Georgia's political crisis – explained
The recent special operation in the offices of Georgia’s largest opposition party to arrest its chair Nika Melia has landed Georgia at the centre of sharp criticism by its international partners.
A few hours after Melia’s arrest, the opposition held a large rally in Tbilisi and announced it would be holding an ongoing protest.
The opposition puts forward two main demands – the immediate release of Nika Melia and the scheduling of snap elections.
“Georgia will not return to the USSR” was one of the slogans of the protest, used to draw attention to the fact that Melia had been arrested on February 23, the day of the celebration of the Day of the Red Army in the Soviet Union.
The rally was attended by almost all parties, social movements and independent politicians opposing the current government.
Several tents were set up near the parliament..
Another rally is scheduled for February 26. The opposition supposes that it will be even larger, since those who will come from the regions will join the residents of Tbilisi.
As for Prime Minister Garibashvili, after harsh international criticism, he noticeably softened his rhetoric towards his opponents and offered a dialogue to the opposition. However, will the opposition accept this proposal?
PM Garibashvili’s first day
The special operation carried out in the office of the United National Movement was the first decision made by the new prime minister after his appointment to this post.
Parliament approved Garibashvili’s candidacy on February 22, after his predecessor, Giorgi Gakharia, abruptly left office on February 18.
One of the main reasons for Gakharia’s resignation was the disagreement with the Georgian Dream team over Melia’s arrest. Gakharia was against this measure. Political observers believe that Gakharia resigned to avoid taking responsibility for the possible consequences of Nika Melia’s arrest.
Irakli Garibashvili has already served as the head of the Georgian government in 2013-2015. He is a member of the inner circle of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the shadow ruler of Georgia, and is known for his harsh and aggressive rhetoric towards opponents. Therefore, no one was surprised that Garibashvili’s premiership began with harsh persecution of the opposition.
Garibashvili calls the special operation to detain Melia “execution of the law”, during which “the state was at its best.”
In fact, the seizure of the headquarters of the opposition party was unanimously supported by other government officials. For example, Parliament Speaker Archil Talakvadze and Chairman of the Georgian Dream ruling team Irakli Kobakhidze.
“It is already clear that the modern Bolsheviks Mikhail Saakashvili, Nika Gvaramia (director of the opposition channel Mtavari), Giga Bokeria, Nikanor Melia, Nino Burjanadze, Nito Chkheidze, Irakli Okruashvili (opposition leaders) will not be able to do anything to the Georgian state,” Kobakhidze said at a briefing at the office of the Georgian Dream party.
- Protests in Tbilisi after special forces arrest of opposition leader. Photo report
- Georgian opposition leader arrested during special op., tear gas used
The Nika Melia case
Nika Melia is the chairman of the former ruling United National Movement party, which was founded by ex-Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. He is now outside the country, as several criminal cases have been opened against him.
Melia is accused of organizing a large-scale rally in front of the parliament building, which took place on June 20, 2019 during the scandalous visit to Georgia of the deputy of the Russian parliament Sergey Gavrilov.
In 2019, the court did not arrest Melia. He was released on bail of 30 thousand lari [about $9 thousand] and obligated to wear a monitoring bracelet.
In November 2020, at an opposition rally against the results of the parliamentary elections, Melia demonstratively took off the bracelet, calling it a symbol of injustice.
In response, the opposition increased the size of the bail by another 40 thousand lari [about $12,000] which Melia refused to pay. This then became the official reason for his detention. Several days before his arrest, parliament had stripped Melia of his MP status.
Non-governmental organizations, as well as the Ombudsman of Georgia and international partners, have drawn attention to the legal problems in the case and say allege it is politically motivated.
A few days before Melia’s arrest, Zhigimantas Pavilionis, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Lithuanian parliament, and an active supporter of Georgia’s European integration, came specially to try to persuade the Georgian authorities not to arrest the opposition figure.
The Public Defender of Georgia Nino Lomjaria also stated that Melia’s case is politically motivated and damages the international image of Georgia, calling Melia’s arrest legally unfounded:
“Taking [Melia] into custody as a preventive measure must be justified. This measure is not a form of punishment. It is used if there are reasonable suspicions that the accused is hiding or destroying evidence. The Public Defender did not find such evidence”.
International community response
Nika Melia’s arrest has caused one of the harshes reactions in recent years to Georgia from European and American diplomats and politicians.
“Today Georgia has retreated from the path of strengthening democracy in the family of Euro-Atlantic states,” said the statement posted on the US Embassy’s Facebook page.
The US State Department also made an official statement. “The United States is deeply concerned about the arrest of United National Movement leader Nika Melia and the ongoing events in Georgia,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a February 23 news conference.
.@StateDeptSpox Price: The United States is deeply troubled by the arrest of opposition leader Nika Melia and other members of the opposition in Georgia. pic.twitter.com/Qn8IqU5SYw— Department of State (@StateDept) February 23, 2021
Within 24 hours after Melia’s arrest, several dozen tweets, posts or statements on Facebook appeared in Georgia. In them, American and European politicians, observers, congressmen, senators and members of the European Parliament tried to convey the same message – political obstacles have appeared on the way of Georgia’s movement into Euro-Atlantic structures.
Some statements said that Georgia chose the Russian and Belarusian development models, where political opponents are persecuted and detained for expressing their opinions.
Following an unprecedented international backlash to Melia’s arrest, Prime Minister Garibashvili issued a statement calling on the opposition for “sincere dialogue.”
“I want to call on all the political forces that cherish the country to a sincere dialogue and talk not about what divides us, but about what should unite us.”
Garibashvili calls parliament a platform for dialogue, which has been boycotted by opposition MPs for three months. [The opposition believes that the parliamentary elections on October 31 were rigged, so the opposition MPs refused parliamentary mandates].
The opposition is not going to use the parliamentary rostrum for dialogue; one of its main demands is early parliamentary elections.
“Our position is clear – we have never refused dialogue. But there are two main demands – the release of political prisoners Nika Melia and Giorgi Rurua and early elections to restore the democratic process in the country,” said a member of the National Movement Salome Samadashvili after meeting with diplomats.
Both the opposition and experts see the resolution of the political crisis through the involvement of the international community.
The 22 most influential international and local non-governmental organizations operating in the country have published a joint letter condemning the government’s decision.
They assess the situation as a ‘dead end’ and call on international partners to express their reactions.
Public Defender of Georgia Nino Lomjaria calls the situation extremely serious, the responsibility for which lies with the authorities.
“I urge the government to take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation. One of these steps for me will be the release of Nicky Melia,” she said.
According to her, such a development of events will alienate Georgia from its Western partners and lead to a dead end.
February 23 was a turning point for Georgian Dream and the country as a whole, political observer Khatuna Lagazidze believes:
“It was a difficult day for Georgia, but there is also a downside to the coin. Georgian Dream has shown itself in the eyes of the West as an anti-state force leading Georgia towards Russia,” Lagazidze said.
According to her, after February 23, the West will be forced to change its attitude towards the Georgian government:
“All these years, the West has been calm about Georgia. The Georgian Dream has not pestered the West about its Euro-Atlantic aspirations or tense relations with Russia. In words, Georgian Dream demonstrated loyalty to the West, but in reality it did not take any steps in this direction. Today it so happened that the West saw the real face of the Georgian Dream. This is dangerous for Georgia, for the region as a whole, for the West”, Lagazidze said.
According to her, it was with its calmness that the West indirectly encouraged “the impudence of the Georgian Dream, which we are observing.”
The expert believes that the way out is only in early elections.
“It is interesting how the West will seek the consent of the authorities to this decision, since it will not be easy to come to an agreement with the Georgian Dream,” Lagazidze said.
Expert Tornike Sharashenidze calls the recent decisions of the Georgian Dream “unpredictable”.
“Since the October 31 elections, the West gave unprecedented support to Dream. They perceived the opposition’s stubbornness as unconstructive and fully supported the Georgian government – for the first time in eight years of its rule. And what has the West achieved as a result of the support? Trust was eroded in an instant. Leaving aside the moral side, it is completely unknown what the authorities wanted to achieve,” Sharashenidze said.
The expert also believes that it will be difficult for Georgian Dream to repel the “onslaught” of the West, and “logically, the question of snap elections should arise.”