PRAGUE -- The U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says there is a very important lesson for former Soviet republics to have learned from the devastating conflict in eastern Ukraine: Don't be too reliant on Russia.
"Having [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin as your only friend is a terrible position to be in," Daniel Baer told RFE/RL in an interview in Prague.
"I think Moscow has proved time and again that it likes to use and manipulate political forces to its own end and has very little regard for what people actually experience," Baer said. "It doesn't care about the way citizens experience their government -- it likes to manipulate governments to meet its own objectives."
Baer suggested that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's release last month of opposition leader and former presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich and five other activists was motivated by a desire to improve relations with the European Union and not have Moscow as its only, or best, friend.
"Whether [the prisoner releases by Lukashenka are the result of] the continued messaging and engagement from the European Union as well as the United States with President Lukashenka to say: 'Look, there is a different path for Belarus, there is a European path for Belarus, but it requires significant, dramatic changes' -- whether that is happening, [whether there is] some appeal, only [Lukashenka] can answer," he said.
But Baer said it was "in the interests of the citizens of Belarus that a [European] trajectory is...the one that is taken."
The U.S. diplomat said the October 11 presidential election was "another test" for Belarus and added that he was "hopeful" that it will be "more free and more fair" than previous votes, which have been condemned by the West as unfair and marred by irregularities and widespread claims of vote-rigging.
Lukashenka -- in power in Belarus for more than 21 years -- is expected to easily win a fifth term in the election.
"I am hopeful that President Lukashenka will take the opportunity to avoid some of the egregious missteps and violations that have characterized previous elections -- crackdowns on the press, on civil society, on freedom of expression, of association," Baer said.
But he added that "a lot of democratic development" needed to take place in order for Belarus to have truly free and fair elections.
Separatist 'Black Hole'
Baer said the recent sustained reduction in fighting in eastern Ukraine -- the first real observance of a February cease-fire agreement -- has led to an improvement in the ability of the OSCE's Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to gain access to areas in the conflict zone that were previously off-limits to the unarmed observers.
But he blamed Russia for the continued refusal to allow OSCE monitors into large parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are controlled by separatist fighters.
"There have been massive restrictions in separatist-controlled territory that has covered about 50 percent of that area where the OSCE SMM has not been able to have reliable access at all," he said. "This has been a black hole where who knows what's going on."
In addition, he said that "the entire Ukraine-Russia border that is not under Ukrainian control has been effectively off-limits to the SMM."
"This has been a failure of Russia to implement the Minsk [agreements] for many months now," Baer said.
WATCH: 'Biggest Challenge Is To Build A Strong Ukraine'
Baer said the cessation in fighting was welcomed and that the United States and others have been "working now for more than a year to have an end to violent Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine."
He said that although Russia signed the initial Minsk protocol in September 2014, Moscow had "repeatedly" violated the agreement in the past year.
Baer said one of Kyiv's biggest challenges will be to "build a strong Ukraine and to do the reforms -- none of which will be easy, some of which will be painful -- that will set Ukraine up as a prosperous democracy for the long term."
Commenting on the ongoing anticorruption movement and mass protests in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, Baer said people were protesting "for similar reasons that people in Kyiv have protested, who are protesting for similar reasons that people in cities in the United States have protested in years past. People come out when they are fed up with something."
The disappearance of some $1 billion from Moldovan banks last year has angered citizens of the poor former Soviet republic.
He added that the appeal to Chisinau of joining the European Union is to create a Moldova that "entails a future with democratic institutions that are reliable, that don't steal from people, that deliver services, that people are able to fulfill their potential in a society that is governed by solid rule-of-law institutions."
WATCH: Moldova Wants 'European Future'
Baer rejected accusations that Washington has not been forceful in criticizing the steep increase in political repression in Azerbaijan against opposition activists and journalists in the past year.
He said those being imprisoned on what international rights groups and Western governments say are politically motivated charges were "committed to the future of their country -- they are patriots, they want to build a stronger, more prosperous, more democratic Azerbaijan."
Baer said he tells Azerbaijani officials that the issue "isn't about [the United States] -- this is about you [Azerbaijanis]. This is about the future of your country. People like [investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor] Khadija [Ismayilova], people like [activist] Rasul Cafarov, people like [activist] Intigam Aliyev, people like the Yunuses [activists Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus] -- these are people who believe in a stronger future for their country and to have them in prison is a terrible waste."
Likewise in Turkmenistan, Baer was critical of the July 7 detention of RFE/RL freelance journalist Saparmamed Nepeskuliev and attempts in recent months by the Turkmen authorities to intimidate several other RFE/RL correspondents via threats, warnings, and interrogations in an attempt to stop them from reporting.
"Turkmenistan is a participating state in the OSCE and all of the OSCE participating states have a series of commitments with respect to free and fair trials, openness, treatment of prisoners as well as there are commitments related to media freedom and, certainly, wherever it happens -- when there is an attack on an independent journalist -- that's an issue of grave concern not only to the U.S. government, but to many other participating states within the OSCE," he said.
Nepeskuliev has been held incommunicado since being detained in or near the town of Avaza near the Caspian Sea. His mother was told he was arrested on drug charges and some reports said he has been given a three-year sentence.
Nepeskuliev has been detained by Turkmen authorities several times before and warned to stop his work as a journalist.
Baer said Turkmenistan has boycotted a key OSCE annual forum in Warsaw at which rights issues are discussed. He said Turkmenistan should "come to that meeting and engage and to listen to the concerns [about its human rights record]."
The U.S. ambassador hinted that the OSCE's "Moscow mechanism" could be used in an effort to gain information about the rights situation in Turkmenistan.
Moving to OSCE member Kyrgyzstan, Baer said the United States was disappointed with recent legislation in the Kyrgyz parliament that mirrors Russian laws that labels certain NGOs as "foreign agents" as well as one banning the promotion of homosexual "propaganda."
"We see Kyrgyzstan as an important player in a strong Central Asia and we think that the path forward that is available to them by making the right choices, by building democratic institutions, by preserving fundamental freedoms -- not restricting them -- is one that has a lot of promise for the people of Kyrgyzstan and we'll continue to make that case," he said.