ASTANA, Kazakhstan (AP) — Kazakhstan's long-serving prime minister said Friday that his Central Asian country will move gradually toward greater political liberalization and downplayed international criticism of this week's parliamentary election.
Karim Masimov spoke shortly after newly elected deputies assembled for the first time since the election that saw the ruling Nur Otan party's control of the Majlis, or lower house, fall from 100 percent to 89 percent.
Deputies from three parties were sworn in at an official ceremony overseen by the oil-rich former Soviet nation's powerful veteran president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe expressed substantial misgivings over the conduct of Sunday's election, saying the vote count lacked transparency.
Masimov said in an interview with The Associated Press that he respected the views of the OSCE and that Kazakhstan would continue working to improve standards.
"For the next election we will make the necessary steps to be close to international standards, but at the same time I, as the prime minister, strongly believe that we did have free-and-fair elections," he said, speaking in English.
Nur Otan's commanding victory in the elections gave it control of 83 of the lower house's 107 seats. The pro-business Ak Zhol and the People's Communist Party have eight and seven deputies, respectively. Nine deputies were appointed by a presidential advisory body.
The more militant wings of the opposition insist they have been denied a fair attempt at gaining even a foothold in parliament.
In its first session, parliament reconfirmed Masimov as prime minister, putting an end to speculation that Nazarbayev might appoint a new head of government.
Masimov has held the country's No. 2 post since 2007, making him the longest-serving prime minister since Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991.
An urbane polyglot with a command of several languages — including English, Chinese and Turkish — Masimov is liked by international investors and widely credited with steering the country through a downturn caused by the global economic crisis.
Masimov said political reforms are necessary if Kazakhstan is to further grow its economy, which has expanded at a robust pace over the past decade, with a brief interlude during the height of the crisis.
The government's oft-stated aim is for the country to shed its reputation as a middling economy dependent on its low labor costs and oil, gas and mineral exports for growth.
Masimov said authorities will soon look to give more power to local authorities in Kazakhstan — a sparsely populated nation of 17 million that spans an area almost four times the size of Texas and shares long borders with China and Russia.
"In a few months we will make a concrete proposal how to advance forward," he said.
Kazakhstan is still reeling from a rare outburst of discontent and violence in December in the western oil town of Zhanaozen. A protest by oil workers who had been fired after striking for better pay degenerated into clashes with police who opened fire. At least 16 people were killed, and the bloodshed set off a riot in another town where police killed one person.
The discontent underlying that violence highlighted the risk of economic stagnation in some regions stemming from excess dependence on the energy sector.
Masimov said Zhanaozen would serve as a lesson to avoid a similar outcomes in other one-industry towns.