U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has concluded a five-day, five-country tour of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus meant to impart a critical message: we haven't forgotten you.
On July 2 in Ukraine, Clinton told Ukrainians they could "count on the support and friendship of the United States" as they "chart your own course toward your own future."
Two days later in Azerbaijan, she said Washington was "committed to helping you and your fellow citizens build a prosperous, independent, democratic, sovereign Azerbaijan."
Closing out her trip on July 5 in Georgia, Clinton pledged to "do everything we can to assist our partners, inside and outside the Georgian government, as they strive to strengthen democratic institutions and processes."
With her repeated vows of support, Clinton appeared to be attempting what could be called a "readjustment to the 'reset'" -- a pledge that the United States could be friends with Russia without abandoning its smaller allies in the region.
It's a delicate balancing act. Clinton -- who lashed out at Russia's "occupation" of Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and signed a deal with Polish officials on a missile-defense shield that has raised Kremlin hackles -- has already provoked an angry response from Moscow.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on July 6 dismissed the U.S. defense shield -- a plan Washington says will protect its European allies from Iranian missiles -- as unfounded.
On July 5, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had defended his country's role in "liberating" South Ossetia in the August 2008 war. He also chided Georgian officials about turning to outsiders for help in what he said was essentially a bilateral issue.
"Some believe that it has been occupied, but others think that it has been liberated," Putin said. "It is the subject of dialogue between the Georgian people and the South Ossetian people and they should conduct this dialogue without referring to third parties."
Despite the heated rhetoric, however, ties between Washington and Moscow have grown unmistakably warmer during the past year, marked by renewed cooperation on both the bilateral and foreign policy fronts.
Matthew Rojansky, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment, a Washington-based think tank, says the Kremlin’s response to Clinton’s statements doesn’t indicate a setback in relations.
“I don't read a tremendous amount into it. Just like with the spy scandal, for example, the Russians are going to be obligated to maintain face -- to express a certain level of dissatisfaction with anything that doesn't jive with what they have long pursued as their policies," Rojansky said. "But by the same token, what are they doing?"
Working with the United States on issues ranging from Iran sanctions to support for Kyrgyzstan, he says.
Moreover, ties between Moscow and many of its former satellites have warmed as well.
Ukraine, which this year elected Viktor Yanukovych to the presidency, is no longer the bastion of anti-Moscow opposition it was under Viktor Yushchenko. Poland, after years of rabble-rousing against Russia's resurgent authority, has likewise cooled its resentment in favor of friendly dialogue.
And oil-rich Azerbaijan, whose ties to Washington have soured over U.S. attempts to forge a Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, has turned to Moscow as its preferred mediator in its prolonged impasse with Yerevan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
In each of these countries, Clinton's mission was to reestablish a channel for dialogue with the United States that runs more parallel than counter to Moscow's own.
Looking For Progress
Officials and observers in the region are reacting to Clinton's visit with a mixture of admiration and frustration.
In Azerbaijan, Mehman Aliyev, who directs the Turan news agency and serves as the chairman of the Azerbaijani branch of the Open Society Institute, says that Clinton's trip signaled that Baku was willing to accept some responsibility for improving the country's human rights record.
Aliyev says that before Clinton's visit, U.S.-Azerbaijani relations "were in crisis." He says that "in its previous messages," Washington referred to problems that it said were political, related to the lack of democratic reforms, the lack of freedom of speech and human rights. I think the Azerbaijani government accepted part of that criticism, and that's why the visit was made. Secretary Clinton came to Baku to hear from Azerbaijani officials that they are going to undertake those reforms. I think [the U.S.] political message is still valid; we'll see in future elections."
But Clinton was notably muted in her criticism of Azerbaijan's human rights record, which includes near-daily attacks on the few remaining members of the country's free press -- including Eynulla Fatullayev, the imprisoned editor of the independent "Realny Azerbaijan," who one day after Clinton's visit was given an additional 30-month sentence on drug charges.
Noting a separate case -- that of Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada, two bloggers who have been jailed after their political commentaries angered officials in Baku -- the U.S. secretary of state said she and President Obama had received "many letters" about the case.
But she went on to speak generally about "the kinds of issues which every society has to deal with," and praised Azerbaijan for the "considerable progress" it had made.
Thawing Out Karabakh
In both Azerbaijan and Armenia, Hillary appeared intent on focusing on the two countries' protracted dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, a largely ethnic-Armenian enclave located within Azerbaijani territory.
Talks on Nagorno-Karabakh have remained at an impasse despite more than 15 years of international mediation. The frozen conflict has shown signs of heating up in recent weeks, with four ethnic Armenian troops and an Azerbaijani soldier killed in an exchange of fire close to the territory.
Speaking in Yerevan, Clinton condemned the violence as "unacceptable violations" of the 1994 cease-fire agreement that ended open hostilities there, and said the United States "would hope to see real progress" toward a final peace settlement.
Clinton also used the Yerevan leg of her journey to push the stumbling issue of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement back onto the agenda, saying "the ball was in [Turkey's] court" to revitalize the talks and reconsider opening the border between the two countries.
Clinton's comments were warmly welcomed by officials like Eduard Sharmazanov, a senior lawmaker and spokesman for Armenia's ruling Republican Party, who said the remarks were "a message to Turkey that in these relations, the United States backs Armenia and agrees with Armenia's estimations that Turkey is unconstructive and speaks the language of preconditions."
Resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh and normalization of ties between Yerevan and Ankara would both be big-ticket achievements for U.S. foreign policy.
But Levon Zurabian, a member of the opposition Armenian National Congress, said he was disappointed that those high-profile issues had squeezed domestic concerns like civil liberties and democratic reforms off of Clinton's to-do list.
"I think that the visit mainly focused on the Karabakh issue. Indirect evidence of this was the fact that while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did meet with the oppositions in Ukraine and Georgia, she did not have similar meetings in either Azerbaijan or Armenia," Zurabian said.
"In my opinion, the explanation for this is that, as a mediator in the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations on the Karabakh settlement, the United States is trying to do everything not to cause the displeasure of either Ilham Aliyev or Serzh Sarkisian in their dealings with the oppositions. Therefore, this shows that political issues in both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been pushed to the background for the United States. For them [the United States], it is more important to achieve serious results in the Karabakh settlement."
Welcome In Tbilisi, Mostly
It was Clinton's final stop, Georgia, where she was likely most warmly welcomed. Tbilisi under President Mikheil Saakashvili has been a staunch friend of the United States, contributing troops to Iraq and Afghanistan even as U.S. support for the country appeared to wane.
Clinton's sharply worded critique of Russia's "occupation" and her pledge of "steadfast" U.S. commitment to Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity no doubt came as music to the ears of officials who had begun to worry the reset had cost them a valuable ally.
Saakashvili went so far as to say his initial concerns about the U.S.-Russian rapprochement had faded, and that Georgia was convinced the reset was being done "the right way...not just changing relations with Russia at the expense of others."
At the same time, Clinton used her Georgia trip to urge restraint on the part of Saakashvili, who she said should not pursue a military buildup that could trigger a fresh war.
She also called on Georgia to continue the work of the Rose Revolution -- the 2003 peaceful government overthrow that brought Saakashvili to power -- and met with prominent members of the political opposition, including former UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania and Giorgi Targamadze of the Christian Democratic Movement.
In a country with a unusually fractious and active opposition, Clinton's gesture caused more resentment than cheers. The party led by former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze issued a statement complaining, "It seems the American side is not very interested in opposition viewpoints."
That sentiment was echoed by Levan Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party, who said: "They didn't let her meet with the opposition. Whoever was arranging those meetings, they made sure that the only people who would be allowed would be the kind who wouldn't cause any problems for Ms. Clinton. They basically made sure she'd have it easy during this long trip."
In Washington, observers like Rojansky see Clinton’s trip as a success.
"The visit served the purpose that it was intended to serve. It was much needed in terms of atmospherics -- the general impression of attention being paid to the region -- and you send a high-level official and that's the impression that you get," he said.
"From what I've seen, she really was refining this message -- that the U.S. has not given up on the former Soviet space, has not given up on leading with our values in our foreign policy, but that we're resolved to have a productive relationship with Russia at the same time," Rokansky added.
Or, as Clinton put it during her visit to Tbilisi, “The United States can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
RFE/RL's Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Georgian services contributed to this report