Germany and Kazakhstan signed a co-operation deal on Wednesday designed to give German firms greater access to raw materials in the resource-rich Central Asian country in exchange for technology and know-how.
As part of the deal, struck during a visit to Berlin by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, German companies signed 50 separate contracts worth a total of €3-billion ($3.96-billion), the German Economy Ministry said.
These include an agreement between Siemens AG and Kazakhstan's state railway company to modernize the rail network in the former Soviet state, as well as smaller deals involving German industrial gases group Linde AG, chemicals group Lanxess and steel firm ThyssenKrupp AG.
The pact aims to give Germany better access to strategic materials not readily available on world markets, especially the rare earths that have been at the centre of a trade dispute with China.
At a joint news conference in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would also support a partnership agreement between Kazakhstan and the European Union.
"We want to develop not only Germany's ties with Kazakhstan but also Europe's," she said.
Mr. Nazarbayev, 71, has led Kazakhstan since before independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, tolerating little dissent and prioritizing stability and economic growth over democracy.
Ms. Merkel said she had spoken with Mr. Nazarbayev about human rights and that she supported the creation of a commission to investigate clashes in December between riot police and protesters in a western Kazakh oil town, during which more than a dozen people were killed.
"German foreign policy is always value-based, and so when discussing economic interests we also talk about human rights, the adherence to democratic principles," she said.
The Kazakh president rejected criticisms of his record by human rights groups, saying expectations his country could transform itself into a perfect democracy in a decade or two were far-fetched.
"The glass is half full. Democracy is not the start of the path for us but the end," he said.
A parliamentary election last month admitted three parties to Kazakhstan's lower house for the first time, but was criticized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe for barring genuine opposition parties.
The absence of an obvious successor to Mr. Nazarbayev is cited by investors as the single biggest political risk in Kazakhstan, a mainly Muslim country of 16.7 million people that holds around 3 per cent of global oil reserves.
Talk of the President's health, a taboo subject in the Central Asian state, surfaced last July when German tabloid newspaper Bild reported that he had undergone prostate surgery in Hamburg. The report was unsourced.
Presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev said days later that Mr. Nazarbayev had gone abroad for a routine check-up, something he does every year. He was expected to visit the Charite hospital in Berlin during this visit, before returning to the capital Astana on Thursday.
Mr. Nazarbayev described his health as "excellent" when asked about it at the news conference. "Presidents always have to deal with questions like this," he said.
In December, the presidential office took the rare step of publicizing the results of Mr. Nazarbayev's annual health screening. Doctors assessed a low risk of cardiovascular disease and reported ideal blood pressure and cholesterol levels.