TASHKENT -- Komil Allamjonov is taking some heat -- and he seems to be enjoying it.
It's the Thursday morning before Uzbekistan's first parliamentary elections since the 2016 death of longtime dictator Islam Karimov, and the 35-year-old director of the country's communications agency is the centerpiece of one of a series of preelection forums at Tashkent's Zarafshon Hall, broadcast on nationwide television.
A journalist peppers him with questions about why regional governors who have threatened journalists have not been punished. Another confronts Allamjonov about an audio recording in November -- allegedly of the Tashkent mayor threatening two reporters -- that shocked Uzbekistan's journalistic community.
He volleys the questions away with a smile, promising there is "no going back" to the days of widespread restrictions on journalists and bloggers.
Later in the day, candidates from Uzbekistan's five political parties sweat under the bright lights of a debate stage that includes contemporary accoutrements like the sounding of a virtual gong to signal that a candidate's speaking time is over.
Moderators even harangue the candidates -- telling them to cut the fluff and answer questions more directly.
(Some) Change In The Air
It's all meant to highlight Uzbekistan's efforts to change the image burnished during Karimov's rule as one of the most repressive countries in the world.
But if everything seems rather free-wheeling, there's at least one thing that appears understood to be off-limits: criticism of President Shavkat Mirziyoev, who over three years has firmly cemented his place as the unquestioned authority in Central Asia's most populous country.
The five parties competing in parliamentary elections on December 22 are the same ones that have competed in every election since 2003, and no genuine opposition movement has been allowed to register.
On social media, users have complained that they know little about the candidates or what differentiates the parties from one another.
And despite the increasing willingness of journalists here to ask tough questions of officials like Allamjonov, rights groups have expressed concerns that reforms in some areas are overshadowing civil-rights issues that persist.
"The positive changes are really significant, but still relatively modest, as contradictory as it sounds," says Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer and Central Asia expert who named cuts in forced labor and an opening up of the media space as positive developments.
"At the same time, Uzbekistan remains firmly authoritarian, with power concentrated in one person," he adds.
Mirziyoev has released more than 50 high-profile political prisoners since coming to power, but there are still unknown numbers locked away.
And despite legislation outlawing it, there are continued reports of torture in Uzbekistan's prisons.
And in the run-up to these elections the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted that Uzbekistan had failed to ease restrictions on freedom of assembly and "burdensome" party-registration requirements.
(Some) Freedom To Question Authority
Ali Kakhkhorov, editor of the Repost.uz news portal and one of the journalists who sharply questioned Allamjonov, the communications minister, at the forum, told RFE/RL that in Uzbekistan "we're afraid of the word 'opposition.' The word opposition is understood as something foreign."
But Allamjonov -- who previously worked as Mirziyoev's press secretary -- said in an interview that he was satisfied that the current parties, though not attacking his boss, were openly questioning each other in ways they never had before. "The debates like we have now, discussions like those taking place, they didn't exist," he said, referring to the previous elections under Karimov.
Allamjonov pointed to a December 18 report in The Economist that -- while noting the lack of genuine election competition -- declared Uzbekistan the "country of the year" for its series of reforms, as proof that the country was on the right track. "Don't you trust The Economist," he asked?
He also denied that criticism of Mirziyoev is off-limits in the country. "For 25 years [under Karimov] we were closed off," he said, referring to the 27-year reign of Karimov. "It's only been three years since we started to open up. That internal fear, that internal censorship, has been maintained. It's self-censorship and not government censorship."
Back at Zarafshon Hall, the final candidates' debate of the evening has ended and supporters of one party are in a heated debate with a candidate from another.
Azamat Tolipov, a 29-year-old graduate student who came back to Uzbekistan from Iceland for a year of academic leave, looks bemused. He told RFE/RL that he had recently taken a greater interest in politics because "when you're somewhere abroad you will automatically compare your government or your society with others that are not like yours."
But after two hours of debate, he can't really determine what any of the parties stand for. "There should be alternatives to choose from," he said, "but those alternatives should be unique."