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Georgia's Melia Says Opposition Faces Huge Decision On Reentering Parliament, Plans To Speak With Saakashvili

Georgian opposition leader Nika Melia.

TBILISI -- Georgian opposition leader Nika Melia, newly released from prison on bail with the help of the European Union, has said that he plans to speak soon with self-exiled former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who Melia said should be allowed to return to the country.

"I will be frank with Mikheil Saakashvili," Melia said during an interview with RFE/RL on May 12. "He should return, surely. He should be allowed to work, and this will happen for sure."

The 41-year-old Melia, who heads the United National Movement (ENM) founded by Saakashvili, walked out of prison on May 10 after three months of pretrial detention on charges that he organized "mass violence" during 2019 anti-government protests.

His detention helped fuel a protracted political crisis that included the opposition's refusal to enter parliament and which the European Union hoped to help end by posting his bail.

Melia has rejected the charges against him as politically motivated, an allegation that the ruling Georgian Dream party denies.

Melia's release was part of an agreement that Georgian Dream and opposition leaders signed last month under European Council President Charles Michel's mediation.

Saakashvili has called on the ENM, which has refused to sign the agreement, to drop its boycott and to rejoin the legislature.

However, Saakashvili's announcement last month that he planned to return to Georgia from Ukraine ahead of local elections in October has added to the country's political drama.

The pro-Western Saakashvili served as president from 2004 to 2013 but ended his term early when he left Georgia after some members of the ENM were arrested.

In January 2018, a Georgian court convicted him in absentia of covering up evidence in the case of the killing of a Georgian banker and sentenced him to three years in prison. In June 2018, another court convicted him of abuse of power and sentenced him to six years in prison in absentia.

Saakashvili has denied all the accusations and says the charges are politically motivated.

Just ahead of the October 2020 elections, the ENM and several other opposition parties belonging to the Strength In Unity political movement nominated Saakashvili as their candidate to be prime minister.

Justice Minister Thea Tsulukiani said at the time that if Saakashvili returned to Georgia, he would be detained and placed in jail.

Georgian Dream's narrow victory in the October vote led to mass street protests and calls by the ENM for new elections.

In his interview with RFE/RL, Melia said that the ruling coalition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili "will not make it easy for Mikheil Saakashvili to enter Georgia" and alleged that supporters of Georgian Dream would "stage provocations" that he claimed would be blamed on the ENM.

The decision to arrest Melia following his refusal to pay an increased bail bond led to the resignation of Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia in February.

Gakharia said the decision was unacceptable if it threatened to fuel political divisions in the country of 3.7 million people. It also sparked mass protests as well as international condemnation as fears mounted in the West over the ex-Soviet republic's perceived backsliding on democracy.

Melia faces up to nine years in prison if found guilty.

Melia was among those arrested after violent clashes broke out between protesters and police outside parliament on June 20 after a Russian lawmaker sat in the Georgian parliament speaker's seat while addressing a council of deputies from predominantly Orthodox Christian countries.

Melia at the time called his arrest on charges of organizing mass riots "absurd."

The opposition leader told RFE/RL on May 12 that "we escaped the Soviet Union because it fell apart, but we were unable to escape the post-Soviet space."

Melia said that the ENM's decision on whether to reenter the 150-member parliament, which has been left with about 40 seats vacant due to the opposition boycott, would take Russian President Vladimir Putin's "huge influence in our geopolitical context" into consideration.

"This factor is paramount for the ENM when making a decision," Melia said. "In either case, whether the decision will be to enter the parliament or not, someone will disagree, yet others will agree."