Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s upcoming trip to Paris will be his first visit to a European Union leader since being elected in December 2016. Just over two years after the death of former President Islam Karimov, whose 25-year legacy was marred by terrible human rights abuses, French President Emmanuel Macron will have the opportunity during the October 9 visit to send a clear message to Mirziyoyev that to become a trusted partner of Europe, Uzbekistan has to make a meaningful transition to democracy.
Since assuming office, Mirziyoyev has taken modest but meaningful steps to make Uzbekistan less repressive. Dozens of political prisoners, including peaceful political opponents, journalists, and human rights defenders have been released, some restrictions have been lifted on freedom of expression and the media, and Mirziyoyev’s administration has directed government officials to be more accessible to citizens’ complaints. In May, a court in Tashkent released a journalist detained on political charges of “extremism” following allegations he had suffered torture – another sign of progress. Notably, the president has made genuine pledges to eliminate forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector.
But there is a long way to go. The Uzbek government structure remains authoritarian and many promising reforms have yet to be implemented. The security services’ powers are deep and vast, free elections and political pluralism are distant dreams, and there are still thousands of people in prison on politically motivated charges.
Nobody knows how long the spirit of openness in Tashkent will last, nor if its positive steps will translate into lasting change and human rights improvements. But France and other EU states should make clear that these first steps, albeit in the right direction are not enough, and should put Mirziyotev to the test of a genuine democratic path. The Uzbek experience since 2016 has shown that political will can lead to more rights-respecting leadership in Central Asia. Both France and Mirziyoyev should prove to Uzbek citizens that their vision for a brighter future will not stall halfway.