EU Calls On Georgia To Pursue De-escalation Following Detention Of Opposition Leader

The political tension in Georgia following the detention of opposition politician Nika Melia has led to pushback from the European Union (EU), which is calling for all parties under the cloud of tension to seek common ground, according to a report from Reuters. Melia, serving as the chairman of the opposition party United National Movement (UNM), was detained following the police raid on his office and clashes with supporters. This had led to further political instability in the form of parliamentary boycotts and swift protest blockades of the main avenue in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Politico notes. Former Prime Minister of the country of 3.7 million, Giorgi Gakharia, resigned from his post two weeks ago after publicly opposing a judicial ruling that put Melia under pre-trial detention. Gakharia cited concerns over escalations of political tension that would result from the act, according to a February 18 BBC report. 

European Council President Charles Michel urged both sides of the conflict to pursue de-escalation, and current Georgia President Salome Zourabichvili has hosted talks between her government and opposition figures with Michel present on March 1. U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the arrest of Melia, but then called on “all parties to exercise restraint and to avoid any actions or rhetoric that could escalate tensions or result in violence,” according to a Department Press Briefing on February 23. The American Embassy in Georgia, according to the Washington Post, released a statement condemning the “polarizing rhetoric” of the ruling party leadership after Melia was seen being led into a black unmarked SUV following the raid of his office. Melia himself states that his arrest was “politically motivated” provided by what he considers to be the basis of false charges against him claiming that he was inciting political violence. 

Former Prime Minister Gakharia’s resignation highlights the monumental importance of how the country’s leadership deals with Melia. A more significant approach of diplomatic retaliation taken by America and the EU is needed to preserve Georgia’s democratic institutions and seek peaceful means towards finding solutions between the country’s political parties and spheres of influence. America provides substantial aid to Georgia’s military, Bloomberg Businessweek notes, and that should signify the amount of leverage that President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken can have over swaying Georgian leadership, but the situation is made more complex given the country’s location and position as a minor power. Melia’s political party, United National Movement, represents pro-EU and pro-NATO politics, and a position of sovereign territorial integrity that does not lie with Russia’s interests. The country’s location in a politically troubled Eastern Europe, given widespread opposition against Alexander Lukashenko’s hold on power in Belarus and opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s imprisonment in Russia, as well as the Southern Caucasus’s history of shared territorial integrity with the Soviet Union, means that there is a complex line to toe for major Western powers seeking to keep Georgia within its democratic orbit. However, the call by the EU and U.S. on “all parties” to de-escalate must be emphasized more towards the ruling party, which has accumulated massive control of Georgia’s branches of government and is being widely accused of election rigging. Investigations into the charges made against Melia should be conducted to shed light on the situation and expose any anti-democratic breaches. 

The political conflict prompting condemnation from European Council President Charles Michel needs to be viewed from a historical lens in order to be better understood. Stanford University’s Institute for International Studies presents an analysis from the executive director of the Economic Policy Research Center in Georgia’s capital, Nino Evgenidze. She likens Georgia to the imagination of “an island in the authoritarian sea” given the authoritarian character of leadership in Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. In fact, Russia’s proximity to Georgia and history of meddling that the Eurasian power has engaged in with various countries represents the high level of importance that Georgia plays to groups like NATO and the EU as the region’s lone democratic entity at risk of growing estranged from Western powers and gravitating towards Russian influence. As a former Soviet republic, Georgia today stands without its past territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are currently occupied by Russian forces. Nika Melia’s United National Movement Party prioritizes its territorial integrity, and Russian hostility to that notion could be a factor of its historical pull on a Georgia that is slowly separating itself from its own democratic institutions, with Melia’s arrest serving as a huge trigger point. 

The existence of division and political turmoil in Georgia exposes a risk to the nation’s democracy and the potential for political violence to break out. The situation may also result in the magnification of the geopolitical struggle between Russia’s sphere of influence and the Western powers. Charles Michel’s efforts to diffuse the tension are worth applauding, but substantive action from the United States, European Union, and other relevant groups is necessary to peacefully stem the tide of violence and authoritarianism.

Benjamin Fikhman