A fervid city cleanup occurred in the western Kazakh city of Atyrau ahead of a visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who arrived in the city on June 30 at the start of a two-day visit to Kazakhstan.
But critics are hoping freshly swept streets and manicured lawns will not distract Cameron from what they say is Kazakhstan's dirty record of imprisoning government critics and cracking down on the media.
Still, by making the bustling oil hub his first stop on a three-city tour, Cameron -- the first serving British prime minister to visit Central Asia -- may be giving some indication that his priorities in Kazakhstan have more to do with business than human rights.
Britain is one of the largest foreign investors in the massive Kazakh energy industry, with its BG Group jointly operating the giant Karachaganak field, with reserves of 1.2 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and 1 billion tons of crude oil.
Then there is the fact that Kazakhstan is set to serve as a key transit state during the West's withdrawal from Afghanistan, an undertaking that includes 6,500 containers of U.K. military equipment and thousands of British troops.
Bhavna Dave, a Central Asia expert at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, says energy and security are certain to dominate Cameron's landmark trip.
"Cameron's visit has two major objectives," Dave says. "One is economic and trade, and the second is these strategic relationships -- discussing regional security, the role that Kazakhstan can play as a key power in Central Asia and Afghanistan. And of course, these are the objectives that Kazakhstan itself is very, very keen to promote. So political issues, issues of democracy and human rights, will take a backseat."
Cameron's visit is a coup for Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has sought to parlay his country's energy riches into legitimacy on the world stage.
Nazarbaev has reportedly been angling for a prime-ministerial visit for years, and extended a personal invitation to Cameron during the Summer Olympics in London 2012.
Cameron is far from Nazarbaev's only connection to the British political elite. The Kazakh leader has paid former Prime Minister Tony Blair a reported $13 million to serve as his adviser on political and economic reforms.
And Nazarbaev's son-in-law, Timur Kulibaev, last year purchased the southeastern English estate belonging to Prince Andrew for an extravagant $23 million, in a controversial deal brokered by Kazakh-born socialite Goga Ashkenazi.
Critics say such cozy ties have only encouraged the British government to turn a blind eye when it comes to Kazakhstan's checkered rights record.
'Hand In Hand'
Nazarbaev, who has ruled Kazakhstan with an iron grip since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has overseen a steady crackdown on political opponents and the independent media.
In 2011, Kazakh riot police shot and killed at least 15 demonstrators in the western city of Zhanaozen after months of unrest among the region's underpaid oil workers.
The bloodshed was quickly followed by a string of media closures and what appear to be politically motivated prosecutions targeting critics of Zhanaozen. Many of the people detained say they were subjected to ill-treatment and torture while in jail.
Among the people jailed in the wake of the riots was opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, who after a highly criticized trial was sentenced to nearly eight years in prison on vague charges of "inciting social discord."
Kozlov's appeal hearing in the Kazakh Supreme Court is due to be held on July 1 -- just as Cameron is holding official meetings in the capital, Astana.
Mihra Rittmann, a Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, published a piece in Britain's "The Independent" calling on Cameron to break his country's silence by expressing support for Kozlov and other victims of Kazakh rights abuses.
Rittmann notes that the U.K. government itself noted concern about growing restrictions on freedom of expression and religion in its latest "Human Rights and Democracy Report," issued in April.
She says Britain should honor its stated foreign-policy commitment to human rights -- even if it means talking tough to one of the world's largest energy producers.
"Economic interests and trade interests shouldn't come at the expense of human rights, and vice versa," Rittmann says. "They go hand in hand. If Kazakhstan purports to be a global player and the U.K. is approaching Kazakhstan as such, then there needs to be equal footing to discuss real human rights concerns as well."