Tashkent (AFP) -
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday pressed Uzbekistan to expand rights and investigate abuses as it pursues nascent reforms, on a trip to woo Central Asia amid tensions with Russia.
A day after joining counterparts from all five former Soviet republics in Central Asia in Kazakhstan, Blinken held talks in Uzbekistan, with US officials seeing the two countries as especially eager for closer ties.
Blinken met Uzbekistan's President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and discussed the economic, as well as limited political reforms, that he has pledged since succeeding the autocratic Islam Karimov in 2016.
The top US diplomat hailed Mirziyoyev's efforts to address forced and child labour in cotton harvests.
'It's a model for countries around the world facing similar challenges,' Blinken told a news conference.
'We look forward to working with the government to promote similar efforts in other sectors as well as fully implementing the president's reform agenda,' he said.
'That includes delivering on commitments to defend religious freedom and press freedoms and strengthen protections for vulnerable populations,' Blinken said.
- Human rights -
Blinken said he spoke to Mirziyoyev about human rights as well as a controversial proposal for constitutional reform that could prolong the president's time in office.
Blinken said that he also raised last year's deadly unrest that was sparked by a proposed reform that would have undermined autonomy in the impoverished Karakalpakstan region. The violence prompted a rare backtracking by Mirziyoyev.
He said he highlighted the importance of investigating abuses by law enforcement officers and 'holding accountable those responsible.'
Foreign Minister Bakhtiyor Saidov, meeting Blinken earlier in the day, cast the trip as a sign of support for the reforms which he said were aimed at 'ensuring good governance, rule of law, human rights.'
Blinken also hailed Uzbekistan's support in Afghanistan. The country has played a key role supporting the United States since the 2001 invasion as well as after the 2021 withdrawal.
Mirziyoyev last month said that officials were pressing him 'to restrain the media, but I'll never do this.'
But rights groups say the media is still heavily controlled despite some loosening, and that critics of the government still face jail.
- 'Enthuasiatic' -
Blinken a day earlier pledged another $25 million to help reduce Central Asia's economic dependence on Russia, which has long been the dominant player in the region but whose invasion of Ukraine has rattled other former Soviet republics.
With Uzbekistan, Blinken said he saw a 'mutual and enthusiastic commitment' to expanding relations with Washington.
In Tashkent, Blinken toured a university where US funding is backing instruction in English -- part of Washington's push to expand connections with Central Asia.
Blinken said US support has trained some 10,000 English-language teachers in Uzbekistan.
'One of the realities now in this moment in history -- and it was different before and it will probably be different in the future -- but at least right now, English is probably the international language,' Blinken told students as he described his own experience learning French.
Pointing to the English language's role in business and the internet, Blinken said, 'In many ways, English is the most important export from the United States to other countries.'