After America’s top diplomat Mike Pompeo promised a smooth transition to a “second Trump administration,” he booked himself on a foreign trip, presumably, to get away from the toxic atmosphere of Washington D.C. Next week, he will be swinging through France, Turkey, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Georgia, the country, not the state, where he will spend two days.
When he arrives in the capital Tbilisi, Pompeo will find a situation eerily similar to the one he may be trying to escape: rising Covid-19 numbers and big street protests over a bitter, disinformation-mired election dispute. And while Pompeo is a lame duck diplomat in much of the world, his visit to the small South Caucasus nation could alter history.
On October 31, Georgians voted in a highly contested parliamentary election. After eight years on the political sidelines, the opposition thought it stood a chance of at least diluting the power of the ruling Georgian Dream party.
But according to the opposition, the game was rigged from the start. The election was marred by disinformation and allegations of vote buying. And once the ballots were cast, evidence of fraud began to emerge. In over a hundred polling stations, for example, no one voted for the opposition — a statistical impossibility in a politically divided Georgia. In some areas, the vote totals cast for the ruling party were greater than the number of people who actually voted.
The ruling party is run by the Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s richest man, an oligarch with ties to Russia who, over the years, has successfully managed to keep the opposition weak and fragmented.
The international community — the usual arbiter between the Georgian government and the opposition — has been distracted by the pandemic and the turmoil in the U.S. While there has been some criticism of the government, overall the response has been muted and government-backed media channels cite Pompeo’s upcoming visit as a validation of the election’s outcome.
For years Georgia, an ally of the U.S., has been held up as a model for the region. This election further erodes the country democratic stature and is likely to come at a geopolitical cost for the West.
The “Ivanishvili government has hired lobbying firms in Washington while embracing Russian disinformation narratives and Russian tactics at home,” says Giorgi Kandelaki, an opposition politician. “Retreat of democracy here harms the United States interests and works to Putin’s benefit”
As America’s top diplomat, Pompeo often urges free and fair elections and peaceful transitions of power. But his two-day visit to Georgia does not include a meeting with the country’s opposition, and his apparent refusal to accept election results in his own country makes him a deeply compromised interlocutor.
Upping the stakes is a massive geopolitical tremor in the region. The South Caucasus — which includes Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan — is a key global transit route and a strategic gem that Washington and Moscow have been at loggerheads over for years. This week, its map was redrawn, literally, when Azerbaijan scored a military victory over Armenia in a war over the long-disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
It was a conflict much of the world didn’t even notice, but regional powers Turkey and Russia filled the vacuum created by a distracted America. Over the past six weeks, Ankara provided key military support to Azerbaijan, while Moscow stood back, allowing Azerbaijan to crush Armenia, Russia’s most loyal ally. This week, after Azerbaijan took key territories, the Kremlin stepped in, negotiated a truce and was invited by Azerbaijan to maintain stability. Moscow is sending troops to act as peacekeepers.
Who the ultimate geopolitical winner of this situation is in dispute. Azerbaijan is the obvious one. But Russia now has boots on the ground and new leverage over both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Turkey, too, has come out ahead.
Losers are much easier to identify. Armenia: a devastated nation now sinking into a political crisis that will take years to overcome. And the United States: for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington is suddenly not even a player in a Great Game that it only recently led.
As Mike Pompeo leaves the election chaos at home to embark on his foreign tour, the Caucasus provides a striking destination to showcase America’s diminished role on the global stage.