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White House Says It Will Push Uzbek Leader On Rights, Economic Reform

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev

WASHINGTON – A top U.S. official said that the White House will urge Uzbek President Shavkhat Mirziyoev to continue reforming the economy and improving human rights when he visits for the first time this week.

Lisa Curtis, who oversees Central and South Asian affairs at the White House National Security Council, said on May 14 that Uzbekistan “has made great strides” since Mirziyoev took over the presidency from longtime autocratic ruler Islam Karimov.

But she signaled that U.S. officials will press Mirziyoev to go further to remedy long-standing problems involving the repression of human rights, forced labor, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press.

"This visit is an opportunity to encourage and validate those reforms” already adopted by Mirziyoev, Curtis said, speaking at a meeting of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

Mirziyoev is slated to have his first meeting with President Donald Trump on May 16 at the White House. In what was widely seen as a gesture to the U.S. administration ahead of the meeting, Uzbekistan 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.

Prime minister for 13 years, Mirziyoev became acting president after Karimov's death was announced in September 2016. He was then elected president in December 2016.

Mirziyoev has sought to open up Central Asia's most populous country and move away from his predecessor's repressive policies, making changes as part of a bid to attract foreign investment and modernize Uzbekistan's stagnant economy.

Mirziyoev is being accompanied by a sizable delegation of officials and business leaders, who Curtis said intend to sign around $4 billion worth of contracts and business deals with U.S. companies when they visit the U.S. capital.

The Uzbek government has undertaken a marketing blitz in Washington and other Western capitals in recent months, seeking to persuade governments and companies to invest.

Ahead of Mirziyoev's visit, Amnesty International said Trump should push Mirziyoev to "continue and deepen" human rights reforms.

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."

But while Mirziyoev has freed some political prisoners, his administration also has moved to purge many prominent law enforcement and other government officials. That's led some Central Asian experts to caution that his reforms may be aimed in part at enriching Mirziyoev’s political backers and consolidating his power.

Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, 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.

Beyond raising human rights and economic reform, Curtis said the White House will discuss the actions of China and Russia in the Central Asian region during the Uzbek leader's visit.

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 Asia countries should take on more of that burden.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.