By Matt Spetalnick
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, a former provincial communist boss, 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.
Kerry was expected to press Nazarbayev in private over his crackdown on political dissent and Kazakhstan's human rights record but to avoid any public criticism.
"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 said.
"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.
Nazarbayev told Kerry Kazakhstan valued its 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.
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.
"The key area with Kazakhstan is that they do have the potential to play a leadership role in the region," said a senior U.S. official traveling with Kerry.
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.
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.
The 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 is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit all five Central Asian countries on a single trip. On Sunday he met Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who is often criticized in the West for heading a repressive government.
U.S. relations with Kazakhstan are much stronger and broader. Obama met Nazarbayev in New York in late September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly and on Monday Kerry was due to deliver a Central Asia policy speech at Nazarbayev University in the Kazakh capital Astana.
(Additional reporting by Olzhas Auyezov in Almaty; Editing by Jason Bush and Gareth Jones)