Opposition supporters rallied in front of the government office in Tbilisi. (Newposts.ge)

TBILISI, DFWatch–A police raid of the headquarters of Georgia’s largest opposition party and the arrest of its leader Tuesday morning has further deepened the political crisis in the country.

Nika Melia, leader of the United National Movement, was dragged out of the party building by riot police following a violent raid where they also used the roof to gain access.

The case against Melia dates back to a protest in June, 2019, but is seen in connection with recent months conflict in the wake of last October’s parliamentary election, which the opposition claims was fraught with irregularities.

Most opposition parties still refuse to take up seats in the parliament and demand another election.

The GD government, which has held power since 2012, drew criticism for Tuesday’s police action from many of Georgia’s closest partners in the West.

“Incredibly dumb move by Georgian Government against a legitimate political party. Sad day for democracy in the Country of Georgia. […] We just introduced again the Georgia Support Act.  That is not something that is automatic,” Adam Kinzinger, co-chair of the US Congressional Georgia Caucus, stated Tuesday in two separate tweets.

Many Georgians now consider it likely that its Western friends may withdraw support for their country’s European and Atlantic aspirations.

Meanwhile, the opposition has added Nika Melia’s immediate and unconditional release to its list of demands, a list which also includes holding new parliamentary elections and the release of Giorgi Rurua, whom the opposition also regards as a political prisoner.

“If the topic of (political prisoners) is not closed, the negotiations will not bring any results. Our position is unchanged – there are two main issues – the release of political prisoners, Melia and Giorgi Rurua, and early parliamentary elections in order to restore the democratic process in our country,” said Salome Samadashvili, spokesperson for Melia’s party, the United National Movement. 

Meanwhile, newly appointed Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who represents the hardline faction inside the ruling party Georgian Dream, issued a statement offering the opposition dialogue.

“Against the background of the challenges facing the country, it is not a time for confrontation, but a time for dialogue. I suggest all sane opposition forces participate in parliament and use the country’s legislature as the main platform for discussion. As I mentioned yesterday, we are ready for a real dialogue at any time and in any format,” Irakli Garibashvili said.

However, earlier he flatly ruled out negotiating about holding early elections, and his language when addressing the opposition, and particularly Nika Melia’s arrest, leaves no hope that the resumption of dialogue has a real basis.  

Meanwhile, the EU and US ambassadors continued to urge both sides to resume negotiations to end the boycott of parliament and put an end to the political crisis in the country.

Melia’s arrest and the police raid of the UNM office caused a negative reaction even from Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who was prime minister 2015-2018 in the GD government.

“Given the current situation in the country, the government has a difficult choice to find legal instruments as soon as possible and release Nika Melia from prison, then take effective steps and find a solution that will prevent the country from entering the most difficult confrontation spiral,“ Kvirikashvili wrote on Facebook following Melia’s arrest.

His social media post dovetailed with statements by another former GD prime minister, Giorgi Gakharia, who resigned on February 19, citing disagreement with the ruling GD party’s leadership over plans to imprison Melia.

Supporters of UNM and other opposition parties rallied in Tbilisi and Batumi on Tuesday. Many civic groups and public figures have also expressed their discontent.