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In Georgia, thousands of protesters have poured into the streets his week. But what are they angry about?
The answer involves a combination of factors, including unrest over last monthâ€™s local elections, the imprisonment of a controversial former president and rejected demands for a snap parliamentary election.
As Georgians have demonstrated en masse, four opposition MPs have announced they will step down in protest at the local election results. Another opposition MP has started a hunger strike and called for ex-President Mikheil Saakashviliâ€™s release from jail.
Hereâ€™s everything you need to know about the current political disquiet â€” which features a major demonstration on Saturday â€” in Georgia.
Why are people protesting?Â
Many Georgians are still smarting over allegations that last monthâ€™s elections were rife with vote-buying and pressure tactics.
The Georgian Dream party dominated the vote, winning 19 out of 20 mayoral runoffs, as international observers warned of a potential â€œunlevel playing field.â€ Officials from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said that while the second round of elections was generally â€œwell administered,â€ it was also â€œmarred by wide-spread and consistent allegations of intimidation, vote-buying, pressure on candidates and voters.â€
Shalva Papuashvili â€” political secretary of Georgian Dream â€” told POLITICO that the accusations were unfounded and said: â€œThe OSCE referred to concerns of intimidation and pressuring voters as allegations, not facts.â€Â
But following the election, the opposition party United National Movement (UNM) â€” led by Tbilisi mayoral candidate Nika Melia â€” said the elections were rigged and vowed to launch â€œan uncompromising battleâ€ against the ruling party.Â
Is Mikheil Saakashvili involved?
The return of colorful former president and founder of UNM, Mikheil Saakashvili, may have added fuel to the fire.
Saakashvili, who served as president from 2004 until 2013, fled the country in 2014 and has lived in exile since. He was sentenced in absentia in 2018 to a six-year prison term on abuse of power charges that are widely viewed internationally as politically motivated.
In a surprise move, Saakashvili returned to Georgia days before the local elections â€” in an effort to rally support for UNM â€” but was arrested by Georgian authorities. He has since been on hunger strike, while doctors and officials engage in a tug-of-war over how best to treat him. So far heâ€™s been refused a hospital transfer.
In a statement, Saakashvili said he was â€œready to dieâ€ if not released and cleared from â€œpolitically motivatedâ€ charges.Â
â€œSaakashvili is a serious headache for the government,â€ said Kornely Kakachia, director of Tbilisi-based think tank Georgian Institute of Politics. â€œThe identity of Georgian Dream is so strongly connected to Saakashvili, that because of his profile his release is not at all in their interest,â€ referring to the former presidentâ€™s status as a bogeyman for the ruling party.
Whatâ€™s the bigger picture?
Saakashviliâ€™s imprisonment has inflamed an already polarized political climate in Georgia.Â
A crisis mushroomed in Georgian politics in the aftermath of the 2020 parliamentary election. Denouncing the elections as rigged, the opposition refused to take their seats in parliament.Â
European Council President Charles Michel adopted an unusual role and brokered an agreement this past spring between the ruling and the opposition parties. The deal helped to defuse tensions but did not fully resolve the impasse.
And because the opposition still says last yearâ€™s parliamentary elections were fraudulent, which Georgian Dream denies, they continue to demand snap parliamentary elections.
Tina Bokuchava, an MP for UNM, told POLITICO there are currently three demands on the table: the release of Saakashvili; holding fair municipal elections; and a snap parliamentary election.Â
â€œThis is the only realistic way for resolving the crisis,â€ said Bokuchava.
Has there been an international response?
In their demand for Saakashviliâ€™s release, the Georgian opposition is backed by a number of former and current European elected officials. Some of them called for his immediate release in an open letter to top EU leaders last month.
The letter cited a â€œpattern of political prosecutionâ€ and the risk of a deepening political crisis as major problems for Georgia.
In a statement issued November 1, the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi said that â€œsharp imbalances of resources and an undue advantage of incumbency further tilted the playing fieldâ€ in the local elections. Â
Asked about the current situation in Georgia, which has set its sights on applying for full EU membership in 2024, a European Commission spokesperson told POLITICO: â€œWe hope that efforts will be made by Georgiaâ€™s leaders to build a political climate conducive to meeting the expectations of the citizens of Georgia.â€
Thousands of people are expected to attend a major protest in Rustavi on Saturday, outside the prison where Saakashvili is being held.
In a statement Friday, the former leader said the demands for the demonstration are snap parliamentary elections and his release. But, he added, they are not the end goals.
â€œThey are tools to stop the ungodly rise of prices, massive emigration of Georgians from the country, the process of making Georgians a minority in their own country, corruption,â€ said Saakashvili.
Protest leaders say the demonstrations will continue until Saakashvili is at least moved to a hospital.
Meanwhile, the EU will be keeping an eye on events in the country.
â€œGiven Georgiaâ€™s stated ambitions for its relations with the EU, we expect Georgia to step up its reform efforts, especially on democratic and judiciary reform, where progress has been lagging and where we have witnessed several setbacks,â€ the Commission spokesperson said.