A curious situation is now unfolding in Georgia: the republic’s largest opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), is experiencing a split, the second after losing power. The first one took place in 2017 and led to the formation of the European Georgia party. Moreover, the current split is taking place less than a year before the parliamentary elections to be held in October next year.
The reason for the split of the party, as in the first time, was the disagreement between its key figures — the former chairman of the National Movement Nika Melia and its current head Levan Khabeishvili. The main reason, apart from personal ambitions of the main figures, is the attitude towards the founder of the UNM, former President of the Republic, ex-governor of Odessa region, citizen of Ukraine and now imprisoned, the notorious Mikheil Saakashvili.
A crack in the party leadership appeared as early as 2021, after the ex-president’s return to Georgia and his arrest. There are many details of this either detective story or farce on the web, so we will not dwell on the scandalous issue. However, one detail should be noted.
Saakashvili’s return and arrest coincided with the preparation of the second round of mayoral elections in key cities of the republic. Nika Melia, at that time the Chairman of the UNM and perhaps the most popular figure in the party, was cautious about the return of its founder to his homeland, and the pre-election race for mayoral positions was a higher priority for him and the party.
In short, the «National Movement» held only a few events, with little expression, demanding the release of the ex-president. Soon, the party’s attention turned to building alliances with other opposition forces on the issue of organizing support for Ukraine and putting pressure on the country’s leadership to change its policy towards Russia. However, the opposition’s actions were not particularly effective.
It should be reminded that despite the pressure from the US, NATO and the EU, the Georgian government (despite the fact that Georgia has never restored diplomatic relations with Russia) did not join the anti-Russian sanctions and did not engage in provocations on the borders with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the independence of which the republic does not recognize. In addition, in 2023 it agreed to restore air links with Russia and to allow Russian tourist liners to call at Georgian ports, which immediately led to a significant increase in tourist flows.
Returning to the contradictions within the UNM, it should be recognized that the solution of priority political tasks pushed the issue of the former president’s release to the second, or even third plan, which could not be reconciled with by Saakashvili’s «old guard» in the leadership of the party, a representative of which is its current chairman.
So for almost two years the situation in the leadership of the UNM has been getting more and more tense. The party veterans criticized its chairman more and more sharply for «ignoring the interests» of the founder of the «National Movement». And in February of this year the confrontation reached the point when it became clear that two bears (Melia and Khabeishvili) could not coexist in the same den. This point was the internet voting in the intra-party elections, according to the results of which Melia lost his post of Chairman, which went to Khabeishvili.
Now — about the inner-party kitchen of the UNM and its current Chairman.
Khabeishvili positions himself as a party administrator rather than a leader, which, according to his statements, is still Saakashvili. The fact that a foreign (Ukrainian) citizen, according to Georgian legislation, cannot be a member and even more so the head and leader of a political party, does not embarrass the current chairman of the National Movement.
There is one more detail. In addition to the fact that Khabeishvili pedantically promotes the ideas of the party «leader» who is serving his term, he must take into account and implement the instructions of another person, also a veteran of the Saakashvili administration. Namely, former Georgian Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili, who is not without reason considered the main «money bag» of the UNM.
The former minister himself, who is wanted in Georgia for embezzlement of millions of dollars from the ministry’s budget, is currently staying in Cyprus together with another former Defense Minister Vano Merabishvili, towards whom the Georgian Themis also has questions. However, this does not prevent him from playing politics. In 2019, the «gray cardinal of the UNM», as he is called in the republic, founded the TV channel “Formula”, the basis of the editorial staff of which was formed by journalists who once worked for Saakashvili.
Many Georgian analysts believe that it is Kezerashvili who is the real leader of the party, controlling it behind the scenes. This is confirmed by frequent and regular visits of both Chairman Khabeishvili and other members of the political council of the National Movement to him.
Returning directly to the split, it should be noted that it was provoked by Saakashvili, who released a manifesto from prison on the anniversary of the notorious «Rose Revolution» (November 23, 2003) and offered to accept it to the leadership and members of the party.
Perhaps, the prisoner was guided by good intentions. He must have realized that Khabeishvili, who had replenished the political council with his supporters from the “old guard”, began to carry out party cleansing at the grassroots level. This could not but provoke a sharp negative reaction from Melia’s supporters, who took advantage of the situation and without noise, dust and TV cameras began to actively work with them, discussing his future actions and gaining support of local activists.
That is why Saakashvili’s manifesto is somewhat reminiscent of cartoon character Leopold’s call: “Guys, let’s live in friendship!” and partly of an election declaration.
However, it also contained a paragraph that, according to Georgian observers, was addressed directly to Melia. It actually said in an ultimatum form that all those who sign this document must unconditionally recognize Khabeishvili as the Chairman of the party and the authority of the political council formed by him, as well as Saakashvili’s leadership.
Nika Melia refused to sign this document and on December 7th he announced his resignation from the party.
Now let’s try to estimate what we can expect in the near future.
The UNM will definitely lose a noticeable number of its members and supporters who will move to the side of Melia’s party. So far, Georgian political analysts estimate possible losses of Saakashvili’s supporters at tens of thousands of members and activists. As a result, this may lead to the situation when instead of half a million votes, which the National Movement hopes for in the upcoming elections, it may receive only 350, or even 300 thousand, according to optimistic forecasts.
Another important point is the obvious loss of the party’s status of the main opposition force. And, consequently, the possibility of building coalitions by attracting numerous medium and small political structures and the votes of their supporters to its side.
For reference: according to official data, by the middle of 2023, the population of the republic amounted to 3 million 736.4 thousand people. And about one and a half million lived in Tbilisi. At the same time, there are about 235 officially registered political parties in the republic, most of which limit their activities to the capital region and major cities.
Now Melia and his supporters are continuing their successful work on the ground, attracting new supporters. According to preliminary estimates, if elections happen in the next few days, he and his supporters are guaranteed to break the five percent threshold. But naturally, this is not enough for the ambitious politician.
In this context, Georgian sociologists draw attention to the fact that about 30–40% of Georgian voters are dissatisfied with the activities of both the ruling Georgian Dream and opposition parties, including the UNM. If Melia is able to attract at least a third or even half of this electorate to his side, positioning himself as a “third force”, his party has a chance to become one of the most influential political structures in Georgia. And then the entire opposition political community, which was previously hanging around the UNM, will join it.
For now, the politician and his supporters are busy visiting cities and towns, explaining their position and attracting those who could support the party being formed at the elections.
What about the ruling Georgian Dream? The split in the ranks of its main opponent is perceived not without pleasure, as it strengthens its own position. Another New Year’s gift for the «Dream» was a positive decision on granting Georgia the status of EU candidate, as this deprives the opposition of one of the main reasons to criticize the leadership of the republic.
It would seem that the picture is quite clear, but let’s not hurry. The U.S. Embassy has not yet said its word, at least not publicly. And unfortunately, a lot depends on it. So let’s see what surprises will await Georgian politics in the new year….