BRUSSELS -- The European Union is ready to improve its relationship with Tajikistan in keeping with broader efforts to expand its role in Central Asia.
After meeting with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon in Brussels on February 10, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso stressed the mutual benefits of a strong partnership.
"President Rahmon's visit today demonstrates Tajikistan's importance as a partner for Europe and the new impetus we want to give to our relations with his country and also more generally with Central Asia," Barroso said.
Barroso provided concrete examples to back his sentiments by announcing that the European Commission would upgrade its representation in Dushanbe and open a fully-fledged delegation in 2009.
In addition, it was announced that the next high-level meeting between the EU and Central Asian countries, the EU-Central Asia ministerial troika meeting, will take place in Dushanbe on May 28-29.
A major topic of the talks between Barroso and Rahmon was Afghanistan.
Tajikistan, which shares 1,450 kilometers of border with Afghanistan, recently signaled its readiness to upgrade its support for coalition forces there. Significantly, after Kyrgyzstan announced that it would close the U.S. base on its soil, Dushanbe offered the use of its airspace for transport of nonmilitary NATO supplies.
"We particularly welcome, for instance, the openness of Tajikistan and the government of Tajikistan regarding the supply of some support through Tajikistan to Afghanistan, namely in terms of air cargo -- NATO air cargo," Barroso said. "And this has been, of course, a very important contribution of Tajikistan."
Increased EU Aid
Following Dushanbe's overtures, the European Commission said it is prepared to step up its aid to Tajikistan.
Dushanbe already receives the lion's share of EU aid earmarked for Central Asia, with 66 million euros ($86 million) in bilateral assistance budgeted for 2007-10. Social-protection, health- and private-sector development programs underpinned by public-finance reform, and projects to enhance living standards are at the focus of the EU's assistance.
In addition, Tajikistan receives assistance for programs dedicated to border management and drug control, education, water and the environment, human rights and democracy, and the development of civil society and small and medium-sized businesses.
Barroso announced that Dushanbe can expect additional help.
In "support of Tajikistan's crucial contribution to Central Asia regional stability," and in view of the impact the global economic crisis has had on Tajikistan, Barroso said the country will receive 15.5 million euros ($20 million) from the Global Food Facility program for social-security support and agricultural development.
The freeing of another 18 million euros is conditional on Tajikistan -- which is currently ranked 151st in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index -- showing marked improvement in that area in future reviews by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
"We are ready to resume budget support with 18 million euros for social protection subject to satisfactory results of the second IMF review mission in February and measurable progress in public finance management reform and reporting," Barroso said.
Also on February 10, the Tajik president signed a framework agreement with the European Investment Bank (EIB) providing a legal basis for potential lending to Tajikistan. The EIB is the European Union's bank for financing investments that furthers European integration. It also supports the EU's cooperation and development policies.
In a speech to the Foreign Policy Committee of the European Parliament, Tajik President Rahmon -- who is visiting Brussels for the first time and will meet with NATO and energy officials February 11 -- said the completion of the Rogun hydroelectric power station is of "vital importance" for his country.
He also expressed regret that the level of understanding between Central Asian countries, which has fallen in recent weeks in large part because of Uzbekistan's concerns over Tajikistan's hydroelectric ambitions, is "on a very low level."
In a further gesture to the EU, Rahmon offered more cooperation on fighting drug trafficking. Tajikistan is a major conduit for the smuggling of narcotics from Afghanistan to Europe.
The Tajik president, whose country was ranked as "not free" in the most recent report by the U.S.-based rights watchdog Freedom House, also emphasized the significance of human rights.
Rahmon is also scheduled to meet with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. The closed-door meeting is expected to focus on Tajikistan's contribution to the war in Afghanistan.