WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has embarked on a five-day, five-nation tour of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus that will test her diplomatic skills in a region that straddles geopolitical fault lines.
Philip Gordon, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters earlier this week that Clinton's trip should not be seen as a "reassurance tour" meant to assuage U.S. allies in the region about the U.S.-Russian "reset" in relations.
Instead, Gordon said, the United States wants "to get beyond the notion that European diplomacy and security is a zero-sum game and that countries in Central Europe need to choose whether they're going to be pro-Russian or pro-American."
"We think that some of Russia's neighbors benefit when the United States and Russia have a more trusting, open relationship and some of them have told us that," Gordon said. "But to the extent that anyone has concerns about our Russia policy, we're happy to discuss them and, again, I'm sure in Poland, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the issue of Russia will come up and it will be a good opportunity for the secretary to explain how we're thinking about the reset, how we're thinking about European security, regional security. So I wouldn't see it as a sort of reassurance tour."
He added that the multiple-country trip naturally has multiple goals, but the common theme is "democracy."
Here is a look at some of the issues Clinton will likely confront on her travels through the region:Ukraine
Clinton's itinerary sends her first to Kyiv, where she'll arrive on July 2 and spend the day and evening in talks with President Viktor Yanukovych and Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko, and later with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. She'll also meet with media leaders, civil society groups, and give a talk at Kyiv Polytechnic University.
Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych
Clinton's visit to Ukraine is something of a thank you to Yanukovych, who won high praise from President Barack Obama at April's Nuclear Security Summit in Washington for his decision to rid Ukraine of its entire stock of highly enriched uranium.
But Yanukovych has also disappointed the West by dropping Kyiv's goal of joining NATO. Clinton's visit is a signal from Washington that it hasn't conceded Ukraine to Russia, despite Yanukovych's pro-Moscow dealings and leanings. The re-launch of the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership is an attempt to reinforce Kyiv's ties to the West.
"She'll make clear what we've made clear from the start," Gordon said, "that we don't see these two things as in competition with each other and we hope and expect Ukraine will pursue good relations with Europe and the United States even as it pursues good relations with Russia."
Ukraine's dire economic condition is also bound to come up. Yanukovych has vowed "a course of deep reforms" and pledged to restart talks with the IMF, which last year froze a $16.4 billion bailout. But talks appear to have stalled over disagreements on social spending and economic reform.
U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Tefft also recently noted what he called "troubling reports of pressure on journalists" in the country. Tefft said the United States hopes that Ukraine's government "will take action when freedom of the press is threatened," adding, "There should be no going back to the old system of government pressure on journalists and media companies."
That issue could come up during Clinton's town hall meeting.
"Ukraine is a country that has, in the recent past, had contested elections and some questions about the elections. And we think they're on the right track, but, inevitably, in all of these areas, democratic openness, media freedom, its not a perfect situation," Gordon said. "And so this will be a chance and thats why the secretary, as she always does, will make it a point not just to see the government, but to hear from others in civil society."Poland
Clinton's second stop will be Krakow, Poland, where her agenda includes taking part in the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Community of Democracies.
In Poland, Clinton will meet with Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski (left, with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov)
Clinton, who will be in Poland on the eve of the country's presidential election, will also hold talks with Foreign Minister Radolslaw Sikorski. The State Department said their joint agenda includes Afghanistan, Iran, European security, economic and energy issues, and the European Unions Eastern Partnership.
In Poland, Clinton will also pay a visit to the Schindler Museum, the factory where, during World War II, German businessman Oskar Schindler saved hundreds of Jewish workers from the Holocaust.
Clinton, who will become the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Baku since James Baker did in 1992, arrives on the evening of July 3 and spends most of the next day here. It is potentially the biggest diplomatic challenge of her trip.
The United States needs Azerbaijan's continued cooperation as a transit route for troops and supplies flowing into Afghanistan; an estimated 25 percent of all supplies bound for Afghanistan pass through what is known as the "Caucasus spur." With the long-term fate of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan potentially in doubt because of that country's political turmoil, Azerbaijan could become an even more critical U.S. strategic partner. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visit to Baku earlier this spring reinforced that dynamic.
For its part, Baku wants U.S help in settling the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia, where earlier this month violence flared anew between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. The State Department says "one of the purposes of the secretary's [Gates] trip [is] to talk to both parties [Armenia and Azerbaijan] about how to move that [peace] process forward." But as a member of the OSCE's Minsk negotiating group, the United States can't be seen as promoting Baku's position in peace talks.
Azerbaijan is also a pivotal player in the region's energy politics. The U.S. wants to see Russia's dominance reduced, and the planned Nabucco gas pipeline is one way that could happen.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev
But the U.S. relationship with President Ilham Aliyev's government is fraught. The Azerbaijani leader was shut out of the White House's Nuclear Security Summit in April. According to diplomats, Washington was angry at what it saw as Aliyev's attempts to block the U.S.-backed Turkish-Armenian reconciliation effort.
Washington views Aliyev as no friend of democratic values; foreign broadcasters are banned and the country's remaining independent media outlets face enormous pressure; and NGOs the government doesnt agree with are denied registration. Just this week, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, said he is concerned "about cases of threats, harassment, and violence against journalists or human rights activists which have not been properly investigated" in Azerbaijan.
The government's continued imprisonment of journalist Enyulla Fatullayev and bloggers Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli is almost bound to come up in Clintons roundtable meeting with civil society and youth leaders. Anything less than forceful advocacy for their release will look like Washington is sacrificing its principles for strategic assistance with the Afghan war.
"I think serious issues with Azerbaijan are clear," Gordon said. "These are all serious issues. Energy is a key issue with Azerbaijan, the relationship with Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh is a serious issue, regional security. So, yes, the agenda will be full of serious issues to discuss and that's why the secretary's going is because there's lots to talk about."Armenia
In Armenia, Clinton is scheduled to meet with President Serzh Sarkisian and Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian. But she'll also sit down with members of the political opposition. The State Department says she'll talk about "human rights, democratization, and media freedom" with civil society and human rights leaders.
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian
In Yerevan, Nagorno-Karabakh will dominate Clinton's official talks, especially given the deaths of four Armenian soldiers on June 18 on the contact line separating Azeri and Armenian forces, which stunned the country. There has been speculation that the attack happened in part to grab Washington's attention and underscore the need for strong intervention to move peace talks forward.
The State Department's Gordon didn't reveal what Clinton might offer Yerevan in terms of help, except to say that "when you have an armed standoff and disagreements like we have here [it] underscores again why we are so committed to the Minsk Group process and the need for diplomacy."
The other main topic of discussion will be the stalled Armenia-Turkey normalization talks that only a few months ago seemed to have set the two countries on the path to diplomatic relations. This is an important personal issue for Clinton, who played a pivotal role in getting Sarkisian and Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to sign normalization protocols in October in Zurich.
"Those protocols haven't been ratified. As you know, President Sarkisian announced this past spring that he was suspending his pursuit of ratification, but that when [the] Turkish partner was ready to move forward on ratification, Armenia would be as well," Gordon said. "So this will be a chance for the secretary to speak to President Sarkisian and the Armenians about how they see that situation. We continue to believe it would be a good thing for the protocols to ratified and implemented and have an open border with Turkey that would benefit both Armenia and Turkey."
If Armenia's human rights record is raised by Clinton and her team, it will likely be in relation to findings earlier this month by the special UN rapporteur on human rights defenders. Margaret Sekaggya held several days of meetings with government and law-enforcement officials, judges, lawmakers, opposition leaders, and civil-society representatives, and then voiced concern about Armenia's regard for human rights. In addition to noting "significant constraints imposed on the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly," Sekaggya said cases of physical attacks on journalists and rights activists "would seem to illustrate an apparent culture of impunity in Armenia which impinges upon the work of human rights defenders."Georgia
Clinton's last stop is Tbilisi, where she will meet President Mikheil Saakashvili and Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze to, according to the State Department, "review the progress of the U.S.-Georgia strategic partnership as well as the results of the recent municipal elections."
Clinton will also sit down with members of the political opposition, representatives of civil society and women's leaders.
Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili
She will likely be asked to reinforce the U.S. position on Russia's noncompliance with the cease-fire agreement in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Saakashvili refers to as "occupied regions."
After the warm glow of last week's bilateral in Washington between Obama and Medvedev -- which was somewhat shattered by the U.S. Justice Departments arrest of 10 alleged Russian spies -- Clinton will have to walk a fine line between reassuring Tbilisi that Washington is still on its side without raising Moscow's ire.
The State Department's Gordon told reporters that at the 11th round of Geneva talks on Georgia, the U.S. delegation issued a statement that summed up the White Houses position on the six-point cease-fire agreement.
"We are dissatisfied with the situation there and we've made this clear," Gordon said. "The president [Obama] made it clear to President Medvedev last week and we've been consistent in noting that we respect Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity and we call on Russia to abide by its commitments in the August, 2008 cease-fire, which not only called for the non-use of force and an end to hostilities but called upon the parties to move their military forces back to where they were before the conflict began. And that hasn't been done."
Even so, Saakashvili said on June 29 that Tbilisi was "fully ready to hold comprehensive talks with Russia without any pre-conditions on normalization of relations."
Clinton returns to the United States on July 5.