COMMENTARY
 
Musharraf’s ‘Charm Offensive’ in Europe
Weekly Pulse
January 25-31, 2008
Europe is keening waiting for the holding of a “free, fair and peaceful elections” on February 18 in Pakistan. If elections are rigged or manipulated—a possibility the country’s mainstream political parties, namely the PPP and PML-N, fear until now—then Pakistan’s relations with the European Union (EU) will be strained.

The EU, Pakistan’s second largest trading partner, has clearly linked the outcome of the elections with its future ties with the country. While meeting Mr. Musharraf, EU’s Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana said “elections have to be fair and free and secure…Our co-operation, our level of engagement will be in view of the results of the process.”

A Difficult Mission

Musharraf has been on a PR mission in Europe’s four most important destinations: Brussels, Paris, Davos and London. The country he left behind is in the grip of a severe grain and electricity shortage, a continuing war with extremists and a highly uncertain political climate, which has worsened by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27.

There must be a very important, rather unavoidable, reason why he had to travel to Europe for an unusually long duration at this very crucial time facing the nation. Not long ago, Mr Musharraf enjoyed an unquestionable support from Western leaders, including those from Europe. Over time, however, not only have leaders changed, issues have also assumed a different direction.

Instead of Tony Blair, Britain has Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, even though from the same Labor Party, who just a week before meeting Mr. Musharraf in London, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with his Indian counterpart in New Delhi telling the world that India deserved a permanent seat in the UN Security Council commensurate with its rising global economic and political profile.

In France, Mr. Musharraf had a more welcoming person, President Nicholas Sarkozi, an ultra-nationalist figure devoutly supportive of Mr. Bush’s War on Terror. Mr Solana, is an old face in European affairs. He also served as NATO’s Secretary General during the time of the Yugoslavia’s onslaught on Kosovo in 1999 and is credited with a proactive leadership of the Alliance in its successful handling of this last major crisis of the Balkans. For the past several years, he has served as EU’s Foreign Policy Chief.

Among the several engagements that Mr Musharraf had during his European tour was his address to a joint meeting of European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and the assembly’s South Asia delegation and meetings with Mr. Solana, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Belgium’s caretaker Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt in Brussels; meetings with Mr. Sarkoz and EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and a speech before French Institute of International Relations in Paris. During the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, which has emerged as an important place for the world’s leading political and corporate leaders to interact, Mr Musharaf met with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He was to conclude his European tour with a meeting with British Prime Minister Brown.

Support on Counter-Terrorism

There is no doubt that European leaders still consider Pakistan’s role in the War on Terror as quite crucial, as clear from the remarks of Mr Sarkozy. The same is also amply clear from the statement of NATO Secretary-General Scheffer, which he made after meeting Mr Musharraf: NATO in Afghanistan and he [Musharraf] in Pakistan, we are fighting the same demons, the same terrorists who are trying to destabilize Pakistan and also trying to destabilize Afghanistan…and {it}is also true in the opposite direction, so to say.” However, there is a simultaneous concern about the deteriorating security situation and chaotic political climate in the country, including concerns about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets.

The latter reflects a growing European fear, equally shared by the Americans, which Mr. Musharraf tried to dispel during his talk before a joint meeting of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and the assembly’s South Asia delegation as well as in his address at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.

For instance, in his speech before the French think-tank, Mr Musharraf categorically ruled out any possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenals getting into the hands of extremist forces, saying “a competent command and control system is in place to look after these national assets.”

Mr Musharraf said if al-Queda or Talibans wanted to get hold of “our nuclear assets”, then they will have to defeat Pakistan Army or they will have to win general elections. “I do not see nay of these happenings; thus, there was no chance our arsenals will get into unsafe hands”, he stated.

Concerns Regarding Democracy

Europe has credible stakes in the counter-terrorism effort in Afghanistan, since over 35,000 troops from its various member-states are part of the NATO security mission fighting the Taliban. And NATO needs Pakistan’s cooperation to succeed in Afghanistan. However, simultaneously, unlike the United States—which tends to ignore democratic aspirations of Pakistani people for the sake of ensuring continuity in its frontline role in the War on Terror—European governments consider the revival of democracy in the country as a principal requisite for combating religious extremism and terrorism in the region. This explains why the European leaders seem to attach so much significance with the holding of a “free, fair and peaceful elections”—to use Mr Solana’s words—in the country.

Pakistan’s trade volume with the EU is over US$9 billion—and to ensure that this economic partnership, on which depends the survival of the country’s industrial sector, especially textile, continues and grows in future—the country’s leadership has to deliver on its promises regarding the February 18 polls.

However, while assuring the European leaders, including even the NATO Secretary General, about the free, fair, transparent and peaceful nature of these elections, Mr. Musharraf has attempted to create justifications for the difficulties involved in the process. For instance, he told a select gathering of European parliamentarians in Brussels, “You have taken centuries in reaching wherever you have come. Allow us time for going for the values that you have established for yourselves. We have a feudal tribal environment in some of our provinces, therefore in accordance with our environment we have to adapt democracy, human rights, and civil liberties.”

Mr Musharraf argued that instead of criticizing Pakistan on count of democracy and human rights, Europe should help Pakistan in combating extremism and terrorism. He questioned the European “obsession” with democracy and human rights in the country. However, this is not the sort of stuff European audience is generally prepared to listen from the leader of a developing country, especially one with a military background. The EU, as a grouping, is highly sensitive to issues of democracy, liberty and human rights, which, in its perceptions, cannot be overlooked by any security-related justification.

Having sent up to 100 election monitors to Pakistan, the EU has a special stake in ensuring that the polls are not rigged. The EU also wants action to restore the independence of judiciary and reinstatement of top judges Mr Musharraf removed from power last year. The EU also wants an end to all restrictions on political parties and the media—in short, to ensure the rule of law in Pakistan.

At the time of imposition of Emergency Rule; i.e. on November 3, the European Parliament had reacted strongly, urging the Musharraf regime to restore the Constitution and judiciary, and lift media curbs, making all of this conditional upon EU’s ties with the country.

Even during Mr Musharraf’s present trip, European civil society has been equally vocal about the deteriorating state of human rights and democratic freedoms in the country. For instance, the International Federation for Human Rights urged the EU leadership to ask him Mr Musharraf to ensure a free and fair vote. “Only strong democratic institutions and strict respect of human rights can serve as a solid basis to fight against any kind of extremism and other forms of religious fanaticism.” For its part the Amnesty International stated, “Europe’s leaders have the chance to urge President Pervez Musharraf to end human rights violations in Pakistan when he visits Europe.”

Given all of the above, Mr. Musharraf may end his four-nation European trip with a lot of self-praise for having helped improve the country’s image abroad, the fact is that this image will improve only if the elections are not rigged.

Access column at weeklypulse.org