President Donald Trump hoped to open a new era of partnership with Uzbekistan on Wednesday, welcoming the leader of the central Asian state to the White House for talks as the country shows signs of improving its human rights record.
Trump’s aides said he would press President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to go further, allowing more media and political freedom in the country, despite his own threats to revoke press credentials at the White House and his derisive comments about “fake news.”
But Trump eschewed the joint press conference that is typical for a foreign leader visiting the White House. His aides did open his meeting in the Oval Office to cameras, after initially listing it as “closed press” on his schedule.
“It’s a great honor to have the President of Uzbekistan with us. He’s a highly respected man in his country and throughout. We’ve been working very closely together on different things,” Trump said in the Oval Office. He mentioned trade and military equipment sales as areas of cooperation.
Mirziyoyev, following a pattern set by other foreign leaders seeking Trump’s esteem, praised the President’s election victory 15 months ago and his economic record in office.
“You have been achieving very outstanding results on the economic sphere,” he said through a translator, and Trump chimed in to declare: “I agree 100%.”
The US views Uzbekistan as a key potential ally in a region dominated by authoritarian governments and dismal human rights records. Mirziyoyev has released some political prisoners and has granted some media credentials to western outlets, including Voice of America.
But administration officials acknowledge the country remains far from perfect and insisted Trump would press his counterpart to go further in their meeting. In the past, Trump has avoided public discussion of human rights, preferring instead to raise the issues in private, according to White House officials.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, administration officials rejected the notion that Trump has lost standing in pressuring other leaders on press freedoms given his own statements about reporters.
“Certainly the United States has a lot of credibility to be raising the press freedom issues,” said one official, who was speaking anonymously to preview the talks. “The discussion would be missing an important element if US officials did not raise the issue of what’s happening in terms of opening up the media: both acknowledging some of the positive steps…and encouraging further such movement.”
In their talks, Trump was expected to make efforts to cultivate Mirziyoyev as a partner in countering terrorism and boosting security in the region. The country is strategically positioned north of Afghanistan, and the administration hopes to partner more with Tashkent in its ongoing operations there.