The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democracy is on the brink in one of Russia’s neighbors, and Putin is delighted

Opposition activists protest in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Friday.
Opposition activists protest in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Friday. (Shakh Aivazov/AP)
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FOR MORE than 15 years, the former Soviet republic of Georgia has moved steadily, if haltingly, toward democracy and integration with the West, despite fierce opposition from Russia. Now it has taken a big step backward. On Tuesday, police raided the headquarters of the leading opposition party in Tbilisi and arrested its leader, Nika Melia. The detention culminated months of political conflict that have brought Georgia’s political system close to collapse and endangered its ties to the West — developments that benefit no one more than Vladimir Putin.

Some in Washington rushed to blame the ruling Georgian Dream party, which has governed the country since 2012. Under the guidance of an eccentric billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the party has continued the pursuit of membership in the European Union and NATO while trying to normalize relations with Russia, which invaded the country in 2008 and still occupies two of its regions. The opposition United National Movement (UNM), which cultivated close ties to the United States when it was in power during the 2000s, is loudly appealing for Washington’s support, saying that Mr. Ivanishvili is leading the country back into autocracy and Moscow’s orbit.

The arrest of Mr. Melia on disputed legal grounds certainly was unwarranted and provocative — so much so that the Georgian Dream’s own prime minister, Giorgi Gakharia, resigned rather than preside over the operation. But the opposition’s commitment to democratic norms is also looking spotty. Having negotiated widely praised electoral reforms with the Georgian Dream last year, the UNM then refused to accept the results of an October parliamentary election won — as polls showed it would be — by the incumbents. It insisted the balloting had been rigged, a conclusion not reached by multiple teams of international observers, who cited irregularities but did not question the outcome.

Mr. Melia himself allegedly led an attempt by demonstrators to storm parliament in 2019; he was arrested for failing to make a bail payment on charges stemming from that incident. Since the election, he has steered UNM in boycotting the new parliament, disregarding appeals by U.S. and European diplomats. Also pushing against compromise is former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who now lives in Ukraine but has been calling on Georgians to take to the streets.

Mr. Saakashvili led a revolution against an autocratic government in 2003, but that is not the best way out of this Georgian crisis. Instead, the opposition and Georgian Dream ought to return to negotiations that previously were being brokered by the United States and European Union. The government should quickly free Mr. Melia as well as Giorgi Rurua, the owner of an opposition television channel; the UNM and other opposition parties who won parliamentary seats in last fall’s elections should take them. If Georgia is to continue its progress toward becoming a Western democracy, rather than another Eurasian autocracy, its political parties must embrace compromise, tolerance and power-sharing.

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