Georgien is facing a new escalation in the struggle between government and opposition. Special police forces moved into the headquarters of the largest opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM) on Tuesday morning. It is located in a futuristic building built to the taste of Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian President (2004 to 2013) of the UNM, on the road that leads from the airport to the center of the capital Tbilisi.
The police used tear gas to break resistance from supporters Nika Melias. The current UNM chairman had been in the building since last week. With the votes of the ruling party “Georgian Dream”, the parliament had stripped Melia of her immunity as a member of parliament and an arrest warrant was issued against him.
Close proximity to Russia?
Melia is accused of having called for mass unrest and a storm on parliament in June 2019. At that time, protests were sparked by the guest appearance of a Russian parliamentarian in the seat of the Georgian parliamentary president. The background to this is that Russia, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia, controls one fifth of Georgia’s territory and is considered an occupier in the country. In addition, the UNM accuses the founder of the “Georgian Dream”, Bidsina Ivanishvili, of disguised closeness to Russia.
In January Ivanshvili, the richest Georgian and dominant political figure, relinquished the chairmanship of the ruling party and again made accusations against the UNM and Saakashvili. The latter has long lived in exile and was convicted in absentia in Georgia. Several members of the opposition have been detained for long periods. Even by the country’s heated standards, the situation in Georgia is currently deeply poisoned; almost all opposition MPs have not taken up their seats since the parliamentary elections last autumn, which again ended with a victory for the “Georgian Dream”. They point to alleged irregularities and call for new elections.
The arrest warrant for Melia came after the UNM chairman removed a surveillance bracelet and refused to pay another bail in the mass riot trial to avoid pre-trial detention. The procedure against Melia was also controversial within the “Georgian Dream”: The previous Prime Minister, Giorgi Gacharia, had resigned last week. He believed that the execution of Melia’s arrest warrant could heighten tensions.
Gacharia’s successor became an old acquaintance on Monday evening in an election in the parliament boycotted by the opposition: Irakli Garibashvili. He was Prime Minister from 2013 to 2015 and most recently Minister of Defense. The entire career of the 38-year-old politician is linked to Ivanishvili, whose sharp rhetoric he copied. In parliament Garibashvili said on Monday that he would “restore order in the country” and described Melia as a “criminal”.
The morning after, the special forces arrived. At least 20 supporters of Melias were also arrested, but were soon released. The UNM chairman himself said shortly before his arrest that “the end of the government” is coming, “one is firm and united in the faith”, Garibashvili and Ivanishvili are “traitors” and no Georgian should come to justice because he was against a Russian Members of parliament protest. Irakli Kobachidze, the new chairman of the “Georgian Dream,” said Melia “arrested himself” for not paying bail. Melia and part of the opposition are “anti-state forces”.
The arrest was condemned by civil society. A statement from 22 organizations said the special operation would worsen the crisis and damage Georgia’s reputation. The American embassy in Tbilisi said it was “deeply concerned” about Georgia’s “regression” “on the way to a stronger democracy in the Euro-Atlantic family of nations”. The ambassadors of the EU, Lithuania and Great Britain made similar statements.
Hundreds of members of the opposition demonstrated in Tbilisi on Tuesday afternoon for the release of Melias and announced new protests for Friday. Saakashvili fueled the situation on social media: He spoke of a “genocide” and sounded that Ivanishvili wanted to “completely destroy” Georgia.
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