Western allies concerned about deepening political turmoil in Georgia

Supporters of the Georgia's opposition party of 'National Movement' wave Georgian national flags in front of their office in Tbilisi, Georgia, 18 February 2021. Georgia's Prime Minister Gakharia announced his resignation on 18 February 2021 over plans to arrest opposition leader Melia. [EPA-EFE/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE]

Prominent European politicians, countries and the European Commission voiced serious concern about the deepening political crisis in Georgia after Prime minister Georgi Gakharia stepped down on Thursday (18 February), exposing divisions in the ruling party over a court decision to arrest the main opposition leader.

Georgia in turmoil as PM resigns over arrest of opposition leader

The political crisis in Georgia is deepening as Prime Minister Georgi Gakharia stepped down on Thursday (18 February), citing his disagreement with the team on the court decision to arrest the main opposition party leader.

The ruling Georgian Dream party quickly announced its decision to nominate defence minister Irakli Gharibashvili as Gakharia’s replacement later on Thursday.

Gharibashvili served as prime minister previously, and the treaty governing relations between the Southern Caucasian country and the bloc, the EU-Georgia Association Agreement, was signed with his government in 2014, before his unexpected resignation in December 2015.

However, commentators were quick to point out that Gharibashvili’s appointment suggests a hardline stance of the ruling party.

“Known for his scathing criticism of the opposition, he is unlikely to defuse political tensions,” Giorgi Gogia, associate director of Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch said on social media.

European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano said the EU was “deeply concerned about the continued polarisation in the country, which is further exacerbated by the court ruling against Mr Melia.”

A Georgian court ruled on Wednesday that Nika Melia, the leader of the main opposition party – the United National Movement — should be remanded in custody for failure to post bail in a trial where he is accused of participating in riots on 20-21 June 2019 and encouraging protesters to storm the parliament.

That marked the beginning of protests in Georgia, which continued for a year.

Thousands of protesters try to storm Georgia parliament

Thousands of protesters attempted Thursday (20 June) to storm the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi, furious that a Russian lawmaker addressed the assembly from the speaker’s seat during an international event.

Melia refused to post bail and said that the court and the prosecutor’s office are “bought by  Ivanishvili,” referring to the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the ruling Georgia Dream party.

The ministry of internal affairs has temporarily postponed the arrest of Melia because of the prime minister’s resignation.

In a Twitter post on Thursday, Gakharia said he had resigned “in the hope of reducing polarisation and de-escalating the situation.”

“I believe that confrontation and rivalry within the country endanger the future of Georgia’s democratic and economic development,” he said.

Melia welcomed Gakharia’s resignation but said it was insufficient and called for snap elections to be negotiated during a meeting between the ruling party and the opposition, with the facilitation of foreign ambassadors.

“The only way forward now is to reduce tensions and engage in political dialogue,” the EU spokesperson Stano said, emphasising that the current political impasse can only damage Georgia’s international reputation.

Asked by EURACTIV if the EU was prepared to mediate political dialogue, Stano said “we are ready and happy to continue our assistance and help provided to Georgia in whatever way it might be deemed useful by our Georgian partners.”

Other EU partners have also expressed their concern about the developments.

Lithuania, a staunch supporter of Georgia’s EU integration, issued a statement saying the possible arrest of Melia “reduces the possibility of dialogue between the ruling party and the opposition, raising questions about selective justice and the rule of law in the country.”

“We call on our partners in Georgia to step away from the red lines, take advantage of the opportunity to de-escalate the situation and look for ways to normalise the situation, as well as to return to constructive political dialogue,” said the Lithuanian foreign affairs minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis.

Carl Bildt, Sweden’s former prime minister and foreign affairs minister, seen by many as the architect of the EU’s policy in the East, described the developments as “most disturbing.”

EU conservative Polish lawmaker Anna Fotyga also took to Twitter to express her concern.

“I am alarmed by the news coming from Georgia, a country that used to set examples for others and now slides back to its turbulent past as in the 1990s,” the MEP said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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