In Georgia, a new political alliance looks to the future

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

Nika Melia, the former chair of the opposition United National Movement (UNM) party, and Nika Gvaramia, the founder of the opposition TV channel Mtavari Arkhi, have joined forces ahead of the parliamentary election scheduled for October 2024. The two officially unveiled their new political alliance, Akhali (meaning “new” in English), on March 11. According to Gvaramia, Akhali hopes to push “for changes in Georgia in new ways. Our fight, our belief in victory has a concrete name from now on and that name is Ahali [“new”]….full focus on the future…we are not evaluating the past, we are interested in the future achievements,” said Nika Melia.

Gvaramia confirmed his plans to forge an alliance with Nika Melia and his team on March 5.

Ahead of the announcement of the new political alliance, Gvaramia formally resigned from his position as the general director of TV Mtavari Arkhi in February 2024, transferring his shares to his wife, Sofo Liluashvili. In December 2023, he hinted at his plans to return to politics the next year.

In 2022, the Tbilisi City Court sentenced Nika Gvaramia to three and a half years in prison on corruption charges. The journalist was found guilty of abuse of power during his time at another television channel, Rustavi 2, in 2019. The court also leveled embezzlement charges against the journalist, ordering him to pay a GEL 50,000 (USD 16,300) fine. In June 2023, the president of Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili, signed a decree pardoning Nika Gvaramia. Gvaramia was first charged in 2020 with abuse of power, commercial bribery, forging documents, and embezzling property at Rustavi 2. He was found not guilty on the last three counts.

The journalist has also been an outspoken supporter of the formerly ruling United National Movement (UNM) Party. And has served in government positions during UNM's time in power, including as the Deputy Prosecutor General, Justice Minister, and as Minister of Education and Science.

His channel was the first to leak the news that the Georgian State Security Service (SSG) has been spying on journalists, opposition and ruling party politicians, activists, priests, businesspeople, and other public figures in 2021.

Nika Melia served as UNM chair from 2020 until 2023, when he was defeated in the party election. But he severed his ties with the party in December 2023 after getting expelled by his replacement, Levan Khabeishvili.

Melia was arrested in February 2021 following a violent raid at the party headquarters the same month. The politician was accused of inciting violence during the 2019 street protests. After refusing to pay the bail of GEL 40,000 (USD 15,000) on the grounds the process was politically motivated, the court issued for his arrest, according to media reports at the time of Melia's arrest. The politician's arrest drew major international criticism. Melia was released once the European Union posted bail for him in May 2021.

Georgia is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in October 2024. The current government, spearheaded by the Georgian Dream Party, thus far has made no hints at forming coalitions or alliances.

The new political alliance was announced at a turbulent time. Since the previous parliamentary election in 2020, Georgian domestic politics have been engulfed in a political crisis. Following the vote, opposition groups contested the results of parliamentary elections won by the ruling Georgian Dream Party. An agreement was eventually reached between the parties on April 19, 2021, with mediation from the United States and the European Union. The deal included a judicial and electoral reforms package. But months later, the Georgian Dream Party announced its decision to withdraw from the agreement.

Since then, the country has found itself in hot water with Western stakeholders, though that didn't stop the European Council from granting Georgia candidate status on November 8, 2023, paving the way for the bloc to begin the country’s accession process.

Georgia formally applied for European Union (EU) membership on March 3, 2022, with Prime Minister Irakli Garabishvili calling it “yet another milestone on the path of European integration of Georgia.”

Meanwhile, since the last parliamentary vote, the ruling government has also taken a U-turn on freedoms and human rights. Since then, the country has witnessed violent dispersals of protestsattacks on the independent media; and a widening rift between society and state leadership. The ruling government also faced criticism for its anti-LGBTQ+ stance, all the while cozying up with Russia ever since the latter invaded Ukraine.

In September 2023, the ruling party attempted to impeach the country's president but failed to do so.

In January 2024, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, returned to politics after “quitting [politics] for good” in 2021. Since his return already some cabinet reshuffling has taken place.

It remains to be seen whether Melia and Gvaramia will be able to secure the popular support the alliance needs to secure a victory in the upcoming election or survive the months ahead of the vote at all despite the aspirations. For now, the ruling government seems unbothered. Answering questions from journalists, the vice-speaker of the parliament, Archil Talakvadze, said there was nothing “new” in the alliance but rather the same old tricks.

Prior to announcing the alliance, Gvaramia told journalists he had been having conversations with various opposition groups. The latter matters, especially if the alliance intends to overcome the five percent election threshold required for a party to be represented in the parliament. The ruling Georgian Dream promised to lower this threshold to two percent within a month of Georgia receiving EU candidacy, but that promise was never fulfilled. In November 2023, Georgian Dream chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said the promise was off the table given the delay in the EU's decision regarding the country's status.

Georgia formally applied for European Union (EU) membership on March 3, 2022, following Ukraine’s decision to apply for EU membership on February 28, 2022, amidst the Russian invasion of its country. In June 2022, Georgia's candidate status was declined, instead giving Georgia a list of 12 conditions the country had to fulfill before their application could be reexamined. In July 2022, the deadline for meeting the list of 12 requirements was extended to 2023. Among these conditions were reducing political polarization, reforming the judiciary, ensuring functioning state institutions, strengthening anti-corruption measures, including de-oligarchisation, and others. Georgia was finally granted the status in December 2023.

In its February 2024 pre-election observation mission statement issued by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) the organization said there were:

… concerns about the 5 percent threshold for a party to be represented in parliament as well as a change in the law to prohibit parties from contesting elections as coalitions or blocs. While the 5 percent threshold may have been intended to combat political fragmentation, the new rules which prohibit election blocs could undermine this objective. As a result, these changes risk reducing pluralism and making the parliament less representative of Georgian society.

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