By Andrew Osborn
ATYRAU, Kazakhstan (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron helped inaugurate the world's costliest oil project in Kazakhstan on Sunday on a trip aimed at sealing business deals but quickly beset by questions over the Central Asian nation's poor human rights record.
Kazakhstan hopes Cameron's visit, the first by a serving British prime minister, will cement its status as a rising economic power and confer a degree of the legitimacy from the West it has long sought.
The visit takes place just days before the nation marks 15 years since the founding of the new Kazakh capital Astana, also the 73rd birthday of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, a national holiday and cause for celebration that has been anticipated for days in state media.
Nazarbayev, a former Communist party apparatchik, has overseen market reforms and maintains wide popularity among the 17-million strong population, but has tolerated no dissent or opposition during his more than two decades in power.
Cameron said he hoped the 30 businessmen accompanying him would sign over 700 million pounds worth of deals during his two-day trip.
"We are in a global race for jobs and investment. This is one of the most rapidly emerging countries in the world," Cameron told reporters on his arrival in the Kazakh oil capital Atyrau.
His office said he aimed to "put British businesses in prime position to secure contracts that the Government believes could total £85 billion in the coming years".
Cameron is also hoping to persuade Kazakhstan to expand transit rights for British military forces relocating equipment from Afghanistan between now and a planned withdrawal next year. Nazarbayev has already granted overflight rights, but Cameron is looking for land transit rights too.
Cameron and Nazarbayev together opened the Bolashak (Future) oil plant which will process crude that is due to start flowing from the giant Kashagan offshore oilfield in September.
Royal Dutch Shell has a 16.81 percent stake in the facility, which is in the Kazakh segment of the Caspian Sea. Nazarbayev said last week consortium members had so far invested $48 billion, making it the most expensive oil venture in the world.
As Britain's trade with the euro zone suffers because of the currency bloc's debt woes, it is looking further afield to forge business links with countries that have enjoyed rapid economic growth in recent years.
With a $200 billion economy, the largest in Central Asia, and deep oil and gas reserves, Kazakhstan is a tempting target. Britain is already among the top three sources of foreign direct investment, according to Kazakh officials.
Since its 1991 independence, officials say British firms have invested about $20 billion in their economy, part of a total $170 billion ploughed into Kazakhstan since then.
But more high profile trade links carry political risks.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Cameron had a duty to use his trip to denounce human rights abuses.
"We are very concerned about the serious and deteriorating human rights situation there in recent years, including credible allegations of torture, the imprisonment of government critics, (and) tight controls over the media and freedom of expression and association," it said in a letter on Friday.
Answering questions from reporters in Atyrau on Sunday, Cameron said he never put trade and business interests before rights.
"We will raise all the issues, including human rights. That's part of our dialogue and I'll be signing a strategic partnership with Kazakhstan," he said.
"Nothing is off the agenda, including human rights."
Activists most want Cameron to bring up the case of Vladimir Kozlov, a jailed opposition leader, when he meets Nazarbayev.
An outspoken critic of the Kazakh leader, Kozlov was jailed for seven-and-a-half years in October for colluding with a fugitive billionaire in a failed attempt to rally oil workers to bring down the government. Kozlov denied the charges.
Nazarbayev, a former steelworker who now holds the title "The Leader of the Nation", says that he puts stability and rising living standards before hasty political changes in his steppe nation, the world's ninth-largest by area and five times the size of France.
Comparing Kazakhstan to "Asian economic tigers" like South Korea and Singapore, he has said he wants to turn it into "the economic snow leopard of Central Asia".
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; in Almaty; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)