U.S. not vying with Russia over Central Asia: Rice

ASTANA (Reuters) – The United States is not trying to poach Russia’s allies in Central Asia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Sunday during a visit to oil-rich Kazakhstan.

Moscow is sensitive to visits by top U.S. officials to its neighbors in the region, and has in the past accused Western nations of trying to lure away its allies.

Speaking after talks with Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin, Rice rejected any notion of growing rivalry with Moscow.

“This is not some kind of contest for the affection of Kazakhstan between the countries of the region,” she said.

She said Washington was not trying to take allies away from Russia — but nor did she recognize a special Russian “sphere of influence” in the region. “We don’t see any of this as a zero-sum game,” she told reporters earlier.

Washington sees Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s biggest economy, as crucial to expanding its presence in Central Asia, a vast energy-rich region wedged between Russia, Iran, Afghanistan and China.

The former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan has played a careful balancing act by keeping smooth ties with Russia, while looking to the West to diversify oil exports.

“Russia is our strategic partner,” said Tazhin, speaking alongside Rice in English. “At the same time you should understand that our relationship with the United States has a stable and strategic character.”

Rice, in Kazakhstan just two weeks after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited, was due to meet President Nursultan Nazarbayev during her five-hour stopover.

GEORGIAN WAR

Russia’s war with Georgia in August prompted Russia’s allies to rethink their partnerships with Moscow and Western nations.

Nazarbayev held large-scale military exercises with both NATO and Russia in the two weeks preceding Rice’s visit.

Energy was high on Rice’s agenda during her visit to Kazakhstan, where U.S. firms have invested billions of dollars in oil money. But no concrete deals are expected to be signed.

Kazakhstan’s record on human rights and democracy is being closely watched in the West ahead of the country’s chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010.

When it was offered the chairmanship last year, Kazakhstan promised to improve its democratic standards by such measures as making it easier for political parties to register.

“They are set commitments and I expect Kazakhstan to live up to them,” Rice said, adding her government had raised some individual human rights cases with the Kazakhs.

Nazarbayev, in power since Soviet times, is accused by some rights groups of tolerating no dissent. Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free and fair by Western monitors. Nazarbayev’s party controls all seats in parliament.

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