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Kazakhstan says it will help EU companies sell T-shirts and sneakers to Russia

Companies that want to carry on selling goods to Russia but are keen to avoid any negative repercussions have a new friend offering to help: Kazakhstan.

In an interview with POLITICO on Tuesday, Timur Suleimenov, first deputy chief of staff to the Kazakh president, said firms under pressure to move their business from Moscow want “to be somewhere in the neighborhood, and we would like to be that neighbor.”

The European Commission has given its blessing to the arrangement, he added, after meeting EU trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis in Brussels. Suleimenov stressed that Kazakhstan was not offering a way to work around international sanctions but to help companies legitimately sell goods like sneakers and T-shirts to Russians.

“European companies are leaving Russia either due to sanctions, or due to pressure from the public, from shareholders and ethical reasons,” he said. “They want to be somewhere in the neighborhood, and we would like to be that neighbor,” he said. “Commerce is commerce. Trade is trade and those companies would like to share the Russian consumer market.”

The offer from Kazakhstan — and the claim that it is backed by the European Commission — is likely to reignite the debate about businesses seeking to navigate the ethical questions of operating in Putin’s Russia. Companies are weighing the risks of keeping their Russian operations open, against growing calls from campaigners to boycott the country.

Kazakhstan has privileged access to the Russian market through the Eurasian Economic Union.

In the interview, Suleimenov said he wanted to check with the Commission that it had no objection to the “opportunities” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine creates for Kazakhstan to attract European businesses.

“We just discussed it with the Commission, whether it’s OK with them,” he said. “We received the perfect response that as long as the sanction regime is respected — and of course, Kazakhstan respects all other obligations, WTO, double tax treaties and everything — they’re more than happy for European companies to be in Kazakhstan. And we would like them to be in Kazakhstan so we will take very concrete efforts to take them by the hand and bring them to Kazakhstan.”

A former Soviet state, Kazakhstan shares a large land border with Russia and China and primarily exports crude oil. It has a neutral stance on the war in Ukraine, Suleimenov said. “We do not side with any part of the conflict militarily or politically, but we do provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine.”

The country is keen to keep on supplying oil to Europe via the Caspian Pipeline Consortium project that passes through Russia. “Hopefully it’s not politicized,” Suleimenov said. He described the pipeline as “a hen that is laying golden eggs, and we need to protect it.”

Suleimenov was dismissive when asked of human rights concerns in Kazakhstan, like restricted freedom of expression and little space for dissent. “There isn’t a problem with human rights in Kazakhstan,” the official said, claiming that the popular uprising in January that triggered Russian intervention, police violence and reports of torture were “provoked,” and that Kazakhstan was providing information to Brussels about the investigation.

“Therefore [there’s] no change in trade or investment relationship whatsoever.”

POLITICO asked the European Commission about the meeting between the Kazakh delegation and Dombrovskis, and whether it was right that the EU was happy for European firms to be in Kazakhstan.

In response, the Commission said that Dombrovskis had emphasized the importance of implementing and enforcing sanctions against Russia and both sides “confirmed the importance of deepening EU-Kazakhstan relations, bilateral trade and cooperation in a variety of areas of mutual interest … including energy, connectivity, agriculture, green agenda, [and] critical raw materials.”

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