President Bush should reaffirm respect for human rights and the rule of law as the centerpiece of U.S. relations with Kazakhstan when he meets with President Nursultan Nazarbaev on Friday, Human Rights Watch said today. In a letter sent last week, Human Rights Watch called on President Bush to urge President Nazarbaev to implement electoral reform.

"Kazakhstan is a key U.S. ally in Central Asia, particularly because of its hydrocarbon reserves" said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division. "But unless Kazakhstan's government addresses its poor record on human rights, it may ultimately prove to be more of a burden to the U.S. than a partner."

President Nazarbaev, who has led Kazakhstan since the late Soviet era, has gone to great lengths to retain power, supported by Kazakh authorities. In 1999, the government manipulated the media and electoral process in order to guarantee President Nazarbaev's reelection and the election of a compliant Parliament. Since then, Kazakh officials have resisted calls for electoral reform, including those made repeatedly by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and have hounded the political opposition. Unidentified thugs have attacked opposition leaders, journalists, and editors. The government also regularly uses criminal and civil defamation suits to silence media outlets critical of government policy or corruption.

In 2001 Transparency International rated Kazakhstan among the twenty most corrupt countries in the world.

"Without a more open political system, the government will feel little need to respond to the needs of its citizens, and corruption and the squandering of the country's vast energy wealth will persist," said Andersen. "Implementing the OSCE's recommendations on electoral reform is a good place to start to restore democracy and transparency."