Georgia will hold parliamentary elections in 2024. That is unfortunately aligned with the electoral cycle of US Presidential elections and campaigning in the EU-27 as we near the European Parliamentary elections. The Republican primaries’ debate in the US offers the first indication of a resurging neo-isolationism. As for Europe, polling suggests the far-right forces are gaining ground, campaigning with their own version of neo-isolationism; similar discourse is echoed by some strands of the far-left as well. 

That is why what happens in Georgia, in Ukraine, in Moldova, matters. To influence this political debate in Europe, to take charge of our own destiny as New Europe that aspires to join the EU, the political mainstream must prevail. That cannot happen despite our political behaviour but because of our political behaviour. Western engagement with the South Caucasus is not a given but a politically contested commitment. We need to make it easy.

Geography limits our foreign policy to some extent; but for over a generation we have looked over our horizons to rebalance the crushing asymmetry imposed on us by an overpowering Russia. The West is not of this region, and we have toiled to maintain their engagement. Too bad we need to reflect on these matters while campaigning for power at home.

This alignment of electoral cycles in Georgia and the West is unfortunate for two reasons.

First, the lack of substance in the political debate in Georgia fuels an obsession with “geopolitical visions.” In this context, the old Helmut Schmidt quote comes to mind: “People with visions should go to the doctor.” I would prefer that we work with our partners silently, without fanfare and grandstanding, without the announcement of “strategic alliances.” In a world where war is becoming more frequent, the notion that we are a bridge to everyone and everywhere is delusional.

We now need to choose. Georgia can be the door of Central Asia to Europe, the necessary conduit to Turkey, and an anchor of the West in the post-Soviet space. If we decide to play with powers a lot bigger than us outside a multilateral framework, we will become a toy. If we try to place a bet on every play, we will lose big. I would prefer elections focused on domestic politics rather than a philosophical reflection on our strategic trajectory. Put simply, our partners will call our bluff if we question our common path in every electoral cycle. This is not a game.

The second reason this hellish electoral alignment is a problem is that Georgia focused exclusively on Georgia during elections. We act as if our elections are the only elections taking place in the world and everyone should ‘tune in’ to our sensitivities and ‘forgive our trespasses.’ The fact that perchance our Allies have their own heightened electoral sensitivities escapes us. 

To be clear, the electoral landscape in Georgia is not pretty.

Polling suggests the Georgian Dream consistently leads the polls, possibly with good reason, as the United National Movement has little to offer as an alternative political vision. The two leading parties taken together poll consistently below 45%. The rest of the vote is thinly spread, with the biggest political power being apathy and disillusionment. That means that you do not win by resonating to the majority. You want a small angry minority to stand up and go to vote, while other sink deep in their couch, watching the match of the day or the latest cooking show, hoping elections will end like a bad toothache. There is good reason for political apathy, but its effect is likely to hurt Georgia.

Mikhail Saakashvili was responsible for human rights abuses that is difficult to write off. The Georgian Dream has a low bar of expectations to match and has quit trying. Rather than witnessing a programmatic debate, we see the standoff of angry cowboys in a saloon. The government is raising the spectre of war; the opposition is raising the spectre of a Russian invasion. Anyone my age can tell these kinds of discussions tend to be self-fulfilling prophesies. I recall Kalashnikov shoot-outs in the streets of Tbilisi, and I always hoped successive generations would not need a reminder.

In view of elections in our country, short-termism prevails.  The Georgian economy makes the most of Russian demand for exports; we signed a strategic partnership with China, and we pretend to pursue multi-vector diplomacy as if we have the size of Turkey or India. Drunk with our own luck, we no doubt expect to be granted EU-candidacy status by the end of the year. We are apparently so “geopolitically invaluable” that we can take the best of all worlds, cherry-picking to our heart’s content. Meanwhile, if a Georgian high-level official goes off to address Hungary’s CPAC, the world’s foremost ultra-conservative forum, sticking our tongue out to middle-of-the-road political forces that support Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic strategic trajectory. In general, “flirting” with extremist political forces makes us look extreme.

This attitude distorts Georgia’s strategic lenses. We tend to forget that should a more “neutral,” “nation-first,” “peace-loving,” and effectively pro-Russian political prevails in Brussels or Washington, we will have no leg to stand with our multi-vector nonsense. If these neo-isolationist extremists do not win, then someone may remember that Georgia’s ruling party has been rallying behind those losers. In sum, this governments’ political bet on neo-isolationism is a losing one. Now, I don’t like gambling, especially with my country’s future, but there is no way this bet on neo-isolationism will pay for Georgia. Some people play with capital we don’t have a game we can’t win.

Whoever wins the 2024 US Presidential elections will remember how we treated the US Ambassador. Big states have long memories. During her farewell press conference, US Ambassador Degnan was very generous in dismissing personal attacks towards her person with the “politicians are politicians” adage, which sounds like a “children will be children.”  I would say that if the Ambassador of the United States thinks there is a campaign to undermine Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic trajectory, irrespectively of whether that impression is accurate or not, “we have a problem.” If you think “she has a problem” or that “Washington has a problem,” then think again. That is Georgia’s problem because even if we are in an electoral year, Washington stands in its place as secure as it ever has been. It is Tbilisi that might feel shaky after this year of electoral encounters, as we were in 2016.

To be clear, I am not impressed by gamblers and less so by those play with our strategic capital, a bad hand, apparently bluffing with a slapstick comedian’s face. We have much to lose.

Tedo Japaridze is a former ambassador to the US and ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia.