NUR-SULTAN -- U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan William Moser says Washington is "strongly encouraging" Kazakhstan's government to improve the human rights situation in the Central Asian country.
Kazakhstan's longstanding ruler, Nursultan Nazarbaev, stepped down as president in March but still holds considerable sway as leader of the ruling Nur Otan party and the chairman of the country's security council.
Opponents, critics, and rights groups say Nazarbaev, who tolerated little dissent, denied many citizens basic rights and prolonged his hold on power in the energy-rich country of 18.7 million by manipulating the democratic process.
Nazarbaev's successor, President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, was elected in a snap poll in June. No vote held in Kazakhstan since 1991 has been deemed free and democratic by international observers.
"We talk to the [Kazakh] government continually about human rights," Moser told RFE/RL in an interview.
"It is one of the most important issues on our bilateral agenda. And, as I have just said, we are working with the government of President Toqaev and this is one area where we are encouraging strongly that the government take the necessary reforms to improve the human rights situation in the country."
Moser pointed to the need to relax the rules on the right of assembly. Last month, dozens of people from across Kazakhstan held single-person protests in Nur-Sultan against what they called unjust court rulings.
The men and women picketed the government’s building on September 9, accusing the government of reluctance to look into their demands.
Representatives of the city administration arrived at the site and called the pickets "illegal" even though single-person protests do not require official permission.
"One example I will think that is a concrete example is the discussion of a new law on the right of assembly," Moser said.
"And a law that broadens the rights of assembly and protects this fundamental right will go a long way toward improving the human rights situation in the country."
Protests over social issues, low incomes, police and court abuses, and poor living conditions have increased in recent months in the Central Asian nation after five children from one family died when their home in the capital burned down in early February.
Asked about the apparent division of the centers of power between Toqaev and Nazarbaev, Moser said, "For us (the United States) -- we don't see any other real power center in the country [other than President Toqaev's]."
The U.S. envoy also pointed to Washington's support for Kazakhstan's efforts toward nuclear nonproliferation.
Kazakhstan inherited 1,400 nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union, but transferred them all to Russia by 1995 and has since signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"We have spent over $840 million [in Kazakhstan] on nuclear nonproliferation issues and over $200 million on biological threat reduction -- both parts of the agreements made in the 1990s," Moser said.
"It's because of Kazakhstan becoming a responsible actor on the world stage that Kazakhstan has made a significant contribution to making the world safer."
Moser also called on the government of the energy-rich Central Asian country to diversify its economy to offset the negative impact of energy price fluctuations, pointing to the prospects of agricultural development.
"There has been broad benefit from the oil and gas wealth, but we really do support the efforts of the [Kazakh] government to continue its program of economic diversification, because we realize that oil wealth, the petroleum wealth cannot be the only basis for the economy," Moser said.
"It needs to be a much broader wealth basis based on other sectors. And that's one reason why we are so excited about the developments in agriculture."