Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took the Bush administration's democracy campaign to the chilly steppes of Central Asia Thursday but immediately came under attack from opposition figures as soft on the authoritarian government of Kazakhstan, the region's largest country and most dynamic economic engine.

With a vote for president seven weeks away, Rice warned in a speech here that the world was watching to see whether the Kazakh people get a free election -- noting that the fairness of an election was not determined only on voting day. Opposition and human rights groups say the government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev has embarked on a new round of arrests, harassment and media clampdowns.

In language that was often nurturing, Rice said the government had an "unprecedented opportunity" to lead Central Asia toward democracy. She said Kazakhstan, at roughly the area of Western Europe the world's ninth-largest country, and a former Soviet republic, could become the "nexus of Eurasia in the 21st century -- the point where all roads cross" if it continues reform.

Speaking to students, faculty and local activists at Eurasian National University, Rice cautioned that "some Central Asians" think economic reforms are all that are needed to achieve greatness. "This is not true," she said. "Wise statesmen know and history shows that political and economic freedom must advance together, and complement one another."

Rice's speech was the latest in a series she has given over the past eight months as the centerpieces of trips abroad. Each address carries a theme of the U.S. agenda for democracy and its interest in deepening relations with the region Rice is visiting. Her Central Asian speech was notably upbeat about the energy-rich country, leading the local opposition to charge that U.S. interests were primarily energy, the war on terrorism -- and then democracy.

After her speech, a few opposition leaders invited to attend by the U.S. Embassy expressed concern that Rice's speech would have no impact. Bulat Abilov, campaign manager for an opposition presidential candidate from the For a Just Kazakhstan coalition, said he was disappointed that Rice's message was not stronger and provided no specifics.

Without greater U.S. pressure, he said, there is "zero chance" of a democratic election under Nazarbayev, who has been in power since before his country gained independence through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. "It is a corrupted state, a family oligarchy, and a priori impossible to hold free and fair elections."

He said newspapers had been closed. In the run-up to Rice's visit, several police officers were positioned outside his home with a video camera, he said. Hours before Rice's arrival Wednesday, 20 armed riot police came to an office of For a Just Kazakhstan and detained Tolen Tokhtasynov, who is coordinating the presidential campaign of Zharmakhan Tuyakbai. Under U.S. pressure, Tokhtasynov was later released, according to U.S. officials.

Altynbek Sarsenbayev, a co-founder of For a Just Kazakhstan and a former cabinet minister who broke with Nazarbayev, said that by their "very soft rhetoric and actions," the United States and its European allies encourage Central Asian autocrats.

Yevgeni Zhovtis, leader of the Kazakh Bureau of Human Rights and the Rule of Law, said no opposition figures had had access to the electronic media in advance of the election. In August, he said, security forces seized computer hard drives in the office of his group, a private organization.

The opposition officials expressed disappointment that Rice had not held significant talks with their camp during her visit. After her speech, Rice posed for a photo taken with two other opposition leaders and held a five-minute conversation with each of them in Russian.

The Bush administration and U.S. business interests have deepened ties with Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev, a policy that has also come under criticism at home and abroad. Roughly one- third of foreign investment in Kazakhstan is from U.S. companies. And Washington persuaded Kazakhstan to commit troops to the coalition in Iraq. Although only a token force of about 30 troops, it was an important addition because Kazakhstan is a predominantly Muslim country.

In an open letter to Nazarbayev on Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said Kazakhstan's harassment of the opposition and its move to impose new restrictions on freedom of assembly has "cast doubt on the prospect of fair elections."

The State Department's 2005 human rights report, issued four weeks after Rice assumed office, terms the Kazakh government's record "poor" and cites numerous abuses, saying the government severely limited citizens' rights to change their government and that democratic institutions remained weak. "To say that Kazakhstan is a model is scraping the bottom of the barrel," said A. Elizabeth Jones, former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, who retired from the State Department this year. "Nazarbayev has made sure that the most popular opposition leader had a criminal case brought against him so he couldn't run. It was a put-up job."

Jones said that most Kazakh opposition leaders were once proteges of Nazarbayev, "but even then he can't stand them stepping out in front of him." Without a range of secular opposition, she warned, young people could be radicalized.

At a joint news conference after talks with Rice, Nazarbayev denied he was a dictator and said he fully supported freedom of speech. Kazakhstan has 3,200 media outlets in 13 languages, he said, adding that there were three political parties and 15 candidates for president.

He chastised the opposition for lashing out on corruption and then protecting the rights of people who have been convicted on such charges. Freedom of speech does not mean the right to spread misinformation, he said.

Wrapping up a Central Asia tour, Rice made a three-hour stop in Tajikistan, the poorest nation in the region. With elections coming next year, she struck the same notes in talks with President Imamali Rakhmonov of a need for movement toward democracy.

Rice then flew to Paris to begin a tour of France, Russia and Britain to discuss Iran, Syria and Lebanon as well as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with Tajik President Imamali Rakhmonov.