TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Protesters set up tents outside Georgia’s parliament building and blocked the capital’s main avenue Tuesday to oppose the arrest of the leader of the country’s main opposition party.
The demonstration came hours after police stormed the headquarters of the United National Movement and arrested its chairman, lawmaker Nika Melia.
Georgian media reported that about 20 other people were also arrested at the party’s headquarters.
The political situation in Georgia has been tense since a fall parliamentary election. The opposition is demanding a rerun of the vote.
Before the police raid, parliament members on Tuesday named a new prime minister, replacing one who opposed arresting Melia because of concern it would escalate the country’s political crisis.
Melia faces charges of inciting violence during protests in 2019. He had been free on bail.
The new prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, said the politician’s arrest was justified.
“We are building a democratic state, and everyone in the country, no matter to their taste and political views, must obey the law,” he said.
The U.S. Embassy registered its disapproval, saying in a statement: “Today, Georgia has moved backward on its path toward becoming a stronger democracy in the Euro-Atlantic family of nations.”
“We regret that the call of the United States and other international partners for restraint and dialogue was ignored,” the embassy’s statement read.
The European Union appealed for calm.
“We are urging all sides in Georgia to show the necessary restraint, utmost restraint and responsibility, to avoid more escalation in the interest of the country and its people,” European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano said.
During the October election, the Georgian Dream party, which has governed Georgia for the last eight years, tallied the largest share of votes at 48%. But opposition parties refused to recognize the results, claiming the count was manipulated.
Georgian Dream was created by a tycoon who made his fortune in Russia, Bidzina Ivanishvili, but its popularity has dwindled steadily amid the country’s economic problems.
Both Georgian Dream and United National Movement are pro-Western, with goals of establishing better relations and possible eventual membership in NATO and the European Union.
By SOPHIKO MEGRELIDZE Associated Press