On the evening of February 23, Georgia’s opposition parties launched an open-ended rally on Rustaveli Avenue, where all the important events in the country’s modern history have taken place. The opposition seeks to thwart the latest series of what they regard as anti-democratic actions by the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party (Interpressnews, February 24).
That morning, special units of the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs, with the support of municipal police, broke into the main office of the United National Movement (UNM) and detained the party’s chairperson, Nikanor Melia. His arrest was accompanied by clashes inside the party headquarters between interior ministry officers and opposition supporters, with several people injured. A little later, GD chairperson Irakli Kobakhidze explained that the authorities’ decision stemmed from the February 17 verdict by the Tbilisi City Court to detain Melia.
Tbilisi City Court Judge Nino Chakhnashvili’s ruling was motivated, she said, by the fact that the opposition politician did not pay in full bail of 70,000 lari ($21,084) for violating the conditions of his first bail, established by a court decision at the end of June 2019 (Civil.ge, February 21) Melia explained his refusal as unwillingness to “pay slavish tribute to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” whose interests, he contended, are “pursued in Georgia by the ruling Georgian Dream party” of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who famously made his fortune in Russia (Tv4.ge, February 10).
A few days prior to the court decision, the GD-dominated legislature deprived Melia of parliamentary immunity for the second time in a year and a half. A criminal case against the UNM’s chairperson and a number of other opposition figures was initiated in June 2019, on charges of “organizing group violence against police officers” and “attempting to violently seize power” (Oc-media, February 16).
The case concerns events of the so-called “Gavrilov’s Night” (June 21/22, 2019), when UNM supporters, under the direct leadership of Melia, tried to storm the parliament building. The demonstrator’s anger was sparked by an incident during that day’s plenary session of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (hosted in Tbilisi by the ruling GD majority), when Russian State Duma deputy Sergei Gavrilov (Communist Party) arrogantly and defiantly sat down in the chair reserved for the speaker of the Georgian parliament (ThroughTheNews, June 24, 2019).
In the days between the February 17 Tbilisi City Court ruling against Melia and the violent storming of UNM headquarters by law enforcement, political tensions in Georgia swiftly and sharply escalated, despite some efforts on both sides to calm the situation. On February 18, news emerged that Georgian Dream officials had been heatedly debating the use of force to enforce the Tbilisi court order. An inability to come to a consensus on the matter, as well as an apparently particularly discordant argument with the interior minister on the use of the ministry’s special forces, pushed the prime minister, Giorgi Gakharia, to announce his resignation. Gakharia told journalists that he considers the “measures” prepared by the interior ministry for the arrest of the opposition leader Melia unacceptable “if it creates a risk to the health and life of fellow citizens or provokes a political escalation in the country” (Civil.ge, Georgia Today, February 18). Gakharia was replaced as the head of government by Irakli Garibashvili, until then the defense minister (he previously held the post of prime minister in 2013–2015). GD postponed its plans to arrest Melia for several days.
Immediately following Gakharia’s resignation, UNM’s chairperson announced a “complete victory for the opposition” and demanded that GD immediately begin consultations to schedule early elections, which the united opposition has insisted on throughout the confrontation that began after the October 31, 2020, parliamentary elections. Almost all elected opposition party deputies have been boycotting the work of the legislature since then. In response, the GD leadership has accused the opposition of “sabotaging democracy” (see EDM, November, 5 2020). Negotiations mediated by the United States and the European Union have not yet yielded results: besides early elections, the opposition has been demanding the release of Giorgi Rurua, the owner of the opposition-friendly Mtavari Arkhi television channel. The authorities categorically refuse to fulfill either request.
The case of Giorgi Rurua is fundamental: if not for his investment, the opposition would lack access to any influential media resource in the country. Oppositionists, thus, consider the authorities’ case against Rurua as purely politically motivated (see jamestown, June 11, 2020). In an interview with this author, on February 20, former Georgian ambassador to the EU Salome Samadashvili, a member of the UNM political council, said that as long as even one political prisoner remains behind bars, “negotiations cannot be considered successful.”
On February 20, Melia nevertheless declared that the “United Opposition,” including UNM, is ready “to facilitate the de-escalation of the process, which is really dire, when things are not predictable and political life becomes increasingly tense hour after hour.” He stipulated, “Most importantly, the opposition did not want the situation to come to this and is just as eager for dialogue, but dialogue should be results-oriented and not dialogue for the sake of dialogue” (GMTV, February 20).
But a day later, the founder of UNM, former president Mikheil Saakashvili (currently serving abroad as the head of the Executive Committee of the National Council of Reforms of Ukraine), reversed this sentiment, appealing to the Georgian people and “all freedom-loving citizens” to take to the streets to “protect not only Nikanor Melia, but also their freedom and the country’s freedom” (Facebook.com, February 21).
The Georgian opposition is trying to attract the attention of the West, which, in fact, remains its only hope to influence the government in Tbilisi. It did not take long to wait for this reaction: the storming of the UNM headquarters and the arrest of its chairperson were immediately condemned by the US embassy, the EU Delegation and several influential Western politicians—for example, US Representative Adam Kinzinger, who had been behind the successful adoption of the Georgia Support Act by Congress (Civil.ge, February 23). The US embassy said in a statement that, as a result of Melia’s arrest, “Georgia has moved backward on its path toward becoming a stronger democracy in the Euro-Atlantic family of nations” (Civil.ge, February 23). The head of the EU Delegation, Karl Harzel, wrote on Twitter, “The logic of escalation is getting the upper hand. The political crisis is deepening” (Twitter.com/CarlHartzellEU, February 23).
The whole country hopes for a resumption of political negotiations, but if the newly installed Prime Minister Garibashvili—who is considered a supporter of a tough and irreconcilable line toward the opposition—orders law enforcement to storm the opposition “camp” on Rustaveli Avenue, any further talks will be firmly thwarted. And consequently, the most pessimistic expectations about the future of Georgian democracy may come to pass.