ASTANA -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbaev for his "leadership" in countering Islamic extremism but warned that the threat of terrorism is no excuse for stifling democracy and dissent.
Kerry made the comments during a November 2 visit to Kazakhstan, his third stop on a tour though the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
The United States wants good ties with the mostly Muslim nations neighboring Afghanistan, but is concerned that crackdowns on civil society only fuel extremism.
"President [Barack] Obama is very appreciative of your leadership on the [nuclear] nonproliferation issue, for countering violent extremism, cooperation vis-a-vis Afghanistan and to counter Daesh," Kerry told Nazarbaev during their talks, using another term for the Islamic State militant group.
Kerry said the United States and Kazakhstan "have a very serious set of security interests."
In a speech later on November 2 to students of the Astana-based Nazarbaev University, which is named after the country's longtime president, Kerry said governments must not use the fight against extremism to justify cracking down on political opponents or the media.
"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."
Without naming any specific state, Kerry stressed the importance of democratic institutions for all countries.
"Elections matter little if they are not free and fair, with all political parties competing on a level playing field," Kerry said.
Nazarbaev, who has sidelined opponents and tolerated little dissent in more than 25 years at the helm of the large steppe nation of 18 million, won a fifth presidential term in an April election with what electoral officials said was nearly 98 percent of the vote.
Nazarbaev justifies his tight hold on power by saying it provides stability in Kazakhstan, the most ethnically diverse country in Central Asia, and has averted ethnic clashes similar to those in some other former Soviet republics.
The 75-year-old president has skillfully maneuvered between centers of influence, attracting billions of dollars in investments from the West while remaining one of the closest allies of Russia and sustaining very active economic and political ties with China.
During his meeting with Kerry, Nazarbaev stressed the importance of economic cooperation between the two nations and called the United States one of the largest foreign investors in the Kazakh economy.
The United States is wary of Moscow's efforts to expand its influence in Central Asia, where China is also vying for clout. But Kerry said that "the United States fully encourages Central Asian nations to develop the broadest range of partners you can."
"Trade from the north to the south can support trade from the east and west, linking Eurasia with markets in Europe and China," he said.
Kerry is on his first trip around Central Asia in more than two years as the top U.S. diplomat.
He has visited Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan since he started his tour on October 31.
On November 1, in the Uzbek city of Samarkand, the secretary of state met with his five Central Asian counterparts.
In a joint communique, the six nations stated the intention of the countries to increase cooperation and counter cross-border threats such as terrorism.
Kerry is also scheduled to visit Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.