In an unusual move, European Council President Charles Michel invited Georgia’s ruling and opposition parties for talks under his mediation over dinner during his visit to Tbilisi on Monday (1 March).
Michel’s visit to Georgia comes with the parties mired in a deepening political crisis which risks derailing the former Soviet republic from its European path. Until now the EU has supported the party in power – Georgia Dream – and ignored the United National Movement (UNM), despite its pro-European and pro-NATO positions.
“I have called on all parties to deescalate and come together to relaunch the political dialogue and I’ve invited them to a meeting, tonight,” Michel said, apparently heeding the calls from the European Parliament to engage in dialogue.
“The time has come to move from facilitation to mediation,” Michel said at his press conference with Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.
Georgia’s political crisis escalated last month after police stormed the party offices of opposition leader Nika Melia and detained him on 23 February, deepening a political crisis that prompted the previous prime minister Giorgi Gakharia to resign.
Melia, the UNM party’s chairman has been accused of inciting violence at street protests in June 2019, a charge he dismisses as politically motivated.
The opposition has since been calling for snap elections and the release of what it describes as “political prisoners”.
Michel said readiness to achieve compromises is the route “of a mature democracy, this is the route towards stability and prosperity and this is the route towards an ever-closer relationship between EU and Georgia.”
Michel added that “Georgian citizens must be able to trust their justice system, any polarisation of justice is unacceptable, and we all know that some concrete cases should be addressed.”
During the trip, Michel emphasised the importance of Georgia’s political stability to the EU.
“My intention is not and was not just to spend one day in this marvellous country, and then come back to Brussels and then business as usual,” Michel said.
The Council President said he hopes that some progress will be achieved during the dinner, when he intends to put forward “a framework with some possible topics” and elements that need to be tackled.
Prime Minister Garibashvili welcomed the move, describing it as an “excellent initiative.”
“I want to confirm hereby that I stand ready to attend the meeting and to participate in it,” Garibashvili told reporters.
Earlier in the day, the Council President said the worsening political crisis was of great concern to him “personally, immensely.”
“The current developments in your region are a further reminder of the need for Georgia to come together and be in unity on essential issues,” Michel said, alluding to the unstable situation in Armenia, still reeling from its recent war with Azerbaijan, as well as Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus.
After meeting Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili in the morning, Michel headed down to the dividing line with the Russia-controlled region of South Ossetia.
Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in August 2008 which was ended with the help of the mediation of the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy. As a result, Georgia lost control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, roughly 25% of its territory.
The European Council chief announced his intention to visit the Eastern post-Soviet countries associated with the EU after the ill-fated trip to Moscow of the bloc’s top diplomat Josep Borrell, which appears to have prompted EU officials to be more pro-active on a number of dossiers.
In two weeks, representatives will head to Brussels for the EU-Georgia association council, which will assess progress made in implementing the association agreement that serves as the basis of the relationship between the bloc and the country.
[Edited by Georgi Gotev and Benjamin Fox]