Crisis-hit Georgia’s PM quits over plan to arrest opposition leader

EU and US call for dialogue as Black Sea state's political deadlock deepens

Giorgi Gakharia, who has stepped down as Georgia’s prime minister. “Unfortunately, I could not reach a consensus with my team on this issue,” he said.  Photograph: Lex Van Lieshout/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Giorgi Gakharia, who has stepped down as Georgia’s prime minister. “Unfortunately, I could not reach a consensus with my team on this issue,” he said. Photograph: Lex Van Lieshout/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

 

Georgia’s prime minister Giorgi Gakharia has resigned as plans to arrest an opposition leader split the government and pitched the Black Sea state into a new phase of a rumbling political crisis.

Mr Gakharia quit amid growing political tension, after a court ruled that Nika Melia, leader of the United National Movement (UNM), should be arrested for refusing to pay an increased bail fee over charges dating back to protests in 2019.

All major opposition parties condemned Wednesday’s ruling and some of their leaders joined a crowd of protesters at UNM headquarters in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, and vowed to resist any police bid to detain Mr Melia.

“Unfortunately, I could not reach a consensus with my team on this issue. I decided to resign,” Mr Gakharia said on Thursday.

“I believe . . . this step will help reduce polarisation in the political space of our country,” said Mr Gakharia, who led Georgia for 17 months, adding that it was “unacceptable to impose justice on one person, even if it is legal, if it creates a risk to the health and lives of our citizens or creates the possibility of political escalation”.

The chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhidze, expressed regret over Mr Gakharia’s resignation and said the police had – for now – postponed plans to detain Mr Melia.

“A country that cannot ensure enforcement of the law, especially when it so crudely challenged by criminals, cannot function as a state,” he said. “We call upon Melia to obey the law, or the government will enforce the law and proceed with his arrest.”

Election accusations

Opposition deputies have boycotted parliament over alleged fraud in national elections last October, but Georgian Dream denies rigging the vote and accuses its foes of undermining the country’s democracy.

“Only early elections will lead the country out of the crisis, which will help to restore order in all areas, starting with justice,” Mr Melia said on Thursday.

Critics of Georgian Dream accuse it of putting pressure on opponents and becoming increasingly autocratic, even after its billionaire founder and former premier Bidzina Ivanishvili announced recently that he was leaving politics for good.

Opposition parties said the order to arrest Mr Melia marked “a dramatic escalation in political repression in Georgia” and highlighted “Georgian Dream’s obvious push towards full-blown authoritarianism”.

Georgia has been the West’s closest ally in the strategic Caucasus region since its 2003 Rose Revolution brought a new generation of politicians to power and tilted it away from Moscow; the country of 3.7 million fought a brief war in 2008 with Russia, which supports separatists who have run two provinces of Georgia – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – since the 1990s.

The European Union urged “both the authorities and the opposition . . . to act with utmost restraint and responsibility to avoid further escalation”, and said the crisis “can only be resolved through sincere political dialogue”.

The US embassy in Tbilisi said the “current dangerous situation following the Melia ruling stems from decades-long problems with the electoral system and the judicial system . . . The way to address the important issues at stake is through peaceful negotiation. We urge all involved to remain calm and avoid violence.”