Austria’s Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl said on November 22 that the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan has shown significant improvement in its human rights record over the last two years after Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev began implementing key reforms aimed at liberalising what had been one of the most oppressive and closed countries in the world under its previous president, Islam Karimov.

“We have seen a release of most of the detainees who have been on the EU list of prisoners of concern. I am aware of one person who is left on that list, and it would be definitely very helpful if these lists were no longer needed and if all individuals released were fully rehabilitated,” said Kneissl after her meeting with with Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov following the completion of the EU-Uzbek Cooperation Council meeting in Brussels.

Kneissl said the European Union “will do its utmost to support the very ambitious reform programme” that the Uzbek government under Mirziyoyev has launched.

Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016 following Karimov’s death after the latter had been in power since early 1989 when he rose to become the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in what was then the Uzbek SSR.

Following the Soviet collapse in 1991, Karimov turned what had been one of the Soviet Union’s wealthiest and most populated republics into a virtual hermit kingdom as he oversaw the mass exodus of Uzbekistan’s large Russian-speaking population and sealed off access to the country’s lucrative cotton, agriculture, and mineral reserves, while at the same time building one of the world’s most repressive regimes and accumulating vast amounts of wealth in the process.

Karimov established a short-lived working relationship with the United States in the wake of the George W. Bush administration’s launch of the war in Afghanistan. As the northern neighbour of Afghanistan and the original staging point of the 1979 Soviet invasion of the volatile Central Asian nation, Karimov was quick to side with Washington in order divert attention from Uzbekistan’s atrocious human rights record and to benefit financially from the US’ use of the strategically located Khanabad Airbase in southern Uzbekistan. The base had previously been home to one of the largest Soviet air wings in Central Asia during the Cold War and was a key cog in the early days of the Americans’ campaign against the Afghan Taliban.

In May 2005, however, Karimov had his security services open fire on a crowd of protestors in the Uzbek city of Andijan after they demanded better living conditions. Up to 1,500 people were killed, which left Karimov an international pariah, with his close ties to the Kremlin as his only connection to the outside world.

Mirziyoyev has made a concerted effort to move away from the brutally oppressive, isolationist policies of Karimov, going so far as to dismiss Rustam Inoyatov, Karimov’s powerful and excessively brutal former head of the state security services who had been blacklisted by the European Union and the US for his human rights violations.

While reforms are still in their embryonic stages, Mirziyoyev’s hope of attracting foreign investment and tourism to help jumpstart Uzbekistan’s potentially promising economy has been boosted by his visits to Paris and Washington over the last year, both which appear to be early signs that he is on his way towards forging closer ties with the West and to helping Uzbekistan finally turn the corner towards a better way forward.