WASHINGTON — U.S. officials see this week’s visit of Uzbekistan President Shavkhat Mirziyoev as a chance to urge the Central Asian leader to restart stronger U.S.-Uzbek military ties, play a critical role in finding peace in Afghanistan and to continue reforming human rights.
The full agenda is critical to what the U.S. sees as strengthening the balance in a part of the world still in flux and trapped between the superpowers of Russia and China, senior administration officials said Tuesday.
“We recognize that central Asia is a growing region, a rising force in Eurasia,” one senior official told reporters. “The U.S. goal is a strong independent and integrated Central Asia.”
Three senior administrations officials briefed reporters on Mirziyoev’s visit Tuesday. The rules of the briefing were the officials were not to be identified by name and all material could not be published until Wednesday.
Mirziyoev arrived Tuesday and has his first meetings with President Trump on Wednesday. It is the first time since 2002 that an Uzbek president made an official visit to the United States.
In a March report, Human Rights Watch said Uzbekistan’s media environment is one of censorship and oppression, and that human rights abuses include torture, arbitrary detention and criminal prosecutions for political purposes.”Uzbekistan also remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International.
Atop a full agenda will be discussions of seemingly ingrained problems of child labor and forced adult labor, press freedom, religious harassment and violations of human rights, the officials said.
However, they were clear in noting that Mirziyoev “has made great strides” since he became ruler of Uzbekistan after the death of long-time president and autocrat Islam Karimov.-
“We are looking to launch a new era of partnerships (on Wednesday),” one senior official told reporters. “It’s long overdue to refresh and rewind this partnership. It is not just about security by any stretch of the imagination. A huge focus on our presence in the region, having an enduring presence and enough of some of the movement we have seen in human rights.”
One such step was the release of a human rights activist, Fahriddin Tillaev, on May 12. He had been in jail for more than four years in what human rights groups said was political repression.
One of the senior officials said that the White House hopes to use the visit to provide “encouragement and influence early so we can see more momentum with his reform program.
“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.
Mirziyoev was prime minister of Uzbekistan for 13 years. He became acting president after Karimov’s death was announced in September 2016, then elected president in December 2016.
He has tried to open up Central Asia’s most populous country and attract foreign investment. The senior officials briefing reporters said they expect about $4 billion worth of contracts and business deals to be signed with U.S. companies during the visit, benefiting at least 10,000 U.S. jobs.
The U.S. officials said they were also encouraged by Mirziyoev’s efforts to encourage and facilitate peace talks in Afghanistan, which borders Uzbekistan to the south.
In March, Uzbekistan offered to host peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. That offer followed talks in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, with representatives of more than 20 countries and organizations who declared support for direct talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban to end the war.
Uzbekistan played a key role in early stages of the post 9-11 conflicting Afghanistan, permitting the U.S. to use an air base as the key supply hub into Afghanistan.
The senior officials said the U.S. does not expect nor is seeking a return of U.S. forces to Uzbekistan but only to “enhance military to military cooperation” over the next five years.
“I would say that we are cautiously optimistic, optimistically cautious,” one of the senior officials said. “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.