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Volume 722: debated on Wednesday 17 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their current priorities as they take forward their relationship with Tajikistan.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare interests as serving on the advisory board of the Central Asia and South Caucasus Association at Asia House and as chairman of the British Tajikistan All-Party Parliamentary Group.

My Lords, we value our relationship with Tajikistan and welcome recent high-level exchanges with the Tajik Government. Our priorities are to encourage democratic and other reforms that will help to underpin stability in Tajikistan and the region. We also believe that there is benefit for both sides in working more closely on issues relating to Afghanistan. Parliamentary links form an important part of our efforts to strengthen the bilateral relationship and I pay tribute to the noble Lord for the work that he does to that end.

I thank the Minister very much for that response. The willingness of the United Kingdom to engage more would be appreciated by Tajikistan and so deepen the bilateral relationship. I believe that there are multiple reasons for doing so. Is the Minister aware that they include fully understanding the culture of the Tajik ethnic north of Afghanistan, the potential for extremism to destabilise internally and so reach into central Asia, the fact that this is a major drug route with 1,500 kilometres of open border with Afghanistan and, finally, economic and other sector opportunities for mutual co-operation and benefit?

I thank the noble Viscount for his constructive question. I am aware of the points that he raises. He reminds your Lordships that there is a long border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan and that many Tajik people live in north Afghanistan and play a relevant, decisive and, we hope, fully helpful part in seeking to pacify that country and meet our priorities there. He makes valuable points. Also relevant are his references to the narcotics problem, some of the cross-border trade that has been going on and some of the difficulties with the Uzbek border of the country as well.

My Lords, the distinguished Speaker and leader of the Tajik delegation now in the UK under Inter-Parliamentary Union auspices tells me that the English language is now on a par with Russian in Tajik schools. However, DfID does not see this as a proper tool of development and empowerment of ordinary people; it is in effect given low priority because DfID thinks of the British Council as the main supplier. To what extent will the Government help the Tajik Government in respect of English language teaching in schools and universities and in the training of teachers of the English language?

I am grateful to the noble Lord, who reminds us that there is an important parliamentary delegation in this country led by the respected Speaker of the Tajik Parliament. I know that the noble Lord had the opportunity to meet and converse with this delegation. He raises valid points about language training. Language training does go on; indeed, part of our defence co-operation is that we assist with language training. He is certainly correct that this is a valuable part of the support for the future and something on which we must seek to build. There are obviously priorities for DfID to look at. Indeed, DfID is looking at recurrently reviewing the whole range of its support operations, almost around the world, including those in the Caucasus and in the region that we are discussing. That does not deny for a moment, however, that language training is one of the great exports and assets that we can contribute to peace and stability in the region, which I hope will continue to be the case.

Will the Minister say anything about the insecurities of some of the surrounding territories, with particular reference to the recent political disorders in Kyrgyzstan? For example, what is the position of the BBC World Service and the British mission in Kyrgyzstan?

Although the Question is not about Kyrgyzstan, which is to the north of Tajikistan, the noble Lord is certainly right that the regional issues all impinge on one another. We are still concerned about the terrible violence that went on in Kyrgyzstan back in the summer and we very much hope that the political process can now be reinforced and that a coalition can be built to bring stability to the area. I do not have at my fingertips exactly where BBC World Service activities stand, but the message of independent news delivery, ideally in acceptable languages, is very important. It is an area that concerns us and we hope that the horrible violence of the recent past will not be repeated.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there has been a moratorium on the death penalty in Tajikistan since 2004? If he is, I am sure that he agrees with me that it is most welcome. Are the Government ready to give support to Tajikistan if requested in taking further these reforms, particularly in relation to reform of the court system and judicial training?

I must say frankly to the noble Baroness that I was not aware of the date of the moratorium on the death penalty, but I greatly welcome it. Indeed, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and some of my fellow Ministers have been active in carrying this message of, one hopes, the almost universal end of the death penalty to as many areas as possible. It is certainly something that we as a civilised nation believe in and we hope that that message can be spread. As to judicial training and other forms of training and technical assistance, there is a programme of help in that direction. We intend to do more, but there are limits to our resources and we must spread them as effectively as we can. These are valuable additions and we want to develop all kinds of assistance in the best way that we can.

My Lords, I have a quick question. In the past there have been discussions between the United Kingdom and Tajikistan over a double taxation agreement and an agreement on provision of investment on both sides—an investment protection and promotion agreement. Do the Government have any plans to take forward discussions on those important agreements with Tajikistan?

I will certainly look into that. The general level of trade with Tajikistan, as the noble Baroness probably knows better than me, is fairly modest, but we are keen to do more on the commercial and financial side. I will look into the issue that she raised on tax arrangements and write to her if there is more news to tell.