Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

UZBEKISTAN HAS a reputation — dismally earned by its long-time leader, Islam Karimov, who died last year — for torturing and incarcerating opposition critics, journalists and others. Mr. Karimov's iron-fisted 27-year rule largely wiped out independent media and civil society. So it is encouraging to hear that President Shavkat Mirziyoyev may be changing direction. In Central Asia's most populous nation, human rights have been in the basement; the only way to go is up.

Mr. Mirziyoyev, who took office in 2016, quietly and gingerly began a modest liberalization. He has released at least 16 political prisoners; tolerated more free expression on broadcast talk shows; relaxed notorious forced labor for the cotton harvest; removed citizens from a "blacklist" kept by the security services; set up a chain of presidential offices to hear citizen complaints; moved to strengthen judicial independence; and promised to eliminate by 2019 the exit visa, an onerous relic of Soviet times. "This is a real moment of hope for the human rights of the Uzbek people," Human Rights Watch concluded in a recent report documenting these and other changes. Some have been calling it an Uzbek spring, or thaw.

At the very least, it is a dawn. Mr. Mirziyoyev clearly needs foreign investment and may well want to put behind him the awful legacy of his predecessor, under whom he served for 13 years as prime minister.

Uzbekistan is still governed as a police state. The authorities released five long-held prisoners over a short span in October, raising expectations, but then arrested an author and a journalist on new charges. Thousands are still held in Uzbekistan's prisons on dubious political charges. According to the report, "Grave abuses such as torture, politically motivated imprisonment, and forced labor in the cotton fields remain widespread." Uzbekistan continues to severely restrict the independence of lawyers and journalists and puts burdensome regulations on nongovernmental organizations. One human rights activist, who monitors religious freedom and civil and political rights, told Human Rights Watch he had tried for seven years without success to get legal registration, including during Mr. Mirziyoyev's presidency. A human rights activist, Elena Urlaeva, was forced in March to stay in a psychiatric hospital for nearly a month in retaliation for her work. The head of the domestic intelligence agency, who took harsh measures under Mr. Karimov, remains in office.

In a society long frozen by a tyrant at the top, reversing course can be agonizing, and a certain amount of patience is warranted. What matters is Mr. Mirziyoyev's intended destination for Uzbekistan. Does he want to enable a free society that might choose its own leader and, perhaps, speak out against him? Or is this just a cynical gambit, enough to polish the image of Uzbekistan among foreign investors, but without seriously challenging Mr. Mirziyoyev's grip on power? He might be eyeing China or Russia as a model — personal authoritarianism welded onto state capitalism — in which case the latest opening should be greeted with caution.