Georgia's prime minister resigns, opposition calls for early election

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia announced his resignation on Thursday, prompting celebrations from the opposition, which called for an early election.

FILE PHOTO: Georgia's Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia speaks to the media as he visits a polling station during a parliamentary election in Tbilisi, Georgia October 31, 2020. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

Gakharia, who had held the post since 2019, said he was stepping down because of a disagreement with his own team over the detention of Nika Melia, a prominent opposition politician.

“I believe that confrontation and rivalry within the country endanger the future of Georgia’s democratic and economic development,” Gakharia wrote on Twitter.

“Therefore, I have announced my resignation in the hope of reducing polarisation and de-escalating the situation.”

Gakharia had said Melia’s detention was unacceptable if it threatened to fuel political divisions in the South Caucasus country of 3.7 million people.

The U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” by recent developments in Georgia and called on “all parties to exercise restraint and avoid any actions or rhetoric that could escalate tensions or result in violence.”

“We will continue to work with Georgia, our strategic partner, to promote the rule of law and accountable institutions,” department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

Melia, chairman of the United National Movement (UNM) opposition party, had been accused of inciting violence at street protests in June 2019, a charge he has dismissed as politically motivated.

A court in the capital Tbilisi on Wednesday ordered that Melia be taken in to custody for allegedly failing to post bail.

Following Gakharia’s resignation, the Interior Ministry announced it was postponing carrying out the order to take Melia into custody.

A crowd gathered outside his party’s offices and waved Georgian flags in celebration, according to Sputnik Georgia.

Inside UNM headquarters, Melia called for an early election.

“On behalf of all opposition parties, I declare: let’s sit at the negotiating table with representatives of this government and start negotiations on new early elections,” Melia said.

Georgian Dream won the parliamentary election in October last year, but the opposition said the vote was rigged and marred with violations.

Melia said at the time that his party did not recognise its outcome and called for a re-run.

Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of Georgian Dream, said it was putting forward Defence Minister Irakli Garibashvili as a candidate to replace Gakharia, TASS news agency reported.

Reporting by Dmitry Antonov and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Alison Williams and Matthew Lewis