Members of Georgia’s largest opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), have called for internal elections in an apparent attempt to oust embattled party leader Nika Melia.
In a press conference on Wednesday, a group of regional party leaders demanded elections ‘at all levels’ of the party.
While the speakers stopped short of directly naming the current chair of the party, Nika Melia, they indicated that elections for the post of party chair ‘would be most important’.
Speaking at the Saakashvili Presidential Library in Tbilisi, a group led by Irakli Nadiradze, leader of the UNM faction in the Tbilisi Municipal Council, claimed to represent regional leaders of the UNM.
Nadiradze also referred to Mikheil Saakashvili, founder of the UNM and third president of Georgia, noting the need to secure his release from prison.
Saakashvili was imprisoned in October 2021 after sneaking into Georgia aboard a cargo ship. Since beginning his 6-year sentence for abuse of power, Saakashvili’s health has deteriorated due to a 50-day hunger strike he undertook on his arrest. In May, Saakashvili was moved to a civilian hospital, where he has remained.
[Read more on OC Media: Mikheil Saakashvili ‘quits Georgian politics’]
As Nadiradze spoke about the need to reinvigorate the party to help Saakashvili, other, predominantly younger, UNM members gathered outside the office of the ruling Georgian Dream party in central Tbilisi. They demanded that Saakashvili be transferred abroad for treatment.
‘We believe that the chair of the National Movement should have legitimacy from hundreds of thousands of ardent, passionate, and patriotic voters so that we can fight for this country’s future with a new energy and new plan’, Irakli Nadiradze stated during the press conference.
Nadiradze also advocated for a reshuffle of the UNM’s political council, which he is a member of.
Unstable leadership and lost party members
Despite leaving Georgia in 2013 and renouncing his Georgian citizenship to become a Ukrainian citizen and official in 2015, Saakashvili has remained among the most influential opposition figures in Georgia.
In 2020, while still in Ukraine, Saakashvili noted that he had stayed out of the party chair elections in which Nika Melia won, defeating Levan Varshalomidze, who was understood to be Saakashvili’s favourite.
Despite lingering speculation about tensions between Melia and Saakashvili and his supporters, Melia has on multiple occasions denied any conflict. This included in late September 2021, when pro-government media alleged that Melia was attacked in his office by supporters of Saakashvili.
Wednesday’s statement from the UNM regional councillors also follows Nika Melia’s recent and repeated criticism of Davit Kezerashvili, a former Georgian official and Saakashvili ally who is currently based in the UK.
In September 2021, soon after Tbilisi City Court sentenced Kezerashvili to 10 years in prison in absentia for embezzling state funds, Melia described him as an ‘oligarch-like’ individual who would seek undue, ‘informal’ influence in the UNM if he was to move closer to the party.
Melia faced substantial backlash within the party over his criticism, particularly as the terms ‘oligarch’ and ‘informal ruler’ are widely associated with the billionaire founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
A number of party members, both supporters and critics of Melia, have recently left the UNM.
MP Nona Mamulashvili, who has been a frequent critic of Melia, was one of the latest to leave. Upon giving up her seat on 3 November, Mamulashvili described her former party as having ‘been devoid of politics for a long time’.