She came, she saw, but did she conquer? United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s July 4-5 visit to the South Caucasus was all about emphasizing an active US interest in the region’s development, but local reactions to her message appear mixed.
International expectations for Clinton’s visit had initially targeted Azerbaijan and Armenia, where tensions are running high over recent cease-fire violations. But in the end, it was Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili who indicated the most clearly that Clinton’s message had found at least one receptive audience.
At a July 5 press conference with Clinton, President Saakashvili downplayed Georgia’s earlier concerns over the newly chummy relations between Washington and Moscow, saying that the so-called “reset” policy is providing immediate results for Georgia.
“I think the reset has brought at least a minimum sense of security . . . Ultimately, the reset leads to a more open, more modern Russia,” Saakashvili said.
At the same time, Saakashvili praised Clinton and the United States for calling the continued Russian presence in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia an “occupation.” The word, he claimed, “resonates with” the “almost 500,000” Internally Displaced Persons “who cannot go back to their homes.”
Earlier in the day, the Secretary of State had dismissed concerns over the reset policy during a meeting with over 100 female political, business and civil leaders at the National Library in Tbilisi.
“I think that the United States can walk and chew gum at the same time . . .” she said. “We worked to try and forge a better relationship with Russia and we have had some success.”
Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze believes that the reset policy has sent a strong message to Russia that Georgia is not alone.
The “American administration made it quite clear to their Russian Federation counterparts that Georgia is very high up on the list of priorities of the president’s [Barack Obama’s – ed] administration [with the message]: ‘Don’t you dare have some bold, irresponsible and aggressive act,’” Vashadze elaborated to EurasiaNet.org.
Clinton stated that the 2008 “invasion and occupation of Georgia” are “at the top of the list” of Russian actions that Washington deems “wrong.”
“We say it, we mean it,” she said. “We support actions and try to give you the backing that you need in order to stand up to the threat you believe comes from Russia.”
But the US must, at the same time, tread delicately with Russia on another of the region’s long-time conflicts –- the 22-year dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh. The US and Russia, along with France, are charged with overseeing talks on a conflict resolution.
In both Baku and Yerevan, Clinton stuck to standard expressions of hope for a non-violent settlement to the dispute, while emphasizing that the onus for a final peace deal lies with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan.
Although she condemned the June 18-19 ceasefire violation in Karabakh that left one Azerbaijani and four Armenian soldiers dead, she did not lay blame for the incident with either Baku or Yerevan. The tactic drew sharp criticism from some Armenian opposition members who consider Azerbaijan fully to blame.
“We call on both sides not to use force. We do not want the sides to suffer casualties,” Clinton said in Yerevan.
The Secretary of State scheduled her visit to both capitals on July 4, US Independence Day – a symbolic date that Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian termed “a particular honor” for Armenians.
Many of President Aliyev’s remarks about Clinton’s visit were tagged as “inaudible” in an online State Department transcript -- a technical failure that sparked mirth on Facebook. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, however, described his talks with Clinton as “interesting and friendly.”
But one Baku-based political analyst argued that Clinton’s visit would do nothing for the Karabakh talks. “In fact, she repeated the position voiced recently by Russian President [Dmitri] Medvedev and Prime Minister [Vladimir] Putin that Baku and Yerevan have to find a solution themselves,” said Elkhan Shahingolu, head of the Atlas think-tank.
Nonetheless, the Azerbaijani government appeared to be watching closely. “Baku considers its relations with other countries through the prism of their attitude to the Karabakh problem,” Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential administration’s political department, commented to EurasiaNet.org.
With Azerbaijan the transit corridor for roughly a quarter of non-military supplies to Afghanistan, that evaluation carries strategic implications for Washington.
Clinton moved cautiously on topics likely to ruffle feathers in Baku or with its ally, Turkey. A private visit to Yerevan’s Genocide Memorial (Tsitsernakaberd) to lay a wreath and flowers in memory of the victims of Ottoman Turkey’s 1915 slaughter of ethnic Armenians was heavily scrutinized, but came with no reference to the slaughter as genocide. (The nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation termed the visit "an insult.") Firm expressions of support for Turkish-Armenian rapprochement as providing “tremendous benefits” for the region did not differ from the past.
She also walked a tightrope on another sore point for the Azerbaijani government -- its record on human rights and media rights. At a July 4 airport briefing, Clinton praised Azerbaijan’s “impressive economic growth,” and stated that the country had shown “tremendous progress in democracy development.”
One issue where many Azerbaijani civil society activists expected to see some form of development was the imprisonment of two bloggers, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, who had been involved in a video critical of President Aliyev.
At a July 4 meeting with youth activists, Clinton stated that she had " discussed this issue with the Azerbaijani leadership and I hope that the two imprisoned bloggers will be released very soon.” She did not elaborate.
Clinton did not meet with opposition leaders in either Baku or Yerevan; in Tbilisi she met with Irakli Alasania, head of Our Georgia-Free Democrats, and Giorgi Targamadze, head of the Christian Democrats.
As in Baku, non-government meetings appeared the venue in Yerevan and Tbilisi for an airing of more controversial political topics. In Yerevan, discussion of the victims of Armenia’s post-election 2008 clashes reportedly took place. In Tbilisi, Clinton assured women leaders that judiciary reform and media rights would be raised with President Saakashvili.
“No leader, no party, no government is immune from criticism because none of us is perfect,” she said.
Shain Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan. | Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan. | Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.