German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has arrived in Uzbekistan for a three-day visit aimed at enhancing bilateral cooperation between the two countries.
Steinmeier's trip is also seen as part of an effort to reinforce Uzbekistan’s path to reform after President Shavkat Mirziyoev came to power in 2016 and to end long years of relative isolation for the Central Asian country.
Mirziyoev became president after longtime autocratic leader Islam Karimov's death was announced in September 2016.
Since then, Mirziyoev has cultivated warmer ties with Uzbekistan's neighbors and countries further afield.
Mirziyoev has also sought to bolster Uzbekistan's struggling economy and has taken steps to implement reforms in Uzbekistan, where rights abuses were widespread under Karimov.
Ahead of Steinmeier's visit, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the German president to stress that the "positive changes" that have taken place in Uzbekistan are "small steps on a long road," citing the "vast" powers that the security services have retained and "persistent reports that arbitrary detention, torture, and other ill-treatment in custody are widespread."
During his visit to Berlin in January, Mirziyoev said he wanted to bring relations with Germany to "a tangibly new and higher level," while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country wants to be Uzbekistan's "reliable partner."
Early on May 28, Steinmeier is scheduled to meet with Mirziyoev in Tashkent.
The German president plans in the afternoon of May 28 to meet with representatives of leading Uzbek businesses and banks.
Then, on the morning of May 29, Steinmeier is scheduled to "discuss current developments in Uzbekistan with representatives of civil society," according to a statement on his website.
The German president, accompanied by his wife, Elke Budenbender, also plans on May 29 to meet students of Urgench State University in western Uzbekistan and visit the historic city of Khiva.
In a commentary published on May 23, the Europe and Central Asia director at HRW, Hugh Williamson, and the New York-based watchdog's Central Asia researcher, Steve Swerdlow, said that the Uzbek government was "still highly authoritarian."
"The many new laws and decrees enacted and upbeat soundbites for international audiences should translate into real improvements that people experience in their daily lives," Williamson and Swerdlow said.
This includes "allowing local and international nongovernmental organizations to register and function, journalists to report freely, religious believers to engage in their peaceful religious practice, judges to make independent decisions in court, and former political prisoners access to justice and redress for past abuses."
Williamson and Swerdlow noted that the Uzbek authorities unblocked access to several websites in the country ahead of Steinmeier’s visit, including German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, but others such as RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, remained blocked.
"The government's efforts to create a positive atmosphere for Steinmeier's visit would be more convincing if it allowed its citizens completely open access to the Internet," they said.