ALMATY (Reuters) -- The United States urged Kazakhstan today to use its chairmanship of Europe's main rights and security watchdog to improve its own record.
Rights groups have criticized the West for allowing Kazakhstan to assume the rotating chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010, saying the nation is unfit to lead a group devoted to promoting democracy.
The first ex-Soviet republic to assume the role, Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free and fair. Public criticism of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, in power for 20 years, remains taboo.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, visiting Kazakhstan, told reporters: "We hope that Kazakhstan would continue to strengthen democracy and human rights in Kazakhstan during its chairmanship."
The United States is one of the biggest investors in Kazakhstan, Central Asia's top oil producer, and U.S. support was instrumental in Kazakh efforts to get the OSCE role.
Often a critic of political restrictions in many other transition economies, Washington has traditionally used softer diplomatic language toward Kazakhstan, where U.S. and other foreign oil companies control most energy deposits.
Kazakhstan has chided the OSCE for its strong focus on human rights, saying it would shift attention towards security and economic matters when it takes over.
Blake called for a balanced approach: "We...hope that during the chairmanship of Kazakhstan progress would be made on all three [OSCE] dimensions."
When bidding for the OSCE chair, Kazakhstan promised to liberalize its laws on elections, media, and political parties closer to democratic standards, but critics say reforms have been cosmetic.
Blake said the United States was particularly keen for Kazakhstan to liberalize Internet use after its government this year adopted a bill allowing officials to block websites containing information deemed illegal.