BAKU, Azerbaijan – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Sunday became the second U.S. Cabinet secretary in a month to visit Azerbaijan, 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.

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

Azerbaijan has had no U.S. ambassador for more than a year, and it was not invited to President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit last spring, while its rival Armenia was.