Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, on his first official trip to the West, today met with French President Jacques Chirac to cap a one-week visit to France. The visit was hailed as a positive step in expanding bilateral relations, which now include the stationing of French troops on Tajik soil.
Prague, 6 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov met his French counterpart Jacques Chirac today to wrap up a five-day official visit to France.
Ahead of the meeting, Rakhmonov expressed satisfaction with the trip, which included talks with top French officials and leaders of the largest French companies.
"I think this trip will improve our relations in all areas, especially in [the] economic field."
The comments followed the signing of bilateral agreements on investment protection and cooperation in cultural, scientific, and technical areas.
France was the first stop on what is Rakhmonov's first official Western trip since taking office as president in 1994. He travels next to the U.S. for a three-day visit that will include a meeting with President George W. Bush on 9 December.
French-Tajik relations have warmed since the war on terrorism that began after the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. France now maintains about 140 servicemen in Tajikistan to provide logistical support for France's 500 troops in Afghanistan.
French Foreign Affairs Minister Dominique de Villepin, in comments this week, expressed his country's gratitude to Tajikistan for the welcome it has extended to French soldiers.
"Mr. President, you have shown the example. The French people will remember what you have done in your country to facilitate our action in the region. We are very grateful for this. And the friendship that the president is holding for you -- the affection that exists between our two countries -- are an additional reason to go forward."
Lieutenant-Colonel Stephane Samaran -- the French military attache in Tajikistan -- tells RFE/RL the presence of French servicemen in Dushanbe is "essential" to supporting France's efforts in Afghanistan.
"The [French military] detachment in Dushanbe is the key point between strategic air transport between France and Dushanbe and the theater transport between Dushanbe and Kabul. The mission of the group in Dushanbe is to transport personnel and freight on behalf of the French contingent stationed at the Kabul International Security Assistance Force."
Rakhmonov is clearly using the visit as a chance to secure greater private and public funding for his country. On the eve of his visit, he told Agence France Presse that Tajikistan has only received a small part of the $1 billion in aid promised by the West.
In talks with the speaker of the French Senate, Rakhmonov said increased aid and investment were necessary to successfully counter terrorism and drug smuggling.
Francois Loos, the French minister delegate for foreign trade, tells RFE/RL he believes the agreement on protecting investments will increase France's economic presence in Tajikistan.
"[The] first problem generally we have is the protection of investments. And the agreement we signed is an agreement about protection of investments to help companies be sure that when they invest they are in an environment they know as an international good situation."
Tajikistan, which suffered a five-year civil war in the 1990s, has had great difficulty in attracting investors. Foreign direct investment amounted to only $45 million in 2001. The government hopes to boost this with a three-year privatization plan that will eventually include selling shares in Tajik airlines and Tajik railways.
French Senator Francois Trucy -- the president of the Senate's interparliamentary group France-Central Asia -- says this week's agreements show Paris is not neglecting smaller Central Asian countries like Tajikistan.
"It is part of France's comeback on the diplomatic front in many countries. So ties have to be rejuvenated in some countries and created in others -- like Tajikistan. We expect a lot from it. France wants to create relationships that are based on friendship rather than only commercial and financial ties."
But Anna Walker, an analyst with the London-Based Economist Intelligence Unit, tells RFE/RL she thinks the agreements are unlikely to significantly boost investment.
"[Obstacles] haven't really been addressed yet. So corruption is still prevalent, the central government still does not [exercise] much control over quite large parts of the country. So there are stability concerns, security concerns."
The visit to France is seen by some as marking a transformation of the Tajik leader in the eyes of the West.
Sophie Shihab, writing in the French daily "Le Monde," said Rakhmonov's image had changed in the West since the 11 September attacks.
She wrote that Rakhmonov was formerly considered a "corrupt dictator" but now has a new image as the "artisan of Tajik peace," thanks to his role in the international struggle against terrorism.
Shihab says France, by inviting Rakhmonov, was the first Western country to give concrete form to this transformation.
"The significance [of Rakhmonov's visit], of course, lies in the September 11 [attacks and their aftermath]. From that moment, the leaders of the Central Asian regimes -- not always welcome in the West before -- started to be invited. The United States was usually the first place. Concerning Rakhmonov, France -- which has a [military] contingent [in Tajikistan] -- took the initiative to invite [him] to Paris."
Rakhmonov rose to power in 1992 (head of state and Supreme Assembly chairman) as the country was in the throes of a civil war that ended in 1997. A UN accord established peace that has held since then.
(RFE/RL Tajik Service's Iskandar Aliyev contributed to this report)