The European Union has begun mediating between Georgia's feuding government and opposition amid fears for the stability of a key western ally in the strategic Caucasus region, where neighbouring Armenia is also embroiled in a major crisis.
Opposition deputies have boycotted Georgia's parliament for several months over the ruling Georgian Dream party's alleged rigging of elections, and tension soared last week when police arrested the country's main opposition leader, Nika Melia.
"I am deeply concerned about the deepening political crisis in Georgia. which risks undermining Georgia's hard-won young democracy in this complex region," European Council president Charles Michel said in Tbilisi on Monday.
"The government . . . should demonstrate responsible leadership and the opposition should step up to the challenges and engage constructively," he said beside Georgian prime minister Irakli Garibashvili.
Mr Michel said it was time for the EU to move “from facilitation to mediation” in Georgia, and he invited the government and opposition to meet for talks.
“I hope that tonight we have the opportunity to make some progress . . . I intend to put on the table a ‘framework’ with some possible topics and elements that need to be discussed and tackled.”
Mr Garibashvili thanked Mr Michel for his “excellent initiative” and insisted his government was “solidly committed to dialogue, to ensure that we normalise the political situation in country as soon as possible”.
Opposition leaders also responded positively to Mr Michel's invitation, and local media reported that talks got under way on Monday evening at the Orbeliani Palace, residence of Georgian president Salome Zourabichvili.
Georgian Dream denies rigging last autumn’s parliamentary elections and insists Mr Melia face justice over his refusal to pay an increased bail fee in connection with charges dating back to protests in 2019.
Opposition deputies say his arrest is just the latest display of the autocratic tendencies of Georgian Dream and its founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire whom they accuse of running the party and government from behind the scenes.
The EU's eagerness to help end Georgia's crisis stands in sharp contrast to its failure to significantly influence last autumn's conflict between neighbouring Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, where Russia and Turkey were the key international players.
Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has been under huge pressure since Azerbaijan's victory in six weeks of fierce fighting, and last week he accused his own country's military of attempting a coup when top officers told him to resign.
At a rally of thousands of supporters on Monday, Mr Pashinyan said he was ready to institute constitutional changes and hold snap parliamentary elections “to see whose resignation the people demand”.
Mr Pashinyan says he is being undermined by officers who want to evade scrutiny over the defeat to Azerbaijan and who are close to a political old guard that he ousted from power in 2018.