U.S. President Donald Trump and Uzbekistan's reformist leader, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, met Wednesday at the White House, with security in central Asia, the fight against terrorism, trade deals and human rights in Uzbekistan high on the agenda.
Mirziyoyev, in power for 20 months after the death of his country's long-time autocrat, Islam Karimov, is talking with Trump in the Oval Office and then over lunch, part of his three-day visit to the United States for meetings with other American officials and leaders at the World Bank.
The 60-year-old Uzbek leader wants to attract more American corporate investment in his predominantly Muslim country of 32 million people. Ahead of Mirziyoyev's meeting with Trump, White House officials said Uzbek officials signed 20 business deals worth $4.8 billion, enough to support more than 10,000 American jobs.
Senior White House officials said that Uzbekistan, a one-time Soviet republic, has "played an important role over the past several years" in helping to sustain U.S. military operations in neighboring Afghanistan but that the U.S. is not looking to base American forces in Uzbekistan.
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A senior Trump administration official, briefing reporters a day ahead of Trump's talks with Mirziyoyev, said the U.S. wants to "see how we can improve cooperation against common terrorist threats," which the official described as "critical in securing America and our friends in the region."
The official said the U.S. wants greater economic ties with Uzbekistan, saying that "securing market access to a young and growing regional population opens business opportunities" for American companies.
The senior White House official said the U.S. welcomes Mirziyoyev's release of prisoners of conscience, curbs on child labor and its recent accreditation of a Voice of America journalist to report news from Uzbekistan.
One of the Trump officials said several memorandums of cooperation between the U.S. and Uzbekistan would be signed related to agriculture, climate change, trade and education.
Kudos from rights groups
Human Rights Watch has credited Mirziyoyev with releasing 28 political prisoners and just days ago freeing Fahriddin Tillaev, an opposition and human rights activist who had been imprisoned for more than four years in what activists said was a politically motivated detention.
Last Sunday, a group of Uzbek human rights activists laid a floral wreath at a statue in the center of Tashkent, the country's capital. It commemorated the 13th anniversary of the massacre of 400 civilians, all of them shot to death by the military during an anti-government protest, allegedly on orders of the late strongman, Karimov.
To Human Rights Watch investigator Steve Swerdlow, that simple act of humanity — the laying of the wreath — shows that change for the better is afoot in Uzbekistan.
"For the first time, they weren't arrested," he said this week in Washington. "This was a significant event from our perspective."
The Trump administration official said the White House is "cautiously optimistic" about events in Uzbekistan.
"This is a window of opportunity," the official said. "We believe it's important to try to work with this government and encourage the kinds of steps that we have been ... so that we can encourage more change, more openness, so that Uzbekistan serves as an example for the rest of the Central Asia region."
Ahead of Mirziyoyev's visit, Javlon Vakhabov, Uzbekistan's ambassador to Washington, told a forum on the state of Uzbek affairs, "There is tremendous landmark change occurring in Uzbekistan, on human rights, good governance and the rule of law."
"Our ultimate goal is a full-fledged democracy, with a robust market economy," he declared. "There is a spirit of change everywhere in Uzbekistan. The country is opening up to the world."
Vakhabov said the country is "now at the beginning of a long journey" toward more freedom, the easing of restrictions on freedom of religion and ending forced child labor.
"We're strongly committed to end torture and other crude and degrading means of punishment," Vakhabov said.