WASHINGTON — President Trump will welcome President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan to the White House on Wednesday, part of what his aides say is an effort to launch a new era of partnership with a country that is making its first fitful turns away from authoritarianism.
Mr. Trump plans to raise issues of human rights and press freedoms, according to senior administration officials who previewed the visit on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be identified in discussing it.
Administration officials described the meeting as a calculated effort to forge an early alliance with a former Soviet state in a strategically vital location north of Afghanistan in order to encourage its recent moves toward greater political and economic openness. These officials said they had a window of opportunity to prod Uzbekistan — a rare bright spot of change in a region rife with repression — toward greater progress and closer cooperation with the United States.
They said Mr. Trump also would use the meeting to press Uzbekistan to support American operations in Afghanistan, develop closer security ties with the nation, improve cooperation on combating terrorist threats in Central Asia and boost the country’s efforts to diversify and expand its economy.
The officials conceded that Uzbekistan, which is in the midst of what some observers have called an Uzbek Spring following the death 18 months ago of its iron-fisted leader, Islam Karimov, still has a long way to go in improving its human rights record.
But they praised Mr. Mirziyoyev for releasing political prisoners, eliminating systematic child labor and loosening controls on the press, including the release last week of Bobomurod Abdullaev, a freelance journalist who was detained in September by Uzbekistan’s National Security Service. Mr. Abdullaev’s wife and lawyer have said he was tortured before being charged with “conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional regime.”
Three days after Mr. Abdullaev’s release, the White House announced that Mr. Mirziyoyev would be making a “historic” visit to meet with Mr. Trump. This week, administration officials also said they counted it as a good sign that Uzbekistan granted credentials to the Voice of America, a United States-government news outlet. But the Uzbek government is still tightly restricting press access; on Monday, it denied a visa to a New York Times reporter who had been invited by the Nukus Museum, which houses an important collection of Russian art there.
Hours before the meeting on Wednesday, the White House announced that news media would be allowed to witness part of the Oval Office session between the two presidents, which was initially scheduled to be closed to the press. But the leaders were not planning to hold a news conference to field questions from reporters, as foreign leaders typically do when visiting the American president.
American officials said the administration will push the Uzbek government during the visit to drop restrictions on the right of religious groups to assemble, a point that will be pressed at the meeting by Sam Brownback, the American ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
Human rights groups see the visit as an opportunity for the Trump administration and Congress to pressure Uzbekistan to release thousands more political prisoners and overhaul its laws and legal system, scrapping charges of “extremism” that have been used to punish dissenters.
“We are heartened to see the release of long-held activists,” Nadejda Atayeva, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, said in a statement released by a dozen human rights groups in advance of the visit. “To ensure lasting change, the repressive legal framework used to persecute and imprison peaceful activists and religious believers on ill-defined charges of extremism for so many years should be changed for good.”