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Tajikistan: Last Former Soviet Holdout Joins NATO Partnership Program

Tajikistan last week (20 February) became the last former Soviet republic to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's Partnership for Peace program. The program envisages military cooperation and regular political contacts with the alliance. The pact reflects Moscow's own closer relation with NATO and the U.S. since the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Prague, 25 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Tajikistan has become the 27th country, and the last former Soviet republic, to sign up for NATO's Partnership for Peace program in a ceremony last week (20 February) at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

The Partnership for Peace program (PfP) is meant to form a basis for practical cooperation between the 19-country military alliance and individual partner countries.

Joining PfP opens the door for Tajikistan to take part in NATO programs in areas such as military reform, emergency planning, science, and the environment.

Sharif Rahimov -- the Tajik ambassador to the European Union and the head of the country's liaison office with NATO -- was on hand for the signing. He tells RFE/RL that Tajikistan hopes to use contacts with NATO to modernize its own armed forces.

"There are many different projects for our participation to the program, particularly training of military cadres and officers of the national army, but also the possible participation of Tajik peacemakers."

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson says the pact is part of NATO's efforts to upgrade relations with Central Asia. He says the region forms an important component to the stability of the Euro-Atlantic area.

"The partnership between the Central Asian republics -- including Tajikistan -- and the West will be a key component in making sure that the world as a whole becomes safer."

Western countries hope better cooperation with Central Asia will help stop the flow of drugs and arms across the region's porous borders. Over the past five years, the route through Central Asia has become a major conduit for shipping heroin into Russia and then to Europe.

Tajikistan's entry into the PfP comes more than seven years after the other ex-Soviet Central Asian republics -- Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan -- joined NATO's outreach program. The alliance started hosting military exercises with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan in 1996.

Ambassador Rahimov blamed Tajikistan's delayed entry on a civil war that broke out after Tajikistan gained independence in 1991. The five-year conflict -- which pitted the Russian-backed government against mostly Islamic opposition groups -- left the country with serious economic and security problems.

"As you know, we had some problems before and therefore we could not join. We were busy with our internal conflict, and only in 1997 we signed a peace agreement with our opposition. And we needed the time to implement requirements of this agreement. So we could not until now sign this document."

Saifullo Safarov, the deputy director of the Tajik government's Strategic Studies Center, says another reason for Tajikistan's relatively late entry was the strategic partnership the country has with Russia. Russia maintains 25,000 troops -- including the 201st motor-rifle division and border guards -- in the country.

Russia's relationship with NATO soured after the military alliance began air strikes over Yugoslavia in 1999. That relationship began to improve only after last year's 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, when the U.S. and Russia began to find common cause in fighting international terrorism.

Mark Laity, a NATO spokesman and an adviser to Robertson, says the events of September highlighted the things that unite the U.S. and Russia: "I think that what we've seen since the events of 11 September is that it has put a focus on the things that unite us rather than problems that divide us. Therefore we are building on this changed atmosphere and now what we are doing is looking at an even more enhanced relationship to make us closer still."

Angela Stent is the director of the Center for Eurasian and Russian Studies at Georgetown University in Washington. She says Tajik membership in the Partnership for Peace program is unlikely to change the relationship between Dushanbe and Moscow.

She says that relationship has focused on preventing Islamic fundamentalism from spilling over into Russia. To that end, she says, the PfP can have a positive effect.

"I think Russia's major concern vis-a-vis Tajikistan has been the spillover of the civil war there into other parts of Central Asia -- into the Russian federation itself. [Moscow has] been concerned obviously about Islamic fundamentalism. So I think it would just hope that by Tajikistan joining the PfP, and greater cooperation of these [Central Asian] countries with NATO, that would bring further stability to the area."

Stent says, in her opinion, Tajikistan's decision to join PfP reflects Russian President Vladimir Putin's desire to modernize the Russian economy by bringing it closer to the West.

"I think -- again -- [Putin] is very much focused on closer relations both with the U.S. and the European Union, and hoping that this will help Russia in its drive to modernize and to improve economic performance. And I think he has realized -- again -- from a pragmatic sense at least, that the cost of empire was too great -- at the end of the Soviet period certainly. So the geopolitical fact is obviously still there but I think the economic fact in its own consideration has become more important."

Putin has indeed suggested in recent months that Russia is prepared to upgrade its relationship with NATO, although Russia's attitude toward NATO expansion is still unclear. Putin has also offered the European Union opportunities for closer security and political cooperation.

(RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)