Georgian police have stormed the country’s opposition party headquarters and arrested their leader, escalating a political crisis in the former Soviet country that government critics say risks a descent into authoritarianism.
In a dramatic morning raid, riot police entered the headquarters of the United National Movement (UNM), using teargas and batons as they arrested its leader, Nika Melia, on criminal charges and detained at least a dozen others.
Footage broadcast on Georgian television showed Melia being dragged from the building. He is charged with inciting violence at 2019 anti-government demonstrations when protesters stormed parliament and faces nine years in prison. His supporters have said that the charges are politically motivated.
The crisis pits supporters of the UNM, the opposition party founded by the former president Mikheil Saakashvili, against the dominant Georgian Dream, the ruling party founded by the billionaire and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
The raid deepened a crisis in Georgia that began after disputed parliamentary election results last year, which nominally ended in a resounding victory for Georgian Dream. UNM has boycotted the new parliament.
The decision to arrest Melia caused misgivings among government supporters. Giorgi Gakharia, a member of Georgian Dream, resigned as prime minister last week over a court decision to arrest Melia, saying it could lead to protests and harm the wellbeing of the country’s citizens.
In his place, Georgian Dream nominated Irakli Garibashvili, a former defence minister and ally of Ivanishvili, who quickly ordered the arrest of Melia 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 such criminals?”
The escalation has forced western countries to intervene – at least verbally – calling on both the opposition and the government to exercise restraint and avoid risking a political standoff that could descend into bloodshed.
Georgia, which fought a short war with Russia in 2008, is an important ally in the Caucasus region to the United States and the EU. The country has sought to join the Nato military alliance and has received billions of dollars of support for its military, democratic institutions and civil society.
“Shocked by the scenes at UNM headquarters this morning,” Mark Clayton, the UK ambassador to Tbilisi, wrote in a tweet. “Violence and chaos in Tbilisi are the last thing Georgia needs right now. I urge all sides to act with restraint, now and in the coming days.”
The US embassy had previously issued a “call on the authorities and the opposition to exercise maximum restraint in the wake of tonight’s ruling. Violence serves no one except those who want to undermine Georgia’s stability. This must be resolved peacefully.”
Georgian police officials defended Tuesday’s raid, saying they used “proportional force” against the opposition members.
A UNM leader told Agence France-Presse that police had also “stolen computer servers” from the party’s headquarters.