U.S. efforts to build closer ties to this energy-rich former Soviet republic are not meant to undermine Russian influence in Central Asia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday.

"We don''t see any of this as a zero-sum game," she told reporters flying with her to the Kazakh capital from India. U.S. gains need not mean Russian losses, she said.

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

Later, at a news conference with Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin, Rice said no one should question Kazakhstan''s desire to have good relations with all countries in its region. "This is not some kind of contest for the affection of Kazakhstan," Rice said.

Tazhin said his country''s relationship with the United States was "stable" and had "strategic character." Kazakh ties with Russia, he said, are "excellent" and "politically correct." Asked by a reporter whether he considered his country to be in a Russian "sphere of influence," Tazhin said no and that he believed such a question was of interest mainly to academics and to journalists.