Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as he wrapped up the first official U.S. visit by an Uzbek head of state since 2002.
No official information was immediately released about the Washington meeting, which came a day after a White House statement proclaimed a "new era of strategic partnership" between the two countries following a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Uzbek counterpart.
Trump "recognized Uzbekistan's tremendous progress on important political, economic, and social reforms" since Mirziyoev took over the country's presidency in 2016, the statement said.
It also quoted the Uzbek president as telling Trump that progress made so far on improving human rights in the Central Asian country is "irreversible."
The statement said Mirziyoev has a "Five-Year Strategy of Action" that "promotes good governance, judicial reform and rule of law, economic liberalization, social development, and an open and constructive foreign policy."
The two leaders also recommitted to working together to fight terrorism and promote peace, stability, and economic development in Afghanistan. Mirziyoev said he offered his "full support" for Trump's new strategy on Afghanistan.
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On economic issues, Mirziyoev announced that Uzbekistan was seeking to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), and Trump said the United States would provide the Central Asian country with technical assistance as it continues efforts to liberalize its trade and economic policies to bring them in line with WTO standards.
The State Department said Uzbek and U.S. officials signed two bilateral agreements in the field of education during Mirziyoev’s visit.
Mirziyoev, 60, has sought to open up Central Asia's most populous country and move away from the oppressive policies of his predecessor, longtime ruler Islam Karimov, making changes as part of a bid to attract foreign investment and improve Uzbekistan's stagnant economy.
For Trump, the Uzbek leader's visit was 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.
Prime minister for 13 years, Mirziyoev became interim president after Karimov's death was announced in September 2016. He was then elected president in a tightly controlled vote in December 2016.
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. It came as Tashkent was also undertaking a marketing blitz in Washington to attract more foreign investment.
While Uzbekistan has made significant strides forward under Mirziyoev, White House officials said they would like to see further progress remedying 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 senior 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.