kuryk oil pipeline, which could bypass Russia and eventually deliver up to 80 million metric tons of crude to the Caspian region. French oil company Total is already involved in the project.
The cooperation also extended into the nuclear sector. France's Areva and Kazakh state nuclear company Kazatomprom agreed to team up to sell nuclear fuel produced in Kazakhstan to customers in Asia -- mainly to China, which is planning several nuclear power plants.
Kazakhstan has some of the world's largest uranium reserves and has in the past been considered by U.S. President Barack Obama to host an international nuclear fuel bank.
Once populated by nomadic tribes, Kazakhstan, a landlocked country larger than Western Europe, has evolved into the best economic performer in Central Asia. Thanks to its large oil, gas and mineral reserves and a speedy free market reform, the Kazakh economy has over the past few years averaged double-digit yearly growth.
It has moreover engaged in slick diplomacy to balance cooperation with its powerful neighbors, including China and Russia, and with the West. Kazakhstan, for example, is one of the main suppliers of a key pipeline to Europe bypassing Russia, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, but it nevertheless managed to keep relations with Moscow strong. It has been courted many times by the West and the East but has always resisted swinging one way or the other.
But it seems Sarkozy, which called Nazarbayev, the country's authoritarian leader, a "dear friend," has managed to pull Kazakhstan further westward.
Nazarbayev earlier this year launched a new strategy called "The Way to Europe," which aims to intensify the country's relations with the European Union.
In 2010, Kazakhstan will chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, moving the country to the forefront of the Western strategies in this region connecting Europe and Asia.