By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, May 22 (Reuters) - The United States said on Tuesday it saw amendments to Kazakhstan’s constitution as a move in the right direction even though the oil-rich nation’s president is now allowed to remain in office for life.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said many other political reforms were in the amendments aside from letting President Nursultan Nazarbayev stay in office for life, a move criticized strongly by the country’s opposition and human rights groups.
"It’s a step -- ultimately, when you look at the balance of these things -- in the right direction," McCormack said, when asked to comment on the reforms.
Other amendments include raising the number of parliamentary deputies and letting parliament play a bigger role in picking the prime minister of Kazakhstan, a nation central to U.S. and European Union plans to diversify energy supplies to bypass Russia.
But Tom Malinowski, advocacy director for the group Human Rights Watch, called the amendments a "major step backwards" for rule of law and democracy in Kazakhstan.
"The United States can have a perfectly good relationship with Kazakhstan while at the same time being honest in its assessment of democracy there. There is no need to sugarcoat it," Malinowski said.
When pressed, McCormack conceded the political reforms were not "exactly what we would have hoped" but added: "They are going to have to deal with these issues on their own terms. We’re not going to impose it on them."
Nazarbayev has been in power for 17 years and the opposition has long accused the 66-year-old of trying to tighten his grip over most aspects of life in Kazakhstan.
The opposition has also accused the West of putting Kazakhstan’s oil resources before democracy. When restrictions were imposed on the media last year, Washington offered a weak rebuke of the action.
U.S. oil firms have invested heavily in Kazakhstan, which is expected to join the top 10 oil producers in a decade.
Last year, President George W. Bush hosted Nazarbayev at the White House, seeking to bolster ties with a country that also lent Washington support over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The reforms are aimed at opening the way for Kazakhstan to take over the rotating chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009.
The United States has not yet publicly supported that bid and is waiting to see what reforms are enacted before making a final decision.
Kazakhstan expert Martha Brill Olcott, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the U.S. response to the amendments was pragmatic and aimed at encouraging its ally to move forward on reforms.
"The U.S. does not want to be prematurely pushed into deciding whether they are willing to let Kazakhstan chair the OSCE in 2009. That is the driver for all these reforms," she said.