Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gently pressed the rulers of two former Soviet states Thursday to liberalize their democracies. Rice's praise for economic innovation in Kazakhstan and cooperation by Tajikistan in the fight against terror were part of a political calculation in Central Asia. The region is rich in oil and gas and is a strategic crossroad for Europe, Russia and China. Rice's initiative in Central Asia recalls Washington's balancing act with friendly dictators during the Cold War. Times have changed from the days when the United States tolerated or even propped up dictators in the race to line up allies against communism. Still, as underscored by Rice's low-key approach through a tour of three ex-Soviet states this week, it is not easy to reconcile the ideals of democracy with the practical imperatives of politics and diplomacy. "Sometimes you have regimes that you have to cut deals with because priority one is the war on terror," said Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.