Kazakhstan is making major strides in the direction of democracy and President Nazarbayev is leading the charge. Rather than endorse a nationwide referendum that would have extended his term until 2020 (as a sizeable bloc of voters had proposed), he chose to call the election early – two years before his current term expires. He did so in the name of democracy and he should be given credit for doing so.

Nazarbayev welcomed international monitors to oversee the balloting. Those observers were invited to make their own judgments about how free, fair and transparent the elections were. They were invited to see for themselves that Kazakhstan is no longer a nation of repression, but one that is committed to democratic principles. Some observers found substantial evidence of this. Others did not.
 
The nation and its president are being treated unfairly when accounts in the press do not even mention that some observers were excited by the advances that Kazakhstan has made.
 
During his tenure, Nazarbayev has led efforts to move toward a freer and more open system of government. Following the 2004 and 2005 elections, new plans for political reform were meticulously developed and widely debated. Among the proposed changes: an enhanced role for Parliament, new political parties, a freer media and an efficient and transparent judiciary.
 
Then, in 2007, major Constitutional reforms were announced including the election of new political parties in Parliament. That opened a new chapter in Kazakhstan’s ongoing quest for democracy.
 
Progress can be slow and change is rarely achieved overnight. Indeed, Kazakhstan has work to do as it moves toward full democracy.  Kazakhstan is just 20 years removed from its independence from the Soviet Union and it still has a few steps to take to reach the level that mature democracies elsewhere in the world have achieved.
 
But in its brief history as an independent nation, the government of Kazakhstan has granted an extraordinary degree of political freedom to its people. We believe it has an enviable record.
 
Thanks in large measure to the stability of its government, Kazakhstan has achieved prosperity and remarkable economic growth. It has peaceful borders with its neighbors and strong alliances with Russia, China, the U.S. and Europe. It has largely privatized its economy, its citizens have iron-clad property rights and its oil exports are increasing. Since independence, its gross domestic product has risen more than twelve-fold.
 
Kazakhstan has delivered economic opportunities for its middle class. It has created a culture of coexistence and unity, improved its media relations and bolstered its election processes. It approved new laws in 2009 on the media and elections to create a freer and more open, participatory government.
 
The nation has accomplished a lot in recent years and has set a foundation for a vibrant civil society. It has suffered meritless criticism for human rights violations. Critics are flat wrong when they assert that the government has used criminal courts to punish opposition leaders.
 
Take the example of human rights advocate Yevgeni Zhovtis, who was imprisoned after a jury trial for killing a Kazakh citizen with his car. The sentence was within the national averages for incidents of its kind.
 
Opposition party leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev was murdered by culprits who were brought to justice and now are in serving their prison term. The notion that this tragic death was designed to suppress political dissent belies the facts.
 
In addition, the mysterious disappearance of independent newspaper editor Daniyar Moldashev created headlines worldwide but the suggestion that his flight was related to the presidential election is conjecture at best. Just a few days ago, his family announced that they have found him safe and sound, hiding in Minsk, Belarus, for whatever reason.
 
Despite charges to the contrary, Kazakhs have listened to human rights activists and incorporated their ideas into their laws.
 
And the reforms will continue.
 
When President Nazarbayev took the oath of office on April 8, he said he envisioned Kazakhstan as a “modern, strong nation, an equal partner of advanced powers.” He also reiterated his commitment to an “open economy and a full-fledged democracy” and said he would pursue checks and balances in government by “expanding the powers of the Parliament and responsibilities of the government.”
 
Kazakhstan has made real progress in recent years toward a stable and full democracy. More can and should be done. Nazarbayev has vowed to spend the next five years trying to get there and he should be given the chance to deliver.

Encouraging democracy is far better than criticizing the often painful steps along the way.
 
Erlan Idrissov is the Kazakhstan ambassador to the U.S.