Arrest of Georgia’s Opposition Leader Prompts Call for Sanctions

A police raid on the opposition headquarters is a watershed moment for the region’s only democracy.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Supporters of the Georgian opposition party United National Movement are seen in the party's headquarters as the police raided the building in Tbilisi on Feb. 23.
Supporters of the Georgian opposition party United National Movement are seen in the party's headquarters as the police raided the building in Tbilisi on Feb. 23. Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images

The leader of Georgia’s main opposition party was arrested in a police raid on Tuesday and placed in pretrial detention amid deepening political turmoil in the South Caucasus country that threatens to plunge the region’s only democracy into crisis.

The arrest of Nika Melia, the leader of the United National Movement, drew thousands of protesters into the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, demanding his release and provoked a rift within the ruling party. Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned last week amid a debate within the party over enforcing an arrest warrant for Melia, who allegedly violated bail conditions related to a case against him that he says is politically motivated.

The crisis presents a test of the Biden administration’s promise to defend democracy and human rights around the world. Georgia, an aspiring member of the European Union and NATO, has long been a close ally of the United States. 

“This is a potential make-or-break moment for Georgia,” said David Kramer, who served as assistant U.S. secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor under President George W. Bush. “The international community needs to respond swiftly and forcefully and say that unless Melia is released and all parties return to the negotiating table, sanctions are going to be imposed on those responsible for pushing Georgia to this crisis point.”

Western sanctions on officials in Georgia would carry significantly more clout than in other former Soviet republics; Georgian officials for political reasons can’t well shift their assets to Russia. “Pressure from the West is more important than it is in other countries,” said Ghia Nodia, a professor of politics and director of the International School of Caucasus Studies at Ilia State University in Tbilisi.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, “We call on all sides to avoid actions that could further escalate tensions and to engage in good faith negotiations to resolve the current political crisis. The United States stands ready to support a democratic, secure, and prosperous Georgia.” But in a press conference on Tuesday, he did not indicate what, if any, policy actions the United States may take in response to the crisis.

The crisis in Georgia is the latest to erupt in Russia’s backyard in recent months. Belarus, long a loyal ally of Moscow, erupted in protest in August over rigged presidential elections, while Armenia and Azerbaijan once again went to war over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. In Kyrgyzstan, protesters overran the country’s parliament in October over allegations of vote-rigging. Russia itself has had its share of turmoil as protesters took to the streets of towns and cities across the country after the opposition politician Alexey Navalny was arrested on his return from Germany, where he had been recovering after being poisoned by Russian state agents. 

Russia and Georgia fought a brief but bitter war in 2008, and since then Moscow has exercised de facto control over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The political turmoil further estranges Georgia from the West. “The only people smiling about this are sitting in the Kremlin,” Kramer said. “They know this damages Georgia’s prospects for NATO and EU membership.”

In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi said it was “deeply concerned” by the decision to arrest Melia, who has been charged with inciting violence during anti-government protests in 2019. “We are dismayed by the polarizing rhetoric from Georgia’s leadership at a time of crisis. Force and aggression are not the solution to resolving Georgia’s political differences. Today, Georgia has moved backward on its path toward becoming a stronger democracy in the Euro-Atlantic family of nations,” the embassy said. 

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican and co-chair of the House Georgia Caucus, described it as a “[s]ad day for democracy” in the country.

In an address to the nation on Tuesday, newly installed Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, whose appointment was confirmed by Parliament on Monday, called for unity. “Now that the law has been enforced and the state has taken its due place, I would like to call on all political forces who hold the country dear to open a real and earnest dialogue and to talk not about what divides us but about what must unite us,” he said. Garibashvili is seen as taking a hard-line approach to the country’s opposition, and his appointment has been interpreted as a sign that the government has little appetite to negotiate.

The political standoff stems from parliamentary elections starting in October won by the Georgian Dream, which is backed by the billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. International observers deemed the election to be competitive but voiced concerns about allegations that voters were unduly pressured, as well as calling attention to a blurring of lines between the state and the ruling party. The opposition claimed that the election was rigged and has boycotted Parliament, calling for new elections to be held. 

“The very foundation of Georgian democracy and stability has been held hostage by the destabilizing actions of this insurgency,” the Georgian Dream said in a statement issued Tuesday, speaking about the opposition.

Georgia has long been held up as a beacon of democracy in the region. After a revolution in 2003, the country’s former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, pursued a series of reforms at breakneck speed, stamping out once rampant corruption and firmly aligning the former Soviet republic with the West. 

Since the Georgian Dream came to power in 2012, the government has continued to pursue the goal of Euro-Atlantic integration but has taken a less hard-line approach to Russia. In recent years, democracy advocates in Georgia have sounded the alarm about democratic backsliding and state capture by the Georgian Dream’s patron, Ivanishvili, whose personal wealth of $6 billion is equivalent to roughly one-third of the country’s GDP. Ivanishvili has appointed his former bodyguard, lawyer, and personal doctor to senior government positions.

“It’s popular to say that we are becoming like Russia or Belarus. It’s true that it’s a step in that direction, but it will not be that easy to go all the way in that direction,” said Nodia of Ilia State University.

During the Trump administration, the United States dialed back its support for democracy around the world, an absence keenly felt in Georgia. 

“It played a big role here,” said Eto Buziashvili of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “This government did not feel enough pressure.”

Update, Feb. 23, 2021: This article was updated to add comment from the U.S. State Department.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack