In Azerbaijan, key to Afghanistan efforts, Clinton walks tightrope on democracy

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post staff writer
Monday, July 5, 2010

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN -- After a major speech in Poland encouraging democracy, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled Sunday to a country that has tossed bloggers in jail, held elections widely considered flawed and abolished term limits for its president.

But she took a notably cautious approach there on the issue of democratic reforms.

That's because the country is Azerbaijan, a key transit route for U.S. troops and supplies heading for Afghanistan.

Clinton's visit highlighted the tricky task of balancing democracy and security interests. Former Republican officials have accused the Obama administration of soft-pedaling democracy concerns in an effort to make progress on other issues with countries such as Russia and China.

The Obama administration disputes that charge, and Clinton has made high-profile speeches on democracy and Internet freedom in the past few months, including one Saturday in Poland expressing alarm about a growing crackdown on civil-society groups worldwide.

But on Sunday, her primary goal was to improve relations with Azerbaijan.

The country's authoritarian rulers have complained that the Obama administration is ignoring them -- leaving the U.S. ambassador's slot empty for more than a year and not inviting Azerbaijan to the Nuclear Security Summit this April, according to U.S. officials and analysts.

Clinton, anxious to repair ties, made Azerbaijan a stop on a five-nation tour of former Soviet bloc countries. She arrived less than a month after Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates paid a visit, carrying a letter from President Obama pledging a closer relationship.

President Ilham Aliyev greeted Clinton warmly Sunday morning in his seaside palace, a honey-colored building with chandeliers the size of Christmas trees. "I'm sure your visit will strengthen this partnership," he said.

Clinton responded that she was "very committed to our relationship." She praised Azerbaijan's thriving economy, culture and contributions to U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Asked at a news conference about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, she said, "We've seen a lot of progress."

That prompted an Azerbaijani journalist to ask: "You said there is progress. Can you explain how it goes on?" The country's human rights situation, he said, is "worsening year after year."

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