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EU: Delegation Wraps Up Whirlwind Tour Of Central Asia

  • Ahto Lobjakas

A high-level European Union delegation is in Moscow today after having concluded its tour of the three Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan. The delegation was led by Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel and focused on the political and humanitarian situation in Central Asia. Michel concluded his diplomatic trip by holding talks yesterday with top Tajik leaders after visiting the capitals of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas is traveling with Michel and filed this report from the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

Dushanbe, 2 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Representing the rotating presidency of the European Union, Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel last night concluded a whirlwind two-day swing through Central Asia.

Michel visited the capitals of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan before ending the tour in Tajikistan. The purpose of the diplomacy was to discuss with the leaders of these nations how they can better contribute to the military and humanitarian operations of the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism in Afghanistan, and what the EU might do in return for such assistance.

After talks yesterday with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, Michel told journalists that the EU sees real potential to improve its relations with Dushanbe: "I very strongly felt that the conditions are fulfilled to improve and to go farther into [the] relationship between [the] European Union and Tajikistan."

A highly placed Belgian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said after the meeting that this means the two sides will -- in early December -- launch talks on concluding a partnership and cooperation agreement. Such an agreement would qualify Tajikistan for greater EU development aid and trade concessions, as well as intensified political dialogue.

The diplomat says Rakhmonov expressed full support for the U.S.-led air strikes against Taliban forces and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan. He says Tajikistan demonstrated what he called definite will to overthrow the ruling Taliban regime.

According to this diplomat, Rakhmonov told the EU delegation that even moderate elements of the Taliban should have no place in any future government in Afghanistan. He also said Tajikistan does not consider it necessary to suspend the coalition's military campaign against Afghanistan during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Rakhmonov told the delegation he supports the EU objectives of setting up a broad-based government in Afghanistan under the guidance of the United Nations. He also offered to host talks between representatives of the opposition Northern Alliance and its potential coalition partners in any future Afghan government.

The anonymous Belgian diplomat says Rakhmonov indicated Tajikistan has what the diplomat conveyed as "strong feelings of frustration" with regard to Pakistan. Rakhmonov accused the government of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf of actively backing Taliban units in Pakistan while publicly supporting the antiterrorism fight.

The U.S.-led coalition has consistently praised Pakistan's cooperation in the fight against the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network in the country.

Rakhmonov reminded EU officials that he had warned the world three years ago of the dangers associated with the rise of the Taliban movement in a speech he delivered at the United Nations General Assembly. He lamented that the speech did not receive wider attention.

Ruling out the participation of any Taliban elements in Afghanistan's future government, Rakhmonov said the Pashtun tribe -- from the ranks of which most Taliban members come -- should not be equated with the Taliban movement itself.

Rakhmonov said up to half of all Pashtuns in Afghanistan have links to the Taliban. Nevertheless, Rakhmonov said representatives of the Pashtun tribe must fully participate in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Although Rakhmonov did not ask the EU for concrete assistance, he indicated that Tajikistan is in dire need of humanitarian aid. The Belgian diplomatic source said after the meeting that the EU is likely to intensify efforts to provide aid to the country.

Regardless of Tajikistan's desperate economic situation, Rakhmonov said the country could become a model for rebuilding Afghanistan. He pointed to the experience of national reconciliation that has occurred in Tajikistan since 1997, when a bloody, five-year civil war ended.

However, another well-informed EU source tells RFE/RL that the EU still considers Tajikistan to be highly unstable and has not discounted the possibility that the country could become -- as the diplomat put it -- "a second Afghanistan."

Belgian diplomats summed up the EU's Central Asian tour by saying that -- although the three countries visited this week are not enemies -- they are far from being partners.

Diplomats say it would not be very difficult to encourage them to cooperate on Afghanistan, especially if the United Nations should take up the task. But real regional cooperation between the three countries -- as well as with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which do not border Afghanistan -- is a more difficult challenge. One of the main unresolved problems is that of the distribution of common water resources, an issue that has been deadlocked for years.

Overall, the Belgian diplomat said, Tajikistan demonstrates the most obvious potential for democratic reform in Central Asia, with Uzbekistan offering less promise. Turkmenistan -- influenced as it is by the idiosyncratic personality cult of President Saparmurat Niyazov -- was placed last by the diplomat, who described the country as "dangerously strange."

The EU delegation is in Moscow today to discuss the results of its Central Asian trip with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. Belgian officials say they expect the EU and Russia to unveil a new initiative in the fight against terrorism in the coming days, an initiative thought to involve the Middle East.