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Georgian opposition leader accuses former officials of plotting against him

18 January 2023
Nika Melia. Photo: Shota Kincha/OC Media

The chair of Georgia’s largest opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), has accused former senior officials of attempting to sabotage his leadership.

In a 17 January interview with TV channel Pirveli, Nika Melia accused the former Interior Minister (2004–2012) Ivane Merabishvili and ex-Defence Minister Davit Kezerashvili (2006–2008) of covertly plotting against him, including in the upcoming party leadership election. 

Melia described a 9 November call for internal party elections, a demand the party agreed to, as entirely ‘inspired, planned, and organised’ by Merabishvili and Kezerashvili. 

He claimed Kezerashvili and Merabishvili, who were long-time allies of former president and party founder Mikheil Saakashvili, were attempting to ensure his rival Levan Khabeishvili took the position.

The UNM’s internal elections are slated for 28–29 January. 

On Tuesday, Melia accused Davit Kezerashvili, currently based in the UK and wanted by Georgian authorities on charges of embezzling state funds, of attempting to dictate to him who should be in the party. Melia also claimed that Ivane Merabishvili had actively sought to ‘dismantle’ Melia’s election campaign team when he ran as an opposition coalition candidate in Tbilisi’s Gldani District in the 2020 parliamentary elections.

‘It is unfortunate that they […] seek to attain informal influence with these methods’, said Melia. 

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Melia’s references to Merabishvili and Kezerashvili’s ‘informal’ moves against him were widely understood to be a deliberate comparison to former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is frequently described as Georgia’s ‘informal ruler’. The billionaire and founder of Georgia’s ruling party has been accused both within Georgia and internationally of retaining undue influence in Georgia’s political sphere, despite having twice announced his departure from politics. 

Kezerashvili, who currently owns the Georgian TV channel Formula, spent several months in detention in France before the country announced its refusal to extradite him to Georgia in February 2014. 

The same month, Georgian authorities arrested Merabishvili on charges of misspending state funds, bribery, and exceeding official powers. The former interior minister left prison in early 2020 vowing to oust the Georgian Dream-led government but has remained mostly out of the public eye since. 

Ivane (Vano) Merabishvili at a UNM rally in Tbilisi, April 2013. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

‘We intend to pursue moral politics and to have a massive contrast in this regard with the Russian oligarchic regime’, Melia stated during the interview in reference to Georgian Dream, the ruling party founded by Ivanishvili.

‘What unites [Georgian Dream]? Relations based entirely on self-interest, and [the fact] that they have a lot of money and a captured state. What should our alternative be?’ Melia asked. 

Cursing and criticism

Melia’s decision to air his grievances publicly came a week after a recording was leaked on Facebook appearing to show Melia cursing an unnamed individual, widely assumed to be the imprisoned former president and founder of the UNM, Mikheil Saakashvili. 

[Read more on OC Media: Alleged recording of UNM chair Nika Melia cursing Saakashvili surfaces]

In his latest interview, Melia directly accused Merabishvili of being responsible for the leak.

While Melia’s supporters have disputed the authenticity of the recording, alleging that it had been heavily and manipulatively edited, it has been widely accepted that the voice in the recording is Melia’s, an assumption he has not denied.

The party’s chair has previously been criticised by some UNM supporters for his reportedly strained relations with former president Saakashvili, as well as for not doing enough to free Saakashvili from prison. The leak is the second time that a recording in which Melia appears to criticise Saakashvili has emerged. The most recent leak has been interpreted by some as a deliberate attempt to lower Melia’s chances of being reelected as party chair. 

[Read more on OC Media: Hidden camera footage points to rift within Georgia’s largest opposition party

Nika Melia — the party’s chair since defeating Saakashvili-loyalist Levan Varshalomidze in December 2020 — has also been outspoken about the need to ‘renew’ the party, and make use of the party’s achievements and experience while rejecting its past shortcomings. 

Speaking to Pirveli, Melia claimed that he had lacked time to deal with internal party issues as a result of having to deal with bigger challenges, including his detention shortly after becoming chair, and Saakashvili’s return to Georgia in October 2021. 

Nika Melia meeting Mikheil Saakashvili in Kyiv in May 2021. Screengrab from video via Nika Melia/Facebook.

Melia made clear several months before taking on the role of party chair that he was not ready to share a political party with Ivane Merabishvili due to his role in the infamous ‘Girgvliani case’. 

Both Ivane Merabishvili and Mikheil Saakashvili have faced criminal charges for abuse of power in relation to the February 2006 murder of Sandro Girgvliani by State Security Service officers.

[Read more on OC Media: The 2007 crackdown — Saakashvili’s greatest mistake?]

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