Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has called for Australia to suspend crippling sanctions against his isolated nation, and said President Robert Mugabe should be allowed to travel freely.
Mr Tsvangirai told the National Times this morning that the situation in Zimbabwe was "much better" than the general view of a country in crisis, and the embargo on arms sales should be suspended.
The democracy champion said the fragile power-sharing deal — struck in 2009 after Mr Mugabe refused to surrender office despite losing the popular vote — has worked to calm Zimbabwe. A move to suspend sanctions would be a signal of faith in the reform efforts.
He said it was "regrettable" that Prime Minister Julia Gillard had not taken up her invitation to a summit of African leaders this month – but now was the time to engage with Zimbabwe.
"There was a time when any restrictive measures was an incentive for good behaviour, but I think that we are past that. I think we have gone beyond what they can contribute positively," Mr Tsvangirai said.
He said fresh elections could be held within a year and Australia should immediately suspend its sanctions, while leaving the threat of sanctions in place, should the polls not run smoothly.
"Suspend these measures, but tie them to free and fair elections," he said. "And, if the election is free and fair, fine ... remove them permanently."
Mr Tsvangirai held talks with Ms Gillard in Canberra this morning and had a meeting with AusAID chief Peter Baxter.
Australia is one of the largest aid donors to Zimbabwe, despite the heavy financial and travel restrictions on Mr Mugabe, members of his family and supporters.
Mr Tsvangirai last visited Australia in 2007 – only months after he was brutally bashed while meeting members of his Movement for Democratic Change Party.
In 2008, he won a presidential ballot against Mr Mugabe – but the 88-year-old who has ruled Zimbabwe for the three decades since independence refused to step aside.
"We had a stalemate. I had the support of the people, they had the guns," he said.
Asked if there were dangers in now lifting bans on military exports to Zimbabwe, Mr Tsvangirai said the period of power-sharing had helped calm political tensions.
"I think the transition has removed a lot of barriers of suspicion, of polarisation. I think the country is moving towards accepting ... even the military ... accepting the overall civilian authority as the constitutional position. That way, it doesn't slide the country back again into isolation. Even the military will benefit from a thriving economy."
Mr Tsvangirai said Australia's mining expertise was needed in Zimbabwe and business should again look at investment in his country.
"The country has been isolated for the past 10 years. This is our attempt at re-engagement," he said.
"Africa is going through a very delicate transition from the old Africa of dictators, of nationalisation and poverty. I think it's going through a very optimistic time."