Mirziyoyev comes to Washington after embarking on a tentative agenda to reform one of the world’s most repressive countries since taking power after the 2016 death of dictator Islam Karimov, who had ruled Uzbekistan since it was part of the Soviet Union. The United States has been losing influence in Central Asia after decades of contradictory policies, but an opening in Uzbekistan presents an opportunity to push the country in a new direction and build a more stable and independent region in the process.
Uzbekistan is unlikely to become a democracy anytime soon. But by focusing on improving the social and economic conditions in Uzbekistan, rather than directly promoting democratic politics or narrowly cooperating on counterterrorism, the White House has its best chance since the collapse of the Soviet Union to push for a more liberal Central Asia.
A major focus of Mirziyoyev’s visit is courting U.S. investment in hopes of boosting Uzbekistan’s flagging economy. American business activity in the country is minimal, with most companies turned off by the lackluster investment climate and the legacy of forced and child labor in the cotton industry. The prospect of U.S. investment is a major incentive for the Uzbek leader to stay the course, and the White House should make it clear that upholding the rights of its citizens is the best way to access more economic opportunities. Already, the incentive of closer economic ties with Washington has reaped some rewards. Shortly after Mirziyoyev’s visit was announced last week, Uzbekistan freed an imprisoned opposition activist.
But as a rapprochement with Uzbekistan begins, Trump should be cautious to avoid the mistakes of past administrations. The last time an Uzbek leader came to the White House was when President George W. Bush welcomed Karimov in 2002 in the wake of 9/11. He quickly became an ally in the war on terror, allowing the United States to open an air base and making the country function as a key supply route for the war in Afghanistan. Karimov was one of the most brutal dictators of the 21st century and oversaw a corrupt police state that carried out widespread human rights abuses, allegedly even boiling dissidents alive. Uzbekistan has long grappled with Islamist extremism, but Karimov used counterterrorism as camouflage for a brutal crackdown on dissent.
Eager to maintain its air base and supply routes, the Bush administration turned a blind eye to these abuses until the Andijan massacre in 2005, where Uzbek security forces shot and killed unarmed protesters. Washington criticized the regime’s actions and Tashkent responded by kicking out the United States and closing the air base. Karimov, ever the wily diplomat, used his country’s strategic location to repair ties with the Obama administration, but cooperation was limited to security issues and Uzbekistan remained a pariah in the West.
Uzbekistan’s geography and willingness to work with the U.S. military mean that the war in Afghanistan will always be a part of its relationship with Washington. But as Central Asia’s most populous state and its largest market, a more prosperous Uzbekistan can lessen Moscow and Beijing’s hold of the strategic region. Central Asia will always mean more to powers like Russia and China than it ever will to America: The Kremlin sees the region as part of its sphere of influence and Beijing is using the region as a launching pad for its Belt and Road Initiative. But Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan are still keen to balance China and Russia with the United States. This means that while American influence has subsided, Washington can still play a role in keeping Central Asia from simply being Russia or China’s back yard.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Mirziyoyev. The jury is still out on whether the Uzbek leader is sincere in his reform efforts or if he’s merely trying to attract foreign investment and consolidate his own power at home. As a former prime minister, he’s a product of Karimov’s system and is undoubtedly complicit in some of its abuses. As the two countries shape a new relationship, the United States should call out Uzbekistan for any backsliding on human rights and push for reconciliation measures on the former regime’s injustices.
Progress so far, however, is encouraging, and the prospect of a more open Central Asia is one that Washington should pursue.