A top Georgian opposition leader called on Thursday for snap parliamentary polls after the prime minister resigned over plans to arrest him, deepening a political crisis that has gripped the Caucasus nation since elections last year.
Giorgi Gakharia, a 45-year-old with the ruling Georgian Dream party who was prime minister since 2019, said he was stepping down because of disagreement in the government over enforcing a court order to arrest Nika Melia.
The move to detain Melia -- the chairman of the United National Movement of exiled ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili -- sparked outrage in the opposition and warnings from Georgia's Western allies.
At a news conference on Thursday, Georgian Dream chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said the party leadership decided to nominate Defence Minister and former PM Irakli Garibashvili to take over as prime minister.
Speaking to journalists outside his party's headquarters, Melia ridiculed Garibashvili's candidature as "comical," saying his appointment "means Georgian Dream is over and snap polls are imminent".
"Power will change in Georgia peacefully and very soon," Melia said.
- 'Wrong direction' -
Georgians watched the unfolding crisis with anxiety and some expressed disillusionment with the country's political class.
"It is unclear to me what the government is doing for the country's priority -- the European and Euro-Atlantic integration," 44-year-old interpreter Ketevan Charkhalashvili told AFP.
She added that people are "anxious that things are going in wrong direction".
"Corruption is flourishing and you don't know which party or politician to trust," said 24-year-old filmmaker Ana Bedia.
With opposition party leaders gathered at the UNM headquarters in Georgia's capital Tbilisi and television reports showing riot police mobilising nearby on Thursday morning, Gakharia said he could not enforce the court order and would resign.
A court in Tbilisi on Wednesday ordered Melia placed in pre-trial detention after he refused to pay an increased bail fee ahead of hearings in a case related to anti-government demonstrations in 2019.
He has been charged with "organising mass violence" during the protests and is facing up to nine years in prison.
Melia, 41, rejects the case as politically motivated and his supporters have vowed to obstruct police if they move to arrest him.
The detention order has raised the stakes in the crisis over October's parliamentary elections, which the opposition denounced as rigged after Georgian Dream claimed victory.
Opposition members have refused to take up their seats in the new parliament and demanded new elections.
The interior ministry said it had "temporarily postponed the planned detention" of Melia in connection with the prime minister's resignation.
Melia is accused of fomenting violence during protests that erupted in Tbilisi in June 2019 after a Russian lawmaker addressed parliament from the speaker's seat, a controversial move in a country where ties with Moscow remain strained after a brief war in 2008.
The rallies saw thousands of protesters clash with police who used tear gas and rubber bullets against the crowds.
Georgia gained its independence with the 1992 collapse of the Soviet Union and in the decades since has been divided between its longstanding relationship with Moscow and efforts to seek closer ties with the West.
- 'Dangerous situation' -
The European Union in a statement urged "both the authorities and the opposition in Georgia to act with utmost restraint and responsibility to avoid further escalation".
The US embassy in Tbilisi said on Twitter that the crisis "must be resolved peacefully", urging restraint on all sides.
"The current dangerous situation following the Melia ruling stems from decades-long problems with the electoral system and the judicial system," it said.
In power since 2012, Georgian Dream has seen its popularity fall over its failure to address economic stagnation and perceived backsliding on commitments to democracy.