WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump has held talks with Uzbek counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoev in the White House, as the Central Asian leader looks to raise the profile of a country long isolated by the repressive rule of his predecessor.
The May 16 meeting marked the first time since 2002 that an Uzbek president has made an official visit to the United States.
Mirziyoev's visit comes as he 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.
Before the start of the talks in the Oval Office, Trump described his Uzbek counterpart as "a highly respected man in his country and throughout."
He told journalists that the two countries have been "working very closely together" on trade and the military, citing Uzbekistan's "purchase of equipment and military equipment from the United States."
However, he made no public comments on the issue of human rights or democracy in Uzbekistan.
Mirziyoev called his meeting with Trump "historic," and hailed a "new era of a strategic partnership" between the two countries.
"We have been able to sign contracts and agreements with the leading U.S. countries worth $5 billion," he said, without providing details.
The Uzbek leader also congratulated Trump for what he called his "historic" tax reform and the “creation of new jobs.”
"This is the result of your personal work for the benefit of the American people," Mirziyoev added, before Trump replied, "I agree 100 percent."
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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.
"I would say that we are cautiously optimistic, optimistically cautious," a senior White House official said on condition of anonymity ahead of the meeting, calling it a "window of opportunity."
"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.
The United States wants to "provide that encouragement and influence early so we can see more momentum with his reform program," the official added.
"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.
Prime minister for 13 years under Karimov, Mirziyoev became interim president after his death was announced in September 2016. He was then elected president in a tightly controlled vote in December.
Uzbekistan “has made great strides” since Mirziyoev came to power, Lisa Curtis, who oversees Central and South Asian affairs at the White House National Security Council, said on May 14.
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.
“It's critical that basic human rights and freedoms are guaranteed,” the official said.
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.
In recent months, Mirziyoev has taken steps to reform the long-feared security services in the former Soviet republic, and several activists and journalists have been freed after years in prison.
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.
Global human rights groups are calling on Mirzyoev to take his reforms further --- and urging Trump to press him for more change.
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
Ahead of Mirziyoev's visit, Amnesty International said Trump should push the Uzbek leader 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."
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.
They cited politically motivated imprisonment, torture, internet censorship, and a lack of competitive electoral processes in Uzbekistan as “egregious rights abuses” that remain to be addressed.
“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.
In parallel with signs of a timid thaw in repression, Mirziyoev's administration has also moved to purge many prominent law enforcement and other government officials.
Experts Urge Caution
That has 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.
Beyond raising human rights and economic reform, Curtis said the White House will discuss China's and Russia’s actions 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 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 hundreds 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.”
Asked about the role of Russia and China in Central Asia, the official also said that the United States should not been seen as a competitor with Russia or China for influence in the region.
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."