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Tajikistan: Dushanbe Intensifies Relations With European Union

The Central Asian state of Tajikistan is intensifying its relations with the European Union as a means of promoting political stability and economic growth. But the European Union, preoccupied with its own enlargement into Central and Eastern Europe, is seen as not having a clear focus on the Central Asian region.

Prague, 20 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Tajikistan, still recovering from the ravages of a long civil war, is seeking to intensify its relations with the European Union.

Ties with Brussels -- established after the Tajiks gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 -- were disrupted by the 1992-97 war. But now the government of President Imomali Rakhmonov is determined to deepen those reconnected links.

He won French support for this intensification during talks in Paris last month with French President Jacques Chirac. Rakhmonov told journalists, "President Chirac underlined the readiness of his government to actively push EU aid programs for Tajikistan, and to promote good partnership between Tajikistan and the EU."

Dushanbe's ambassador in Brussels, Sharif Rakhimov, said more contacts are coming. He said following last month's meeting in Dushanbe of the joint EU-Tajik council, the European Union's External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten will be visiting on 18 February for talks with President Rakhmonov, Prime Minister Akil Akilov, and Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov.

Then in March, Rakhmonov is expected to visit Brussels for talks with European Commission President Romano Prodi and others.

In addition, the European Parliament is in contact with the Tajik parliament with a view toward passing on some of its democratic experience. Tajikistan, like the other Central Asian states, has a partnership and cooperation agreement with the EU.

The EU also sets as a condition that countries wanting to improve ties with Brussels should have good relations with their neighbor countries. According to Ambassador Rakhimov, Dushanbe has achieved that: "We had to have good relations at the regional level, we had to have good relations between us [and our neighboring states] in a [joint] project, so we have come to this point now, we have good relations with one another."

The joint project with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan is for the economic development of the Ferghana Valley. In addition, the Central Asian states have agreed to a regional project on conserving clean water, a precious resource in the region.

Rakhimov also said that in general, the realization has grown in the region that cooperative efforts are necessary, particularly since the 11 September 2001 terror attacks in the United States. "We see that in order to fight terrorism we have to be together, we have to be in one coalition, so we are in one team against terrorism, we now understand that in order to solve economic problems we also have to be together," he said.

In Dushanbe, independent researcher Rashid Ghani outlined the government's thinking on the subject of ties with Europe: "Tajikistan right now is establishing something like a multilateral, multidirectional foreign policy and definitely Europe and the European Union is one of the priorities."

As for Tajikistan's economic development, he noted that the country has returned to solid growth rates, but more must be done to put the country back on its feet. "We should work harder, we should enjoy the support of the world community -- and not only in the field of economics -- in order to be able to transfer to sustainable development," he said.

But despite the eagerness of countries like Tajikistan to strengthen ties, and despite the undoubted goodwill of Brussels, the EU is seen by some analysts as lacking a clear policy focus on the region.

Michael Emerson, senior analyst with the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, said Central Asia is not a priority for the EU, and is in fact almost "off the map."

He said that has not basically changed, even though the U.S.-led hunt in nearby Afghanistan for terrorists has complicated the region's security situation. "Central Asia has basically been disappearing off the map; the EU started by taking the whole of the Soviet Union as a set of countries with approximately equal status in terms of the formalities of these partnership and cooperation agreements, but over time it has become clear to everybody that the further away from Europe [an area is] the thinner the interest becomes," Emerson said.

Emerson said EU aid levels to the region have been declining and he went on to say that this situation of benign neglect seems set to continue. Asked whether the union should boost its attention to Central Asia, he said: "You can only answer that question by taking some view of how much energy and indeed resources the European Union does have for getting seriously engaged in different regions; and you cannot really make an overwhelmingly strong case [for Central Asia]."

Certainly the governments of the Central Asian states view the matter more optimistically than that, and are hoping for more contact with Brussels. European Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin in Brussels declined to comment on relations with the region, but she said there will be a statement ahead of Patten's visit next month.

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