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Australia moves to restore ties with Fiji's military government

Less than a year ago, Australia was denouncing Brig. Sitiveni Rabuka's two military coups in Fiji. Now, Australia is readying to resume aid and restore diplomatic ties to Fiji. This week a team of senior officials are in Suva to arrange the resumption of some $14 million in annual aid. The meeting marks the first government contact between Australia and Fiji since the September coup.

Last May's coup drew sharp condemnation from Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Later, trade ties were temporarily severed by Australian unions. And all development aid was revoked.

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But now Australia is softening its position ``to encourage'' recent progress toward democratic rule, says Bill Hayden, minister of foreign affairs and trade.

In December, internal bickering and a flagging economy led coup leader Rabuka to sack his Cabinet and hand control back to the moderate chiefs in Fiji. Neither Prime Minister Ratu Kamisese Mara or President Ratu Penaia Ganilau are elected officials. (In fact, Mr. Mara lost the last election for Prime Minister.) Rabuka and his Army officers still hold key posts in the Cabinet. Elections and a new constitution may be a year away.

Still, at a press conference last week, Australia's Hayden said the Fiji government ``is in the hands of civilians. It's in our interest to reinforce the position of those civilians, to encourage them in establishing a constitution which would enshrine democratic process.''

Aid will not be restored this week, but a timetable for quick resumption is likely, say officials. It's not clear whether the aid will be contingent upon progress toward a democratically elected government.

Australia's about-face is drawing bitter criticism from members of Timoci Bavadra's labor government, which was ousted by Rabuka last May. One former minister said Australia was abandoning its moral stand in favor of business interests.

``It is a pragmatic move,'' agrees Greg Fry, a political scientist at Australia National University. ``For the first time in a 100 years, Australia was out of kilter with the rest of the Pacific. It saw its influence diminishing in Fiji, the economic and political gateway to the Pacific.''

Australia is now realigning itself with South Pacific nations which sympathized with the Fiji coup. While the means were criticized, many Pacific islanders viewed the coup as a victory for indigenous Fijians who saw themselves losing political power to a growing Indian population. [Native Fijians constitute about 44 percent of the population; Fijian Indians, 50 percent]

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The decision to restore ties with Fiji was also spurred on by French efforts to step into the aid vacuum left by Australia - and polish its image in the South Pacific. Two weeks ago, France gave Fiji $13 million in grants and credit guarantees.

``We have a long tradition of trade with Fiji,'' says Russell Leitch, chairman of the Australia-Fiji Business Council in Sydney. Annual trade between Australia and Fiji is estimated at $140 million. ``We need to protect and build on it. If we don't, we may lose it to the French or someone else,'' he warns.

It's been reported that the United States may follow Australia's lead in restoring aid to Fiji. New Zealand alone maintains extensive sanctions. ``We are not in any hurry to move,'' said Prime Minister David Lange last week. However, New Zealand's foreign affairs minister, just back from a month-long holiday in Fiji, reportedly favors restoring ties.

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