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Clinton reassures Azerbaijan

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post / July 5, 2010

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BAKU, Azerbaijan — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton became the second US Cabinet secretary in a month to visit Azerbaijan yesterday, seeking to improve a rocky relationship with an authoritarian government that has provided a key transit route to Afghanistan.

For Clinton, the trip was a diplomatic balancing act: her four-day swing through former Soviet bloc countries has emphasized the promotion of democracy. But Azerbaijan has been ruled for 17 years by a father-son duo and has a poor human rights record, according to the State Department’s published profile of the country.

President Ilham Aliyev greeted Clinton warmly in his seaside palace. “I’m sure your visit will strengthen this partnership,’’ he said.

Azerbaijan government officials have complained they have been ignored by the Obama administration, according to US authorities. The country has had no US ambassador for more than a year, and Azerbaijan was not invited to Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit last spring, while its rival Armenia was.

To patch things up, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited this small, oil-rich country in June, carrying a letter from Obama urging closer partnership.

Clinton followed up yesterday, telling Aliyev she was “very committed to our relationship.’’ She treaded gingerly on the democracy issue, saying she hoped to see more progress, and did not meet with opposition politicians as she had done on other stops on her trip.

Asked at a news conference about the human-rights situation, she said, “We’ve seen a lot of progress in Azerbaijan in the last 18 years’’ since it split from the Soviet Union.

That prompted an Azerbaijani journalist to ask Clinton: What progress? Clinton cited business and energy reform.

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