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Hidden camera footage points to rift within Georgia’s largest opposition party

7 February 2022
Nika Melia addressing the crowd at a protest in Tbilisi on 21 December 2021 in support of Mikheil Saakashvili. Photo: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media.

Fuel has been added to speculation of a growing conflict within Georgian opposition party the United National Movement (UNM), after footage of party chair Nika Melia criticising party founder and former president Mikheil Saakashvili was made public.

In the footage broadcasted by pro-government TV channel Imedi over the weekend, Melia is heard saying that he 'categorically' warned Mikheil Saakashvili not to return to Georgia. 

‘I knew how the Americans and Europeans felt about [Saakashvili’s return]. I was telling him that they would not raise their voices [to help him]’, Melia is heard saying.

Third Georgian President and the founder of UNM Mikheil Saakashvili is currently serving a six-year prison term for abuse of office after being apprehended on 1 October in Tbilisi. He was detained days after smuggling himself from Ukraine to Georgia in the apparent hope to lead the anti-government street protests. 

[Read more on OC Media: Saakashvili insists ‘Georgia did not have a criminal for a president’ in court appearance]

The UNM staged multiple street demonstrations in support of Saakashvili during and after his 50-day hunger strike following his detention.

While several opposition groups have criticised the government for alleged mistreatment of the ex-President in prison, they have largely distanced themselves from rallying around the UNM’s demands to free him.

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A woman holds a sign in support of Mikheil Saakashvili at a protest in Tbilisi on 11 November 2021. Photo: Shota Kincha/OC Media

The un-dated footage, which appeared to have been secretly recorded outside Tbilisi City Court, shows Melia addressing party supporters about the issue of Saakashvili’s return and imprisonment.

‘Lady, if you and your neighbour's main idea is “freedom for Misha [Saakashvili]”, it won't work', Melia is heard telling one woman.

In the video, Melia goes on to criticise himself and his party for not winning last October’s local elections, comparing the UNM to a football team facing a ‘strong contester, without training’. 

The comment contrasts with the UNM’s widely stated position that the elections were rigged.

Cracks within the UNM

The footage is the latest evidence of a growing rift within the UNM between Melia and supporters of Mikheil Saakashvili.

In January, the UNM reshuffled the party’s political council, previously led by Melia, adding several party grandees including the new council chair, Koba Nakopia.

Melia has frequently been criticised by some in the UNM’s rank and file for his alleged failure to do enough to free the former president from prison. 

Party leaders, however, have consistently denied there was any conflict in the party’s top ranks.

While the UNM initially dismissed the latest footage as having been heavily edited and not worth commenting on, Melia himself soon took the issue to Facebook. 

While scolding Imedi, Melia nevertheless confirmed that he had disagreed with Saakashvili’s return to Georgia, insisting that he had always been open about this publicly.

Giorgi Baramidze, another leading member of the UNM, struck a different tone on Sunday.

‘Mikheil Saakashvili is the real leader of the [United] National Movement. Period! The votes the National Movement gets, 99% of them are thanks to Saakashvili; this is a fact’, Baramidze said. ‘If anyone is bitter about him returning to his own homeland, all of them can cool down.’

Melia was elected as UNM Chair in late 2020 after the party’s defeat in the 2020 parliamentary elections, replacing Grigol Vashadze. 

Upon resigning, Vashadze, who had advocated for dialogue with the government, cited disagreements with other party leaders over the tactics the party should use. He also criticised the reemergence of unnamed ‘odious’ figures from the party’s past.

The party went on to boycott parliament off and on until 31 January, when they agreed MPs would take up their seats.

[Read more on OC Media: Saakashvili's UNM end intermittent boycott of parliament]