Fighting the government with one hand and itself with the other, Georgia's main opposition party descended into a messy in-house turmoil. Divisions over power hierarchy and political vision led to a crisis in the United National Movement (UNM) and pleas for unity from its jailed leader, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, proved futile.
The infighting largely revolves around a confrontation between the current and previous chairmen of the party, Levan Khabeishvili and Nika Melia respectively, and the factions of their supporters.
The tension began to play out in the open after a failed experiment in democratizing the process of selecting party leadership. Early this year, the party held a closed primary to elect a new chairman. Khabeishvili prevailed in the electronic poll, defeating Melia.
The outcome appears to have aggravated Melia and his supporters within the party. Some members left leadership posts and divisions grew stronger in the following months. A chorus of various party members has recently begun calling for Khabeishvili's resignation, claiming that his poor leadership is causing divisions within the party. Other party members accused Melia and his loyalists of refusing to accept the results of the primary polls.
Saakashvili recently tried to step in to forge unity. On November 23, the 20th anniversary of the Rose Revolution, the peaceful uprising that brought Saakashvili and the party to power, UNM issued a manifesto, outlining an updated vision for the future and party principles. The manifesto, proposed by Saakashvili, was meant to serve as a foundation for unity and renewal in the increasingly factionalized ranks.
"Those who refuse to sign on this agreement [manifesto] will automatically be left outside the party and will have to forge their own path," said the incarcerated and ailing Saakashvili from a hospital, where he had been losing pounds and, apparently, the power to steer his party.
Key UNM members refused to sign off on the manifesto, including the young and determined Melia, who at one time was cultivated by the party as the new Saakashvili. Melia served a prison term after being accused by the ruling Georgian Dream party of attempting in 2019 to lead protesters into storming the parliament building, Rose Revolution-style.
UNM's current chairman, Khabeishvili, said that by refusing to join the declaration Melia placed himself outside the party ranks. "I didn't throw him out. It was his choice not to be a member of the UNM anymore," Khabeishvili said. Still, in-house calls for Khabeishvili's resignation appear to be gaining ground.
Looking at the disarray in the camp of its main enemy, the governing party, Georgian Dream, could not miss the opportunity to gloat. "That party has broken into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks," said Georgian Dream chairman, Irakli Kobakhidze. "This process will get worse and this is good," he said, adding that UNM is in for another failure at the next parliamentary polls due in fall 2024.
Georgian Dream and UNM have been the yin and yang of Georgian politics for over the last decade. The latter, which governed Georgia under Saakashvili in 2004-12, has repeatedly failed to unseat the former in the polls, while Georgian Dream has also consistently failed to push UNM out of the political scene, even as both parties spared no effort in their battle against one another. Behind the groups stand the towering figures of sworn enemies Saakashvili and tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of Georgian Dream.
This grand battle has left little room for new or moderate parties that seek to disassociate themselves from both of the big players and try to cater to voters who are disappointed with both Georgian Dream and UNM.
There have been proposals for a variety of opposition groups to form a united front ahead of next year's elections to try to defeat Georgian Dream through a concerted effort and then form a coalition government. But UNM, at this point, is failing to form a united front even among its own ranks.