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Ethiopia's New PM Says Policies Will Remain Constant

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Aug. 24, 2012. Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Aug. 24, 2012.
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Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Aug. 24, 2012.
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Aug. 24, 2012.
Peter Heinlein
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has pledged to maintain the controversial policies of his predecessor, Meles Zenawi, who died last month. The Ethiopian leader outlined his views on foreign and domestic issues in an interview with VOA's Peter Heinlein in New York.

In a 30-minute conversation, Prime Minister Hailemariam discussed topics from Ethiopia's strained ties with neighboring Eritrea, relations with China and the United States, and the government's clampdown on media.

The interview was Hailemariam's first since taking office last week. It took place in New York, on the eve of his first address as prime minister to the United Nations General Assembly.

On Eritrea, he said he sees no sign of a thaw in a relationship that has been frozen since an indecisive two-year war that ended in 2000. That conflict left at least 70,000 people dead.

Eritrea says progress depends on Ethiopia's acceptance of an international border commission ruling that favors Eritrea's position. However, Hailemariam says the only solution lies in bilateral dialogue.

"There is no change in policy. Our policy designed after the war since nine years, a standing policy that we need to have dialogue without conditions, so we offered this to the Eritrean government and leadership and are waiting for this to happen for the last nine years and will continue to do so," said Hailemariam.

Ethiopia's relations with Egypt also have been strained over sharing Nile River waters. The government of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had resisted efforts by Ethiopia and other countries along the upper Nile to renegotiate a colonial-era water sharing agreement.

Hailemariam says he will wait to see what policies the new government in Cairo will adopt.

"The previous Egyptian regime was looking into the Nile issue as a security issue. There are a number rumors that this is [seen as] a security issue, but I cannot tell you the government's position until now. So I don't want to deal with those speculations because we haven't come across officially a change of policy with the current Egyptian governmen," he said.

Hailemariam also expressed satisfaction with the election of a new president in neighboring Somalia, and with the signing of a cooperation agreement between Sudan ad South Sudan. He said both developments will contribute to regional stability.

The Ethiopian leader said relations with both China and the United States are good. He rejected a suggestion that Ethiopia is tilting toward Beijing for economic and ideological reasons, and he defended the decision of Ethiopia's ruling party to strengthen relations with China's Communist Party.

"Our party has very close ties with the Communist Party of China because we have areas where we can learn from the work the Chinese Communist Party is doing, simply because we are people centered, where Chinese Community Party has experience with working with people at the grass root, so we learn with China, this kind of approach, it doesn't mean our ideology is similar to China," said Hailemariam.

On domestic issues,  Hailemariam defended the imprisonment of several journalists and opposition politicians under a recently enacted anti-terrorism law. He said those sentenced to long jail terms, such as award-winning blogger and fierce government critic Eskinder Nega, had been living a double life, or as he called it, “wearing two hats.”

"Our national security interest cannot be compromised by somebody having two hats.  We have to tell them they can have only one hat which is legal and the legal way of doing things, be it in journalism or opposition discourse, but if they opt to have two mixed functions, we are clear to differentiate the two," he said.

The Ethiopian leader also suggested his government will continue to clamp down on opposition media, including jamming VOA Amharic service broadcasts and blocking foreign websites considered objectionable.

"My government has no policy of blocking these issues. It is depending on the websites or whatever, if there is any connection with these kind of organizations, it's obvious. That's done in every country.  You cannot open a blog of Osama bin Laden in the United States," he said.

Hailemariam is filling out the remainder of the late prime minister Meles' term, which ends in 2015. He said if the ruling Ethiopia Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, gives him the chance, he would like to serve at least one more term. But he added, “that will be a decision of the party”.

The EPRDF has held power in Addis Ababa since 1991, when it ousted the pro-Soviet Marxist dictator Mengistu Hailemariam after a lengthy armed struggle.

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