U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed Uzbek counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoev to the White House on May 16, as the Central Asian leader looks to raise the profile of a country long isolated by the repressive rule of his predecessor.
The visit comes as Mirziyoev takes steps to implement reforms at home and improve ties with the outside world following more than a quarter-century of iron-fisted rule under Islam Karimov, who died in 2016.
Mirziyoev, 60, has sought to open up Central Asia’s most populous country and move away from his Karimov’s oppressive policies, making changes as part of a bid to attract foreign investment and improve Uzbekistan‘s stagnant economy.
For Trump, the talks are a chance to shore up relations with a strategically located country that is courted by China and Russia and was once a key staging area for U.S. operations in neighboring Afghanistan.
“You don’t always get these opportunities in this part of the world, so we believe it’s important to try and work with this government and encourage the kind of steps that we’ve seen,” the official said.
“And if we were overly cautious, and didn’t move out in trying to encourage this, that might lose this window of opportunity and we might see backsliding back into the days of Karimov,” the official said.
The visit is “an opportunity to encourage and validate those reforms” already adopted by Mirziyoev, Lisa Curtis, who oversees Central and South Asian affairs at the White House National Security Council, said two days before the talks.
Curtis and the senior White House official signaled that U.S. officials will press the Uzbek president to go further to remedy longstanding problems involving the repression of human rights, forced labor, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press.
The United States wants to “encourage even more change, more openness, and then Uzbekistan serves as an example for the rest of the Central Asia region, which…is a growing, developing, important region,” the official said.
Uzbek authorities on May 12 released human rights activist Fahriddin Tillaev, who had been imprisoned for more than four years in a case that watchdogs called politically motivated.
Tillaev’s release was widely seen as a gesture toward the U.S. administration ahead of Mirziyoev‘s meeting with Trump, in parallel with a marketing blitz undertaken by the Uzbek government in Washington in recent months to attract more foreign investment.
Mirziyoev is accompanied by a sizable delegation of officials and business leaders, who reportedly intend to sign around $4 billion of contracts and business deals with U.S. companies during the visit.
Human Rights Watch said in a report published on March 28 that journalists and other critics of the government remain under pressure from legal restrictions, politically motivated prosecutions, and fear-induced self-censorship
The British-based rights group said the Uzbek leader’s White House visit “will be a critical opportunity for [Trump] to encourage Uzbekistan to implement human rights reforms that are long overdue and much needed.”
Amnesty International and 11 other human rights organizations later issued a joint statement urging members of the U.S. Congress to call on the Uzbek government during Mirziyoyev’s White House visit to immediately release everyone imprisoned on politically motivated charges.
“At this hopeful time for Uzbekistan, the government should ensure that the modest steps already taken in the right direction lead to enduring and effective human rights protection for all of Uzbekistan’s citizens,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Experts Urge Caution
She said the White House will also ask Mirziyoev to help more with efforts to broker a peace settlement in neighboring Afghanistan, saying that Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries should take on more of that burden.
Mirziyoev‘s White House visit is the first since Karimov made the trip in March 2002, months after his government agreed to let the United States to use an air base in Uzbekistan for operations in Afghanistan.
Tashkent’s relations with the United States and other Western countries soured badly after Uzbek security forces opened fire on protesters in the eastern city of Andijon in 2005, killing hundr or people.
Asked about the possibility of U.S. military forces returning to Uzbekistan, the senior White House official said that military-to-military cooperation would be renewed, but that “we are not seeking to have U.S. forces in Uzbekistan at this time.”
At the same time, the official said, the United States is seeking to “enhance our partners’ standing as a strong sovereign independent state” and “supporting the territorial integrity of our Central Asian partners.”