German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier likes to travel to countries he believes are on a path to reform. He contends that the extra international attention reinforces the process. For this reason, according to his aides, he is visiting Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous country, on May 27-29.
Steinmeier, a former foreign minister, will be among the most senior Western politicians to visit the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in September 2016. Despite making significant strides since then, the Uzbek government is still highly authoritarian. The powers of the security services remain vast and there are persistent reports that arbitrary detention, torture, and other ill-treatment in custody are widespread.
Steinmeier is right that there have been some positive changes. Mirziyoyev has recognized that greater respect for human rights is a necessary part of the country’s strategy for tackling its dire economic problems, ending Uzbekistan’s deep isolation under the previous president, and gaining international support. The German president should welcome this but stress these are small steps on a long road.
After the early euphoria around the “Tashkent spring” under Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan’s reforms need to enter a new phase. The many new laws and decrees enacted and upbeat soundbites for international audiences should translate into real improvements that people experience in their daily lives.
The Uzbek government should make the operating principles of democracy and human rights work, for instance, by allowing local and international nongovernmental organizations to register and function, journalists to report freely, religious believers to engage in their peaceful religious practice, judges to make independent decisions in court, and former political prisoners access to justice and redress for past abuses.
This new phase is starting, if in a faltering way. Ahead of Steinmeier’s visit, Uzbek authorities unblocked access to several websites in the country, including Deutsche Welle. Yet some, including Ozodlik, the Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe, remain blocked. The government’s efforts to create a positive atmosphere for Steinmeier’s visit would be more convincing if it allowed its citizens completely open access to the internet.
Germany is invested in supporting Uzbekistan’s reforms, and Tashkent is very keen on Germany’s backing. This gives Steinmeier leverage to make clear what Germany expects in phase two of the country’s new era – and to calibrate its support accordingly.