Rice is walking a political tightrope in Kazakhstan. Good relations with the oil-rich nation have been a priority of U.S. policy for more than a decade. U.S. companies have invested billions of dollars in Kazakhstan. In return, Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian state to have sent troops to Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition.
But rights groups continue to urge the U.S. to press Central Asian nations, including Kazakhstan, to respect human rights and media freedoms. Rice's arrival in Astana coincided with the arrest of a leading opposition figure, Tolen Tokhtasynov, who planned to meet with her.
Before her meeting with Nazarbaev, Rice addressed students at the Eurasian National University. She said "political and economical freedom must go together and complement each other."
She also said "stability requires legitimacy and true legitimacy requires democracy." The remark appeared aimed at Nazarbaev, who has been in power since 1989, and was reelected in 1999 in a heavily criticized poll.
But she was also quoted as calling Kazakhstan "an island of stability in the Central Asian region," and saying the U.S. could not and should not direct sovereign governments on how to carry out democratic transformations.
Rice's balancing act continued when she gave a press conference alongside Nazarbaev, saying U.S. economic interests in the region did not mean Washington would disregard concerns about democratic reform.
"I think if we were interested only in oil and the war of terrorism, we would not be speaking in the way that we are about democracy here, or in Saudi Arabia, or throughout the Middle East," Rice said. "And so, quite clearly, while we do have interests in terms of resources and in terms of the struggle for terrorism, we have in no way allowed those interests to get in the way of our open and clear defense of freedom."
Nazarbaev appeared eager to defend Kazakhstan's democratic credentials. He said political parties, opposition parties, and the media are all able to criticize the authorities. He also pointed to the presence of some 5,000 nongovernmental organizations in the country.
The Kazakh president said he supports freedom of speech but indicated there were limits to his largesse.
"The secretary of state and I discussed in detail the role of freedom of speech as part of a democratic society," Nazarbaev said. "We also support [freedom of speech] inasmuch as we are a transitional society, but our position is that while we support freedom of speech, we are against the freedom to spread slander and disinformation."
Speaking about Kazakhstan's upcoming presidential elections, Rice urged Nazarbaev to ensure that not only the ballot but the runup to the vote would be conducted in a transparent manner.
"Free and fair elections do not begin on the day of the election," Rice said. "Prior to that there must be the ability of the opposition to organize, there must be opposition access to the press so that voters can indeed have a free choice."
But Nazarbaev warned that fair words from the opposition were often not followed up in deeds.
"What they [the opposition] say and what they do are different things," Nazarbaev said.
Rice's trip through the region came at a delicate time for U.S. diplomacy in Central Asia.
The American position in the region has weakened since late July, when Uzbekistan demanded the U.S. vacate by year's end an Uzbek air base used for operations in Afghanistan since 2001.
That was in large part due to U.S. criticism over violence in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon last May. Suspicions by many CIS governments that U.S.-funded organizations helped so-called "colored revolutions" in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan have also eroded the U.S. position in Central Asia.
(Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)