ALMATY (Reuters) - The United States on Tuesday condemned Kazakhstan's move to extend the rule of veteran leader Nursultan Nazarbayev to 2020, bypassing a 2012 election, and said this would be a blow to democracy.
"We believe a national referendum that would replace the presidential elections guaranteed by Kazakhstan's constitution would be a setback for democracy in Kazakhstan," the U.S. government said in a statement.
"We think that it is important that Kazakhstan's government and citizens honor their international commitments and continue to strive for free and fair elections," it added in a statement published by the U.S. embassy in Kazakhstan.
President Nazarbayev's administration could not be immediately reached for comment.
Kazakhstan's compliant parliament appealed to Nazarbayev last week to call a referendum that would extend his more than 20-year rule by almost another decade.
The appeal was made shortly after a so-called "people's initiative" began collecting signatures to stage such a referendum. Supporters and opponents expect the plebiscite could be held as soon as March.
The 70-year-old leader must approve such a step, which would allow him to avoid an election that would have been due in 2012.
Under Kazakh law, a referendum can be proposed either by parliament or by the public through petitions which require 200,000 signatures.
Analysts say Nazarbayev, who has tightly controlled the Central Asian state since the Soviet era ended in 1991, will have little difficulty securing victory.
In 2009 Kazakhstan became the first ex-Soviet republic to hold the rotating chair of the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
In December, Nazarbayev hosted an OSCE summit with pomp, proudly presenting his new capital Astana to the world.
But Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship was marred by strong criticism by human rights bodies of its backtracking on democratic reforms. The steppe nation has also never held an election judged free or fair by international observers.
A former steelworker who rose to become a member of the Soviet Communist Party Politburo, Nazarbayev announced in September that he would seek a new term in a 2012 election.
The referendum idea, given blanket coverage by the state-controlled mass media, has enraged the opposition, which sees it as a tried and tested legal loophole masterminded by Nazarbayev's inner circle to sidestep an honest election.
In 1995, Nazarbayev called and easily won a referendum on extending his term to 2000 from 1996, following an initiative proposed by an advisory body comprising ethnic minorities.
Known as "Papa" to Kazakhs, he has overseen more than $150 billion in foreign investment, mainly in oil, gas and metals. Kazakhstan also has the world's largest uranium reserves and is home to the world's biggest oil discovery in 40 years.
(Reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva; writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Mark Heinrich)
Source: Reuters US Online Report World News