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Georgia has been in crisis for a long time

Fast-forward to 2020, and Georgia not only faces COVID-19, but a parliamentary election year. Prior to the pandemic, the Georgian Dream government looked much weaker, but it has been able to if not win over Georgians, then at least neutralise popular antagonism. Thus, the elections did not go the way the opposition expected, with Georgian Dream winning 48% of the vote.

The Georgian opposition could not accept the loss, and boycotted the second round, claiming that the results had been falsified. Despite protesting and boycotting parliament, Georgia’s Western partners did not invalidate the elections. Most everyone, including the OSCE, agreed that the elections were flawed, but legitimate.

Nevertheless, the opposition continued to escalate the situation. In November 2020, Nika Melia publicly removed his house arrest monitor. When the courts told him he had to pay bail, he refused. Then the head of UNM resigned, and Nika Melia won elections to become party chairperson. The situation was thus ripe for all the trigger words about ‘democracy in danger’, which interests Western media. Melia is now not only a MP and self-styled political prisoner, but he is the head of the opposition who is being persecuted.

This particular moment ended when Georgia’s new prime minister announced his intention of carrying out Melia’s arrest – rather than leaving it as a slap on the wrist as before. The former prime minister, Giorgi Gakharia, resigned over this issue, as he thought arresting Melia would be too divisive and polarising. On 23 February, the de facto opposition leader was arrested in the UNM headquarters – and the press devoured the optics. Surprisingly, these heavy-handed tactics did work for a while on a section of the international community, NGOs and definitely on the media, but it failed to move the people of Georgia. While Georgian media and Twitter users have attempted to paint this as a huge political crisis, there appears to have been little support on the ground.

Melia’s arrest came at an opportune time for the opposition – the week of the 100th anniversary of the Red Army marching into Georgia. On the day of Melia’s arrest, the opposition Shame Movement held a protest – this time with English-language hashtags, placards and event invitations on Facebook (all their other events are in Georgian) titled “Never Back to the USSR.” The opposition tried to deploy this anniversary, an anti-Soviet memorial day, to its political benefit, with politicians, commentators and activists drawing a parallel between the arrest of Nika Melia and the Red Army invading Georgia.

But it didn’t go far. While the opposition has been trying to make a popular movement around anti-Soviet/anti-Russian slogans,
this has not resulted in mass participation at the opposition’s protest camps in the capital, Tbilisi. Instead, people went to another city, Kutaisi, to protest the construction of a hydroelectric dam that could endanger the whole region’s ecosystem.

Thousands showed up to this protest, and organisers insisted that no politician nor political parties should address the crowd – it was meant to be a popular protest to save homes, the environment and come out against the impunity of business and its supporters in the state. (In recent months, people have been sleeping outside – in winter – to protest against the dam.) The symbolism of a protest mobilisation in this regional city, which requires more resources to mobilise given it’s a three-hour drive from Tbilisi, showed brilliantly how marginalised both Georgia’s ruling party and the opposition are in relation to the country’s people.

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