Georgia’s prime minister resigned Thursday over plans to arrest a senior opposition leader, deepening a political crisis that has gripped the Caucasus country since last year’s election.
George Gakharia, a 45-year-old with the ruling Georgian Dream party who has been prime minister since 2019, said he was retiring because of disagreement in government over the implementation of a court order for the arrest of Nika Melia.
The move to stop Melia – the leader of former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement – sparked outrage in the opposition and warnings from Georgia’s Western allies.
With opposition party leaders gathered at UNM headquarters in the capital Georgia Tbilisi and television reports showing riot police being mobilized nearby, Gakharia said he could not carry out the court order and would resign.
“It is therefore unacceptable to enforce a court decision … if it poses a risk to the health and lives of our citizens or creates the possibility of a political escalation in the country,” he said.
A court in Tbilisi on Wednesday ordered Melia to be remanded in custody after he refused to pay a conditionally increased fee before hearings in a case involving anti-government demonstrations in 2019.
He has been charged with “organizing mass violence” during protests and faces up to nine years in prison.
Melia, 41, dismisses the case as politically motivated and his supporters have vowed to stop police if they move to arrest him.
The restraining order has raised the risk of crisis during the October parliamentary elections, which the opposition denounced as manipulated after the Georgian dream claimed victory.
Opposition members have refused to take their seats in the new parliament and have called for new elections.
Melia told reporters Thursday that the opposition was ready for talks on an early vote.
“Power will change in Georgia peacefully and very soon,” he said.
The interior ministry said it had “temporarily postponed Melia’s planned detention” in connection with the prime minister’s resignation.
The leader of the ruling party, Irakli Kobakhidze, said its leadership would decide on Friday on a candidate to take over as prime minister, adding that he “regrets” Gakharia’s decision.
“I urge Melian to obey the court’s decision. Otherwise, the government will implement the judiciary’s decision and arrest him,” he told a news conference.
Melia is accused of inciting violence during protests that erupted in Tbilisi in June 2019 after a Russian lawmaker addressed parliament from the presidency, a controversial move in a country where ties with Moscow remain strained after a brief war in 2008.
Rallies saw thousands of protesters clash with police using tear gas and rubber bullets against crowds.
The then Interior Minister Gakharia led the repression and was appointed Prime Minister in September 2019.
Called the “Moscow man” by the opposition, Gakharia worked in Russia as regional director for German aviation company Lufthansa and is a graduate of Lomonosov Moscow University.
Georgia gained its independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 and in the decades since it split between its long-standing relationship with Moscow and efforts to seek closer ties with the West.
In a statement before Melia’s trial, European Union envoy to Georgia Carl Hartzell described the circumstances surrounding his prosecution as a “dangerous trajectory for Georgia and for Georgian democracy”.
The US Embassy in Tbilisi said on Twitter that the crisis “must be resolved peacefully”, urging restraint on all sides.
“The current dangerous situation after Melia’s decision stems from decades of problems with the electoral system and the judiciary,” he said.
In power since 2012, the Georgian Dream has seen its popularity due to its failure to address the economic stalemate and perceived backwardness of its commitment to democracy.
Critics accuse Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili – the founder of the widely seen Georgian dream of calling on the country – of persecuting opponents and inciting corruption.
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