A White House visit by a Central Asian ruler presents an opportunity for renewed U.S. leadership on democracy and human rights.
U.S. president Donald Trump will welcome President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan to the White House on January 16. Although the reported agenda for the meeting includes discussion of topics ranging from regional security and economic cooperation to nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, one crucial topic seems to be missing: human rights.
Washington has maintained a partnership with Kazakhstan due to its role in combating violent extremism and because it is arguably the most prosperous, secure, and stable country in Central Asia. But this status will not endure beyond Nazarbayev’s presidency unless it is guaranteed by democratic principles like respect for human rights and the rule of law, both of which are lacking in Kazakhstan.
Although Nazarbayev refers to his country as a young democracy, it is in fact a consolidated authoritarian state whose leader has been in office since it gained independence in 1991. The president chairs the ruling Nur Otan party, which controls both houses of parliament; the only other parties with parliamentary seats also support the government. Genuine opposition parties are not allowed to register or operate.
Kazakhstani authorities regularly restrict the most important tools of democracy by banning independent media and bringing criminal charges against peaceful protesters, bloggers, social media users, and civic activists. Torture is reportedly widespread in the country. In 2017, authorities liquidated the Confederation of…