Charles Michel presides over crisis talks in Georgia – POLITICO

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Meet Charles Michel, political crisis negotiator.

The European Council president seized his new and unexpected role on Monday during a visit to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, which has been in political chaos since authorities last week raided the offices of the main opposition party and arrested its leader, Nika Melia.

After a series of meetings earlier in the day, Michel ended up presiding over a major negotiating session including the governing Georgian Dream party, Melia’s United National Movement (UNM), and other opposition parties at the presidential palace. While the session did not result in Melia’s immediate release, the meeting was hailed in Georgia as a major breakthrough that restarted political dialogue and may have prevented the crisis from spinning out of control.  

Georgia’s Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned after a court ordered Melia’s arrest, saying the opposition leader’s detention posed a threat to democracy in the country. As a result, the Interior Ministry briefly held off on carrying out the arrest order.

Georgian Dream quickly replaced Gakharia with a former prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili. Garabishvili was confirmed by the parliament on February 22 and the next day the authorities stormed the UNM headquarters and arrested Melia, who is facing charges of inciting a crowd to storm parliament in 2019. Melia says those charges are politically motivated.

Since then, the country has faced mounting political chaos, with opposition parties boycotting parliament and demanding new elections, as Western governments have issued statements condemning the detention as politically motivated and calling for calm.

Michel’s trip, part of a swing through the EU’s “eastern neighborhood,” with other stops in Moldova and Ukraine, was planned before the political chaos, but the timing appears to have cast him, at least temporarily, into a heroic role, with one journalist hailing his “great leadership.”

And Michel appeared to embrace the moment, declaring to journalists after the late-night meeting: “The political dialogue in Georgia is relaunched tonight.”

“We understand that there are many difficult topics that need to be tackled by the political actors,” Michel said. “I proposed the support of the EU in order to encourage all the positive efforts on the different elements … but the main message is the following: What counts for the EU is the protection of the interests of the Georgian citizens.

“It is urgent to solve this political crisis and tonight I am proud because a good step, an important step in the right direction has been taken,” Michel said. “It doesn’t mean that everything is solved … when I asked the clear question to all the participants: ‘Is there the political will to strengthen the political dialogue in order to find together solutions,’ the answer was clearly ‘yes, this is a good step.’”

Garabishvili, who participated in the meeting, confirmed that the parties had agreed to continue their discussions, and he and Michel announced that the various players had agreed on a “rendezvous clause” by which they would meet again by March 15, when senior Georgian officials are due to visit Brussels for an EU-Georgia Association Council meeting.

Michel had met twice earlier in the day with Garabishvili, as well as with the speaker of the Georgian parliament, Archil Talakvadze, and President Salome Zourabichvili. While Michel seemed poised for a triumphant departure from Tbilisi, entering the swirl of politics in the Caucasus poses serious risks, and if talks ultimately fall apart, there’s a chance he will regret staking a claim for himself and the EU as referee in a nasty, domestic political fracas.

Officials involved in the talks said there was agreement to address issues including politicized justice and the issue of prisoners, as well as power-sharing in parliament and future elections.

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