ASTANA (Reuters) - Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed U.S. interests in Kazakhstan on Monday in talks with veteran leader Nursultan Nazarbayev who has lured huge Western investments to his Central Asian state while keeping it in Moscow's political orbit.
Kerry is touring ex-Soviet Central Asia to underline Washington's continued commitment to the energy-rich region amid a drawdown in U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a more assertive Russia and the emergence of the Islamic State militant threat.
Of the five ex-Soviet Central Asian states, only Kazakhstan, a vast steppe nation of 18 million people with big international investments in its oil and gas sectors, has emerged as stable and prosperous, though it brooks no democratic opposition.
Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan with an iron grip since 1989, two years before the demise of the Soviet Union. He has displayed a knack for complex geopolitical maneuvering and has built good ties both with neighboring Russia and China and with the United States and European Union.
"President (Barack) Obama is very appreciative of your leadership on the (nuclear) non-proliferation issue, for countering violent extremism, cooperation vis-a-vis Afghanistan and counter-Daesh (Islamic State)," Kerry told Nazarbayev.
"We have a very strong set of security interests."
Nazarbayev was the first leader to renounce nuclear weapons that had been part of the Soviet Union's arsenal. He has earned further favor with the Obama administration by establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone in Central Asia and advocating further nuclear arms reductions around the world.
However, Washington has concerns over human rights and democracy in Kazakhstan, though Kerry was expected to avoid public criticism and only to raise the concerns in private.
The Obama administration believes Kazakhstan can be a regional role model if it undertakes genuine political reforms, though Nazarbayev - who won re-election in April with more than 90 percent of the vote - has shown little interest in that.
Speaking to students at Nazarbayev University in the Kazakh capital Astana on Monday, Kerry touched on the theme of democracy without naming any specific countries. "Elections matter little if they are not free and fair, with all political parties competing on a level playing field," he said.
Kerry also urged Central Asian governments not to use fears of extremism as an excuse to crack down on all forms of dissent.
"We have to understand that the terrorist presence doesn’t give authorities a license to use violence indiscriminately," Kerry said. "And terrorism is not a legitimate excuse to lock up political opponents, diminish the rights of civil society or pin a false label on activists who are engaged in peaceful dissent."
Nazarbayev justifies his tight hold on power by saying it provides stability in an ethnically diverse country whose population includes Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars and ethnic Germans and has averted the shocks that have led to turmoil in some other former Soviet nations.
The Kazakh leader told Kerry he valued strong economic ties with the United States, which he said was the largest foreign investor with about 500 companies operating in the country.
U.S. companies have plowed some $21 billion of investments into Kazakhstan since it won independence from Moscow in 1991 and bilateral trade stood at $2.4 billion in 2014.
"We'd like to continue this cooperation," Nazarbayev said.
Some U.S. officials have expressed concern that Nazarbayev is too close to Russia's President Vladimir Putin, but say they also understand the pressures Nazarbayev faces in dealing with his giant northern neighbor.
A senior official traveling with Kerry said Kazakhstan, like other Central Asian countries, "does not want to have an adversarial or confrontational relationship with Russia, nor would we want them to".
Kerry struck a similarly pragmatic note in his speech when talking about economic cooperation.
"Economic integration is not a zero-sum game. To succeed does not mean that somebody has to lose and somebody has to gain," he said.
"Trade from the north to the south can support trade from the east and west, linking Eurasia with markets in Europe and China. And the United States fully encourages Central Asian nations to develop the broadest range of partners you can."
Additional reporting by Olzhas Auyezov in Almaty; Editing by Gareth Jones