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Tajikistan: EU, Dushanbe Move Forward On Key Partnership And Cooperation Agreement

Tajik and European Union officials are preparing a new phase of relations on the basis of a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement due to be initialed next week in Brussels. The agreement envisages the intensification of political, economic, and trade relations. RFE/RL looks at the significance of the agreement for the impoverished Central Asian republic.

Prague, 10 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union has formalized bilateral ties with eight former Soviet republics and Russia through Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs), the backbone of EU policy in the region.

These agreements, which are based on respect for democratic principles and human rights, define political, economic, and trade relations between the EU and PCA signatories.

Tajikistan's ties with Europe were disrupted by its 1992-97 civil war, but Dushanbe is now due to initial a PCA next week (15-16 December) in Brussels ahead of a formal signing scheduled for May.

Sharif Rahimov, Tajikistan's ambassador to the EU, told RFE/RL: "Since last year, we have been closely working with the EU and have been preparing an agreement that is due to be signed next May. This 10-year agreement will include political as well as economic issues. A group of Tajik high-ranking officials will visit Belgium in mid-December in order to discuss details of the agreement. The document is due to be signed after approval by both sides."

The EU has been helping Tajikistan recover from the ravages of its civil war through technical assistance and humanitarian aid. But the country is now eager to shift to more developmental projects.

EU officials say the agreement is an important moment for Tajikistan. After a meeting with Tajik Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov earlier this month in Dushanbe, the director-general of the European Commission for external relations, Kurt Juul, said Brussels could help Tajikistan modernize virtually every sector of its economy. He said the country will be eligible for annual EU grants of up to 14 million euros ($17 million) for this purpose.

Juul also told ITAR-TASS that, because of the PCA, European investors will be more aware of Tajikistan's potential. Tajik Deputy Economy Minister Isroil Makhmudov shares the same expectations. "This agreement will pave the way to future economic cooperation between Tajikistan and the European Union, including free movement of goods and capital and other important issues, such as the opportunity for more investment in Tajikistan," he said. "This agreement will destroy all barriers between Tajikistan and the EU. It will also increase trade potential for Tajikistan and all European countries."

Rashid Ghani, an independent Tajik analyst, notes that the EU can apply the experience it gained assisting the transitional Eastern European countries toward helping Tajikistan solve its problems.

"Tajikistan intends to build a secular democratic society. In order to reach this goal, Tajikistan is in desperate need for support from the different countries [and] organizations, including the European Union. Tajikistan is in big need of new technologies, investments, as well as consultations on specific issues like how to build a democratic society [and] how to provide necessary conditions for fruitful and effective work of parliament, for example," Ghani said.

But Anna Walker, an editor at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, notes that any concrete benefits for Tajikistan in the medium term are likely to be limited. "The main reason has partly to do with Tajikistan's location. And its relations with its neighbors are often difficult. And there's a host of trade barriers which prevent it from raising exports and from pursuing export growth policies," she said.

As for investments, Walker noted: "One thing that Tajikistan has in its favor is the fact that it's become much more secure, certainly in the past two years. Maybe investors will feel encouraged by that. But I still think that investment is likely more to come from its regional neighbors, such as China, India, [and] Russia, rather than somewhere like the EU."

Walker believes that, in reality, the international community has little influence over domestic political reforms in Central Asia. Nevertheless, European Commission President Romano Prodi warned earlier this year that EU assistance can only be effective if Tajikistan commits itself to land reform and privatization.

On the human rights front, Prodi stressed that Tajikistan's commitments to democracy and human rights will be of "major importance" to the EU in its future cooperation with the country.

Rachel Denber is acting director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division. She admits that the signing of a PCA agreement is an opportunity for outside leverage for human rights improvements in Tajikistan. But she says any improvements will largely depend on how seriously the EU itself takes the human rights component of the PCA.

Denber notes the situations in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, where PCAs have already come into force. "The case of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan is one of great disappointment. We had asked the EU to raise a number of very important issues involving human rights in the advancement of democratic pluralism. And we were disappointed generally by its failure to make these issues primary in the discussions with the Kazakh and Kyrgyz delegations," she said. "A more positive example -- in January, the EU issued a very strong statement asking for specific reforms in the course of the year."

Michael Emerson, senior research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, notes that PCAs do not commit countries to immediately undertake reforms. What the PCA with Tajikistan will do, he says, is establish a framework for future contacts between Dushanbe and European nations.

"The judgment is now being made in the European Union that there is a government [in Tajikistan] with sufficient legitimacy and stability and that the conditions of security for Western Europeans to work there have adequately improved to make it appropriate now to negotiate and then sign a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement," he said.

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