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TBILISI – Just six days ago, Georgia praised the urgent pause in a controversial police operation to capture the country’s top opposition leader.
That ended on Tuesday.
During an early morning raid, Georgia police broke into the United National Movement (UNM) party center where UNM chairwoman Nika Melia was entrenched. Local TV stations broadcasting the raid live showed police were using pepper spray or tear gas when they clashed with Melia’s supporters who were barricaded trying to prevent his arrest. In the end, the police pulled Melia out.
Moments later, the US and European governments, who vowed Georgia last week, warned that the Black Sea nation was dangerously stalling in its efforts to achieve western democracy. And in Tbilisi, the demonstrators quickly gathered in front of the Georgian parliament and blocked the main road through the capital.
The arrest is the latest turn in a longstanding tug-of-war over the country’s relationship with Russia, whose troops have occupied around a fifth of its territory since a brief war between the two neighbors in 2008. Melia was a key voice accusing the country’s leaders of returning to Moscow orbit despite widespread popular support for closer integration with Europe and the West. His arrest therefore represents a difficult challenge for Western countries trying to counter Moscow’s revanchism – “the logic of the escalation is gaining the upper hand,” warned EU Ambassador Carl Hartzell.
The same challenge faced protests in front of the Georgian parliament on Tuesday, when people waved posters saying “Stop Putin’s dream” and “We don’t want a return to the Soviet Union”.
“I don’t care about Nika Melia,” said Zura Mchedlishvili, one of the people who protested outside parliament after the arrest. “This is about stopping Russian influence.”
While 41-year-old Melia’s profile has risen sharply since he was taken over as UNM leader by former President Mikheil Saakashvili, he has also been criticized for his overly confrontational style.
“This is a bigger problem than Melia,” agreed Khatia Gremelashvili, a 25-year-old business analyst who stands nearby. “The way things are going under this government, we are only going downhill economically and democratically.”
A short break
Last week police pulled back from arresting Melia – allegedly for bail violation – after then-Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia suddenly resigned as the country is fighting the pandemic.
But Gakharia’s successor, Irakli Garibashvili, quickly changed the narrative.
On Tuesday he called Melia “a criminal” in a statement congratulating the police on carrying out the arrest. He said the aim was to demonstrate that every Georgian citizen “has a duty to abide by the rule of law, regardless of status”.
But key Western allies were not impressed.
“Georgia has gone backwards on its way to a stronger democracy in the Euro-Atlantic family of states,” said the US embassy in Tbilisi in a statement.
In the US, representative Adam Kinzinger – a Republican and long-time supporter of Georgia’s hopes of joining NATO – tweeted Melia’s arrest as “incredibly stupid”. In a previous post, Kinzinger had warned that continued US support for Georgia could not be guaranteed if it continued on its current path.
British Ambassador Mark Clayton said he was “shocked” by the police raid to arrest Melia, adding that “violence and chaos in Tbilisi is the last thing Georgia needs right now”.
The arrest is the latest and most serious flare-up in a political crisis that has subsided since last October, when the country’s dream party won the parliamentary elections.
The UNM and other opposition parties boycotted parliament after the vote, claiming the results had been manipulated and calling for another election. International observer groups made informed judgments, with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) concluding that the vote “was competitive and overall fundamental freedoms were respected”, but also found that “there were ubiquitous pressures against voters. ”
Since Georgian Dream first won an election in 2012, opposition leaders have complained that contrary to most of the country’s wishes, the country has taken a pro-Russian course. They accuse the billionaire founder of Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, of ruling the country behind the scenes and snuggling up to Russia.
Ivanishvili, who made his living in Russia in the 1990s, has not publicly turned away from the West, but the country’s stance on Moscow has weakened in recent years and pro-Russian parties have gained ground.
Melia was one of the loudest on the charges – and helped lead a protest against Russian influence in 2019. A dull headline in a Russian media report on his detention summed up the Moscow establishment’s view: “Leaders of anti-Russian demonstrations arrested.”
This protest two years ago also resulted in Melia’s arrest for incitement and the official trial against him. But while the government claims it is merely enforcing the rule of law, the opposition says it is using the case to silence one of its most effective opponents.
One of Melia’s opposition allies, MP Elene Khoshtaria, painted the political crisis in Georgia as part of broader protest movements across the region.
“There is a wave of people fighting for freedom, it’s in Belarus, it’s in Russia and it’s here in Georgia,” she said. “And it is in the strategic interests of the West to support these democratic movements.”
Such language causes tremors in the Kremlin, which has long accused the West of meddling in what it regards as its backyard. However, it has shown little interest in the views of Georgians, where opinion polls show solid public support for joining NATO and the EU.
A former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, who visited Georgia in 2009 with then Vice President Joe Biden, described the situation in Georgia on Tuesday as the “third” major foreign policy test for the new US administration of current President Biden.
Some opposition voices are calling for a tougher response from the West, including sanctions against Ivanishvili – similar to those imposed on Russia in response to the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
“I am waiting to see the same thing in Georgia,” said Nino Burjanadze, a former parliamentary speaker who has also advocated a more accommodating stance towards the Kremlin in the past.
Despite the defiance of Garibashvili, the new Georgian Prime Minister, it is unlikely that he will want another confrontation with the US and European allies. Unlike in Belarus, the Georgian government has shown that it cares how it is seen in the West. Georgian Dream Party leader Irakli Kobakhidze, who defended Melia’s arrest, tacitly confirmed this.
“We understand that international partners have concerns about the further polarization of political processes in Georgia,” he said in a statement.
At the same time, it is not clear how a long and drawn out gap can be avoided. US and European envoys had tried to find a compromise long before the crisis surrounding Melia’s arrest. And yet Georgian Dream refuses to support new elections while the opposition calls for more street protests.
Zura Mchedlishvili, whose face wore a red and blue mask when he stood in front of Parliament, had little hope: “I’m 36 and it just feels like we’re going around in circles.”