Georgian police stormed the headquarters of the country’s opposition party and arrested its leader, exacerbating a political crisis in the former Soviet country which, according to government criticism, risks descending into authoritarianism.
In a dramatic morning raid, riot police entered the United National Movement (UNM) headquarters, using tear gas and batons to arrest its leader, Nika Melia, on criminal charges and detained some in minus a dozen others.
Images broadcast on Georgian TV showed Melia being dragged out of the building. He is accused of inciting violence during the 2019 anti-government protests when protesters stormed parliament and faces nine years in prison. His supporters said the accusations were politically motivated.
The crisis pits supporters of the UNM, the opposition party founded by former President Mikheil Saakashvili, against the dominant Georgian Dream, the ruling party founded by billionaire and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
The raid exacerbated a crisis in Georgia that began after the disputed results of last year’s parliamentary elections, which theoretically ended in a resounding victory for Georgian Dream. The UNM boycotted the new parliament.
The decision to arrest Melia has raised doubts among government supporters. Georgian Dream member Giorgi Gakharia resigned as prime minister last week due to a court decision to arrest Melia, saying it could lead to protests and harm the welfare of the country’s citizens .
In his place, Georgian Dream appointed Irakli Garibashvili, former defense minister and ally of Ivanishvili, who quickly ordered Melia’s arrest at his party headquarters. After the raid, Garibashvili called Melia an “ordinary criminal” and asked, “When did the political party become a safe haven for these criminals?”
The escalation has forced Western countries to intervene – at least verbally – by calling on both the opposition and the government to be restrained and to avoid risking a political stalemate that could sink into blood.
Georgia, which fought a short war with Russia in 2008, is an important ally in the Caucasus region of the US and the EU. The country has sought to join the NATO military alliance and has received billions of dollars in support for its military, democratic and civil society institutions.
“Shocked by the scenes at UNM headquarters this morning”, Mark Clayton, UK Ambassador to Tbilisi, written in a tweet. “Violence and chaos in Tbilisi is the last thing Georgia needs right now. I urge all parties to act with restraint, now and in the days to come. ”
The US embassy had previously issued an “appeal to the authorities and the opposition to exercise the utmost restraint following tonight’s decision.” Violence serves no one except those who want to undermine Georgia’s stability. It must be resolved peacefully. “
Georgian police officials defended Tuesday’s raid, claiming they used “proportional force” against members of the opposition.
An UNM leader told Agence France-Presse that police also “stole computer servers” from party headquarters.