By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post staff writer
Monday, July 5, 2010; A08
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."
Rights groups say Azerbaijan's leaders, buoyed by oil wealth, are becoming steadily less democratic.
In 2009, "the Azerbaijani authorities deepened their authoritarian grip on the country and governed with increasing impunity," Freedom House, a democracy watchdog, said in a recent report.
Azerbaijan has been ruled since 1993 by members of the Aliyev family, first by Heydar Aliyev and then his son Ilham. Their influence was hard for Clinton to miss; she landed at the Heydar Aliyev International Airport, sped down the Heydar Aliyev highway and passed the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center.
Clinton sought to use quiet persuasion rather than confrontation, telling Ilham Aliyev that she had personally experienced the sting of media criticism and the difficulties of democracy but that they had made her a better politician, aides said.
Asked at the news conference "what priority you place on democracy" in Azerbaijan, Clinton said the relationship was complex, with important interrelated issues.
"Democratic reform is always one of our top goals for any developing country," she said.
Clinton noted that she had met with Azerbaijani youth organizers, some of whom were pushing for democratic change. Officials said she also complained in private to Aliyev about the sentencing of two young bloggers to prison last year in what was widely seen as reprisal for their mocking the government.
Tom de Waal, an expert on Azerbaijan at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it appeared that the Obama administration had other priorities than democracy promotion in its dealings with Azerbaijan.
"They've decided it's a country with whom we have two hard security issues," he said.
Azerbaijan's ports, railroads and airspace have been crucial in moving U.S. troops and equipment to Afghanistan.
The second security issue is the dispute over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was seized by Armenia in a war in the early 1990s that killed about 30,000 people.
In her meetings in Azerbaijan and in the evening in Armenia, Clinton urged a peaceful solution to the conflict and pledged continued U.S. support for efforts to negotiate a settlement.