During the talks, Rice said she discussed "economic relations, trade relations, energy relations".

"This is not a zero-sum game," she said. "US gains need not mean Russian losses."

"First of all, Kazakhstan is an independent country. It can have friendships with whomever it wishes. That's perfectly acceptable in the 21st century, so we don't see and don't accept any notion of a special sphere of influence.

"[Kazakhstan] has excellent relations with the United States. We have talked about the relations that are developing with Europe, which are also very important."

The US support comes as analysts see Russia pressuring its neighbours to take a more pro-Moscow line following a Russian military incursion into Georgia in August.

'Neutral stance'

Marat Tazhin, the Kazakh foreign minister, said that Kazakhstan would remain friendly with all parties interested in the strategic oil-rich state, which borders Russia and China and lies close to Afghanistan to the south.

"We have excellent contacts with Russia. The United States is also a strategic partner," he said.
  
Kazakhstan has voiced support for Russia's military incursion into Georgia, but did not recognise the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two separatist regions at the heart of August's conflict.

It did, however, pull out of business deals with Georgia worth billions of dollars in September.

Kazakhstan has the highest proven oil reserves in the Caspian region and is seen as one of the most important potential sources of new crude oil for Asian and Western markets.
  
Rice said polotical and social reform was important in Kazakhstan which is due to lead the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a democracy-promoting body, in 2010.
  
Rice said: "We are looking forward to discussing with Kazakhstan the issues concerning its OSCE chairmanship in 2010 and the importance of meeting its commitments on political reform and human rights."

On being awarded the OSCE presidency, Kazakhstan said it would liberalise media laws, improve its electoral system and give greater freedom to political parties.