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Tajik president fears instability after NATO Afghan pullout
Thu, Apr 11 10:05 AM EDT
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By Barbara Lewis and Adrian Croft

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Tajikistan is deeply concerned about instability after foreign troops withdraw from neighboring Afghanistan, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon said on Thursday.

Afghanistan is to hold presidential elections in April 2014 as most foreign combat troops will be preparing to withdraw from the country by the end of that year, leaving Afghan security forces in charge.

"It is a matter of deepest concern that the coincidence of the two major events ... might make the situation difficult," Rakhmon told Reuters on the sidelines of an investment conference in Brussels, referring to the election and troop pullout.

Rakhmon, who held talks with European Union and NATO officials in Brussels this week, urged Europe and the rest of the world to "take seriously" the situation after 2014 and to help Afghanistan build up its army and police.

The Afghan government and NATO have been at pains to counter fears that Afghanistan could slide into chaos or that there could be a Taliban resurgence once tens of thousands of foreign troops leave.

Tajikistan has a 1,200-km (750-mile) border with Afghanistan and faces a problem with opium-trafficking from its neighbor.

Tajikistan has signed a transit agreement with NATO, allowing the Western alliance to use its airport to transport equipment to and from Afghanistan.

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy reassured Rakhmon in talks on Wednesday that the European Union was engaged in central Asia and Afghanistan "for the long haul" and that it would continue to help in the fight against drug-trafficking.

Provided instability is contained, Rakhmon said there was no reason why the Tajik economy should not continue growing at an annual 7 percent pace, even though the International Monetary Fund has said economic slowdown in dominant regional power Russia could have a knock-on effect.

"Absolutely we can. Just for the (first) three months of 2013 the indicator of economic growth is 7.3 percent," he said, speaking through an interpreter.

HUGE POTENTIAL

Rakhmon, a 60-year-old former head of a Soviet cotton farm, has ruled the impoverished Central Asian nation of 7.5 million for 20 years. He has overseen constitutional amendments that allow him to seek a new seven-year term in November 2013.

Land-locked Tajikistan is the poorest of the 15 former Soviet republics but is believed to have huge energy potential.

"Prospective resources of oil and gas are estimated to be one billion and 33 million tonnes of oil equivalent," Sherali Gul, Tajikistan's energy minister, told the investors' meeting.

Tethys Petroleum is the only independent oil and gas explorer operating in three central Asian republics and says Tajikistan is "the jewel in Tethys' crown".

In December, it signed a deal with Total and China National Oil and Gas Exploration and Development Corporation (CNODC), a unit of China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), the country's top oil and gas producer, to jointly explore in Tajikistan.

"We expect to close the deal very soon," David Robson, Tethys' executive chairman and president, told the conference.

Tajikistan hopes to achieve energy independence and to become an energy exporter. Despite its huge potential, for now Tajikistan does not produce enough energy to cover its needs. During the long winter, electricity and gas supplies are limited to six-to-seven hours a day, Rakhmon said.

As well as developing its oil and gas reserves, it is investing in hydro power.

Its flagship project is the Rogun dam, but completion has been frozen pending a World Bank assessment of its impact.

Uzbekistan, which depends on rivers that rise in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to irrigate its farmland, has said the dam has the potential to provoke military conflict.

(Edited by Richard Meares)


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