Georgia’s prime minister has resigned after disagreeing with a move to detain the leader of the country’s opposition, in a sharp escalation of the longstanding political crisis in the country.

Giorgi Gakharia said he would step down in response to a court ruling on Wednesday that ordered the detention of opposition leader Nika Melia. In his resignation speech, Gakharia condemned the “unacceptable” decision as a step that risked inflaming political tensions.

His departure came after police were blocked from entering the opposition party headquarters in Tbilisi, where Melia and hundreds of his supporters had barricaded themselves, according to local media reports.

The country’s interior ministry said on Thursday that Melia’s detention had been “temporarily postponed” in light of Gakharia’s decision to resign.

The stand-off follows months of political turmoil in the Caucasus state, where the opposition has refused to acknowledge the results of October’s parliamentary election. Official results showed the ruling Georgian Dream won 48 per cent of the vote, giving it 90 seats in the 150-seat parliament, but the vote was marred by allegations of irregularities.

The crisis has damaged Georgia’s reputation as a functioning democracy in a region where post-Soviet states are dominated by autocrats and political corruption. The EU and Nato have sought to cultivate strong ties with Tbilisi, seeing it as an important ally in the Black Sea region.

Melia, leader of the United National Movement, which was in office from 2004-12, was ordered into pretrial custody on Wednesday after failing to post bail on charges relating to anti-government protests in 2019.

Nika Melia, leader of the opposition UNM, has denounced charges against him of inciting violence at anti-government protests in 2019 as ‘absurd and fabricated’ © AFP via Getty Images

Opposition groups denounced the decision as “a dramatic escalation in political repression” and said in a joint statement that they would “resist Georgian Dream’s obvious push towards full-blown authoritarianism.”

Gakharia, who has led the country’s government since September 2019, said on Thursday that he was stepping down after clashing with his colleagues over the move to strip Melia of political immunity and seek his detention.

“Unfortunately, I could not reach a consensus with my team on this issue, so I decided to resign,” he said. “I want to believe that this step will help reduce polarisation . . . because I am convinced that polarisation and confrontation are the biggest risks for the future development of our country.”

Melia is accused of inciting violence at June 2019 protests against Georgian Dream’s decision to invite a Russian lawmaker to chair a session in the country’s parliament. He has denounced the charges as “absurd and fabricated”.

Russia’s influence is a fraught political issue in Georgia, which lost 20 per cent of its territory to Moscow-backed separatists in a 2008 war.

Georgian Dream, founded by billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, has pursued a policy of normalisation with Moscow, including stronger trade ties and encouragement of Russian tourists. The party denies claims by the pro-EU, Atlanticist UNM that it is soft on the Kremlin.

The 2019 protests led to an overhaul of the country’s electoral system demanded by the opposition, but unrest erupted following the vote last year.

“We hope to sit at the negotiating table with the representatives of this regime and discuss the issue of holding new elections,” Melia said in a statement on Thursday following Gakharia’s resignation, accusing Georgian Dream of having “falsified and stolen the election results”.

The order to detain Melia came despite Georgia’s public defender, a constitutionally independent judicial watchdog, declaring that it was unjustified.

“The arrest of the leader of an opposition political party without proper justification . . . is similar to the practices of non-democratic countries,” the watchdog said this week.

The US urged Georgian authorities to act peacefully.

“The current dangerous situation following the Melia ruling stems from decades-long problems with the electoral system and the judicial system,” the US embassy in Tbilisi said on Thursday. “It is imperative the authorities and opposition exercise maximum restraint this morning. The way to address the important issues at stake is through peaceful negotiation. We urge all involved to remain calm and avoid violence.”

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