Georgian Dream MPs hope political turmoil can be resolved

[L] Maka Botchorishvili - Chair of the EU Integration Committee, and George Khelashvili – Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels, 11 March 2021. [Georgi Gotev]

EURACTIV has spoken to two lawmakers from the ruling Georgian Dream party, as hopes grow that a solution to Georgia’s ongoing political crisis might be found at next week’s meeting of the EU-Georgia Association Council.

However, tensions remain high, EU Integration Committee chair Maka Botchorishvili and member of the foreign affairs committee George Khelashvili, told EURACTIV during an interview in Brussels on Thursday (11 March).

Georgia’s political crisis escalated last month after police stormed the party offices of opposition leader Nika Melia and detained him, deepening a political crisis that also prompted previous prime minister Giorgi Gakharia to resign.

Melia, the United National Movement (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”. Council President Charles Michel last week visited Tbilisi and mediated between the ruling party and the opposition, announcing that progress would be assessed by 15 March.

Khelashvili explained that this was a crisis with deep roots, typical of the polarization of the Georgian political sphere. These tensions further exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis culminated in elections in November and spilled over into the streets.

Social media also played a role, with Khelashvili claiming the opposition had been “extremely mobilized” in stoking tensions.

Georgia has been on a rocky road in recent years, but has slated up successes such as the constitutional change to the electoral law in March 2020.

Asked if the current crisis meant this achievement had turned out to be a failure after all, Khelashvili said that the compromise had been “a half-success”, because the opposition, which participated in the negotiations, had in the event not voted for it.

The MP explained that the political landscape consisted of the ruling party Georgian Dream, the opposition UNM of Mikheil Saakashvili and of disparate forces in the middle which don’t like either.

These smaller parties got lost in the polarization and received much fewer votes at the last election than they would expect, because UNM  got the radical vote, he said.

Khelashvili claimed that the night before the elections Saakashvili’s people had already started talking about rigged elections, despite the fact that 11,000 opposition representatives had signed election protocols which said the elections were fair.

The MP said that in the event there were only “regular irregularities” typical for a Georgian vote.

“Had we considered the elections rigged, we would never accept to enter parliament”, Khelashvili said, insisting that “this was a competitive election and a legitimate one”.

In his view, smaller parties went along with the UNM as they had nothing to lose. If they accepted the result, they would be left with just a handful of lawmakers. Most decided to play the UNM’s radical game, he said, with only one small party agreeing the election had been fair.

Botchorishvili explained meanwhile that Georgian institutions had had no choice but to detain Melia, because turning a blind eye to his alleged offences would in affect support the opposition’s narrative that “the state is crumbling”.

Khelashvili explained that the current crisis was regrettable but ultimately resolvable. “The problem is that those who are reasonable in the opposition have no spine, and those who have spine are not reasonable,” he alleged.

Botshorishvili meanwhile welcomed the EU’s intervention in the form of last week’s “fortunate” visit by Council President Charles Michel, who brought the opposition and the ruling party together for talks ahead of an Association Council scheduled for Monday.

“Power-sharing was a key word” in Michel’s message, Botshorishvili said, explaining that in Georgia, where political tradition was that “the winner takes all”, it was necessary to learn that the opposition too plays a role in parliament.

She also said that Georgians understood when Michel appealed to parliament to resume work, and that any elections were possible after local elections, which serve as “a litmus test”.

[Edited by Josie Le Blond]

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