Dialogue with EU 'key' to progress in Zimbabwe

VALLADOLID, Spain — Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said on Friday that talks with the European Union on normalising relations would help restore international confidence in his country.

The EU in June held its first official talks with Zimbabwe in seven years with a landmarking meeting in Brussels, followed last month by the visit of an EU delegation to Harare.

The dialogue marks a major diplomatic overture with Zimbabwe after years of strained relations due to a series of violent elections and claims of gross human rights abuses by President Robert Mugabe’s government.

Tsvangirai joined Mugabe in a unity government in February, and quickly made a tour of western capitals in a bid to improve relations and seek desperately needed aid for Zimbabwe’s ruined economy.

"Zimbabwe is emerging from a political and economic conflict. One of the key things that we need to do is to expedite the EU’s rapid dialogue," Tsvangirai told AFP.

"The issues are very clear. The Europeans have their own legitimate concerns, we have our legitimate concerns and therefore I think that only through dialogue are we able to establish a common ground and remove those obstacles that have led to strained relations."

He spoke to AFP in the northern Spanish city of Valladolid, where he was to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Cristobal Gabarron Foundation.

The EU maintains a travel ban and asset freeze against Mugabe and about 200 of his close allies, but has also provided 600 million euros in humanitarian aid between 2002 and 2009.

Xavier Marchal, head of the European delegation in Harare, said on Thursday that the bloc was ready to resume "massive and full-fledged assistance" to Zimbabwe if relations normalise.

Even Mugabe, who just last month railed against "bloody whites" interfering in his nation’s affairs, has struck a more conciliatory tone.

On Tuesday he said Zimbabwe was ready for "fresh and cooperative relations" with Western nations, which have spearheaded global condemnation of his rule.

Washington, which also maintains sanctions on Mugabe and his inner circle, has responded more cautiously, telling Mugabe to first show his "commitment to democratic reform and political opening."

The power-sharing government aimed to end political violence that erupted after failed elections last year and to halt Zimbabwe’s economic freefall, powered by world-record hyperinflation that impoverished the once dynamic country.

Tsvangirai said economic stabilisation was critical to the country’s recovery, and also called for a "move away from humanitarian support to development needs."

The unity government has been rattled by public feuding between Finance Minister Tendai Biti and Reserve Bank chief Gideon Gono, most recently over control of 400 million dollars in resources from the International Monetary Fund.

But Tsvangiraid said Gono had no choice but to accept Biti’s decisions.

"The fiscal authority in Zimbabwe is the minister of finance. The governor is answerable and subordinate to the minister of finance, so there is no dispute," the former opposition leader said.

Biti "will set the priorities."

He said the IMF funds would be used "for social development in all sectors."

Hours after the Barack Obama was sensationally awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he also called on African leaders to do more to help the US president develop the continent.

"I think he will be sympathetic to Africa but I think he has other priorities. So it now depends on the African leadership … to do something. Let’s facilitate Obama to help us."