When the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, makes his scheduled visit to Tbilisi next month it will not be plain sailing. The deteriorating crisis in Georgia, a star member of the EU's six-member Eastern Partnership (EP) of former Soviet satellites, aspirant Nato member, and where democracy was said to be well embedded, is raising real questions about the latter and will now be a test of the union's diplomatic heft.
Tuesday's arrest by the Georgian authorities of opposition leader Nika Melia, chair of the UNM party, prompted a mass demonstration in Tbilisi and further arrests in an escalation of a row between the UNM and ruling Georgian Dream party over the legitimacy of last year's dodgy elections. The UNM has boycotted the new parliament. The notional grounds for the arrest, an alleged breach of bail conditions relating to protests against that election, bear a striking resemblance to the case against Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
Observers of Georgian politics worry at the country's authoritarian drift and gradual abandonment of the pluralism which has marked the past 15 years, but also at the continuing role behind the scenes of former PM and Georgian Dream leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. The latter, whose personal wealth of $6 billion is equivalent to one-third of the country's GDP, claimed recently he was retiring from politics, but few doubt that he remains the power behind the throne and effectively controls state institutions like the courts.
But if the Tbilisi regime is aping Moscow's methods, both government and opposition remain determinedly wedded to building a closer relationship with the EU and US, unlike the divided attitudes manifest in others of the EP such as Belarus and Ukraine. That relationship is necessarily conditional, giving Michel and the EU the sort of leverage Moscow enjoys elsewhere. He is expected to threaten a credible set of sanctions unless EU demands for the release of political prisoners and the prompt rerun of the elections are met.